Saturday, 5 April 2014

Black and White and Everything In Between by Savita Kalhan

According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 in the US, just 93 were about black people. The UK fares little better by all accounts.

Leila Rasheed has blogged about the importance of non-issue based children’s books featuring children from ethnic backgrounds, and why she finds it hard to write about non-white characters.

Tanya Byrne has written about this on the Guardian books blog where she calls for more books featuring children of colour.

The dearth of non-white characters was raised by Dean Myers, in his article: Where are the People of Colour in Children’s Books.

And then again by his son Christopher Myers in The Apartheid of Children.

There is now an increasing debate and demand for more diversity in children’s literature to reflect our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi cultural society.

Almost thirty years ago Verna Wilkins set up Tamarind Press in an attempt to redress the lack of books with children from non-white backgrounds being published in the children’s market. But ‘mainstream’ publishers have yet to catch up, and there is clearly still a huge lack of such books.

As a British Asian, who is 100% Indian in terms of heritage, but who is essentially more British than Indian, and as a big reader during my childhood, it was always a surprise when I found a book about a child who shared my skin colour. A nice surprise. Yes, often those kids were beset by problems such as racial abuse and stereotyping, but that wasn’t a problem for me because growing up in the UK at the time did in fact necessarily involve having to face those issues to a greater or lesser degree.

What bothers me now is the fact that, as all of the above authors have pointed out, there are still very few books that feature children of colour, whether or not they are issue-based or are 'normal' non-issue based stories .

Children are growing up in a society which is far more culturally mixed and diverse. But, for today's children, not much has changed from when I grew up, in terms of seeing and reading about a diverse range of children like themselves and their friends in literature.

That’s a problem.

I completely agree with Malorie when she talks about diversity of multi-cultural voices in children’s literature being of paramount importance, not least because it would promote awareness and understanding, and tolerance.

On a personal level, as a writer, I have written books featuring all white characters. People have often said that The Long Weekend could have been written by a white Anglo-Saxon. That’s fine. I find it quite amusing. It’s my fully Indian name on the spine. In another novel, Amnesia, the main character is an English boy, but his best friend is Indian and his girlfriend is half Italian. The book I have just completed is about an Asian girl and features predominately Asian characters of different backgrounds. I don’t feel that because I’m Asian I have to write about Asian characters all the time, or that I should feel obliged to.

What’s important in children’s literature is that a diversity of characters in terms of ethnicity and culture is depicted, and that their voices are heard, and that a child is no longer surprised when they find more than one book featuring someone of their ethnicity, culture or colour. Sadly, that’s not happening yet.



Heather Dyer said...

Interestingly, my new book (The Flying Bedroom by a new Welsh publisher, Firefly Press - coming out in May!)could have been written by any perspective (I think) but my publisher suggested that the illustrations show the protagonist as being mixed race, with one non-white parent, which I thought was a nice idea. Not sure how obvious this will be though until I see the proofs...

Odette said...

I am glad you have raised this matter, Savita. I also intend to refer to it in my next blogpost. See

It is something I have felt for several decades. It is hard to realise that the situation has not improved by 2014.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, thank you for raising this. It's important, and it's sort of jogged my elbow with regard to something I'm writing!

DavidKThorpe said...

@Heather congrats on the Firefly deal, look forward to it. I've got a submission with them now, fingers crossed.

@Savita, a very good post. Do you know the work of Atinuke?

Savita Kalhan said...

Congratulations, Heather! Good luck with The Flying Bedroom - hope it flies off the shelves! It would be good to see more covers in children's lit being more ethnically diverse.
Odette, I know you've been with Tamarind Press for a long time, and I look forward to your post.
Sue, I'm intrigued about what you're writing now...
David, yes I have, and I love her voice and her stories. It's good to see and read about life on both sides of those big walls! Good luck with your submission!

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks for this. It's something I've been thinking about for a while now. My first series was Arthurian fantasy and all white. The new one again, the default mode was just making the main characters white. But I made a conscious decision to try harder after something someone said about diversity in children's fiction (fantasy is particularly bad at this) and I've got a black princess from a land with dragons in the second book who I'm very fond of. One issue, though it won't stop me carrying on trying, is that white authors writing black or Asian characters can be accused of treading on toes or 'speaking for others' - I know this has been thrown at Sarah Rees Brennan. But writing is fiction, after all, and every time we write any character we're getting inside someone else's head, whether they are male, white. black, old, an animal... It would be boring place if you could only ever write from your own perspective!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Savita and David - and good luck David.

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, Savita - it's sad that this sort of post continues to be needed.

I was pleasantly surprised by OUP recently: I did a book for their Treetops Chucklers range, and someone - designer, illustrator or editor, I don't know which - decided that Will, one of the two main characters, should be black. I hadn't specified, but my experience thus far has been that unless I clearly indicate otherwise characters are assumed to be white.

I was really pleased that they made this decision, and equally pleased that no one felt the need to check with me first - that is, they didn't assume that I was working on a "white-unless-I-say-so" principle.

Not only that; they put Will on the cover.

Savita Kalhan said...

C.J, I understand your concerns, but with the right research, it can be done. It is, as you say, all about the character and getting their voice. (Getting names right can be difficult. I know of one children's author, a prize winner didn't, but the powers that be did not notice, whereas the rest of us did. What does that say?)
John, I've seen the cover and it's great! I guess they should have checked with you though regardless.

John Dougherty said...

Hi, Savita. No, I don't think they should have done! They wouldn't have emailed to say, "Is it all right if we have Will drawn as a white child?" - why should they check with me before making him black? I'm quite pleased that they didn't think it worth checking.

Tanya Landman said...

Great post!

In my Poppy Fields books I always had in mind that she's mixed race (as is Swann Swann in my new series) but it's not clearly spelled out because I wanted it to be unremarkable.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Excellent post and very important to keep flagging this subject up. Incidentally this is something I keep banging on about as a British Jew who never sees a Jewish character in children's literature as just one of the characters. This seems to be much more common in the US. Its something I have sewn into a book I've written which is as yet unpublished. But it is very surprising that minority representation is still such an issue in 2014!!