Books are an escape and necessary solace for so many people, but not everyone has the luxury of being represented through literature...
Earlier this year Penguin Books released the groundbreaking findings of their Lit in Colour research with the Runnymede Trust. The basis of the investigation was to unearth the representation in today’s English Literature curriculum of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) authors.
As per a 2019 statistic included in the original Lit in Colour research, roughly 34.4% of students studying English Literature identified as BAME, while around 14% of the total population of the United Kingdom are from BAME backgrounds according to 2021 research by Diversity UK. The difference in numbers between students and represented authors of minority backgrounds studied at GCSE level is stark. Penguin estimate that although 34.4% of students are BAME, only 0.7% of total students study a book created by a BAME author, and less than 0.1% study a book written by a woman of colour.
Here at Young Writers, we not only live and breathe books, but we also believe everyone should be able to feel the same way about literature as we do. We have an increasingly diverse culture in this country which is something to be proud of, so why, as a nation, are we failing to represent this diversity within our English Curriculum?
One thing is for sure, diversity in children’s books exists and is thriving! We’re in a golden age of children’s literature, from MG novels to YA masterpieces, the possibility to represent minorities in the school curriculum is readily available at a very high quality. To prove that there are diverse books of an exceptional standard, we reached out to a range of authors to tell us about their books. This was in an effort to prove that the resources and materials to represent children from all backgrounds can and should be utilised immediately. We asked all of these incredible creatives one question… “Why is diversity important in literature?”
Of course, the answer to this question is seemingly obvious to most people. Diversity is integral to literature, it makes books beautiful, it celebrates who we are as a collective and as individuals. We asked the proposed question as it allows for an open answer, one anyone can add their opinions and experiences to whilst showing their love of writing!
Without further ado, we share with you a wealth of incredible, diverse, important and intelligent books that carry the past, present and future.
Joseph’s ability to paint pictures with words is unparalleled, his creativity and enthusiastic writing style is equally sultry as it is stunning. The performer grew up in Roehampton under the motto “writers are in faraway lands, they’re not from Roehampton” but something kept calling him back, even after university and trying a range of jobs, he kept going. He’s been awarded a CLPE CLiPPA award among other accolades and continues to release moving and stunning books for children.
"Diversity is important in literature because the world is diverse, made up of a beautiful and incredible assortment of cultures and nationalities, languages and traditions. Literature is how we share ideas and become richer in thought as we benefit from the dreams and experiences of others. If literature is unable to reflect the true diversity of the world, we will all be poorer for it."
Joseph’s latest book ‘My Beautiful Voice’ warmed hearts around the country with its beautiful storyline following a shy child who learns to find their voice through poetry. Coupled with beautiful illustrations from Allison Collpoys, this book is the equivalent of a big warm hug.
Kandace Chimbiri (writing as K.N. Chimbiri) started out as a self-published author. She was greatly disturbed by the lack of diversity in children’s books, particularly in non-fiction. So, Kandace set up her own one-woman publishing house to address this inequity. Over the next decade she researched, published and distributed four black history books for children from her spare bedroom.
“Literature helps children to understand other people’s perspectives. Diversity in literature means they can understand a wider range of perspectives and, in turn, better understand their world.”
The latest book from Kandace is the phenomenal ‘The Story of Afro Hair’ and was published by Scholastic. The book charts the history of Afro hair from before the Egyptians all the way to today! Enlightening, fascinating and educational, this important book should be a staple on every bookshelf.
Norry’s experience lies within creating diverse books and important works that represent marginalised communities. Her credits include featuring in anthologies such as ‘Happy Here’, ‘The Windrush Generation’, and ‘Homecoming’ as well as creating her own books including the critically acclaimed ‘Son of the Circus’ and more recently ‘Amber Undercover’.
“Diversity in literature is vital. Because literature - those who write it, as well as those who feature in it - should reflect the world that we live in. Living in the UK includes a diverse population. Even if you live in a tiny village and have never encountered anyone from a different religion or race, it is important to know and understand that the UK, and world at large, is a big bustling place full of many different ethnic groups. When society comes together to acknowledge and celebrate our differences, and stops viewing 'the other' as lesser, that's when we also discover our similarities. That's when we engage with our own humanity.”
Norry’s most recent book ‘Amber Undercover’ is a wonderfully positive and exciting MG book for those into action and adventure. When accidentally recruited as a spy, Amber’s life changes drastically, but can she keep up with the spy lifestyle?
Both as an artistic director and writer, Sharna is driven by her goal of encouraging and increasing diverse and disengaged audiences’ participation in arts both locally, nationally and globally. Sharna’s work is moving, important, inclusive and amazing.
"All children need to see themselves and others reflected in culture - representation leads to empathy. That visibility is extremely important, but so is moving away from stereotypes and one-note, 'prop' characters. I don't just want to read about black children in 'issue-based’ narratives. Why can't black children exist in 'white' genres, living full lives? Why can't they see themselves being clever, creative and having fun?"
Sharna’s latest book ‘Black Artists Shaping the World’ introduces young readers to the work of 26 incredible artists from Africa and the African Diaspora. The collection is a grand celebration of black artists, art, creativity and provides inspiration and promotion for a demographic who are statistically represented less in literature and the arts.
Now based in London, Yaba graduated from King’s College, Cambridge and went on to teach in Spain, Jamaica and Ghana. Yaba is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker, writer and author and has received copious accolades such as a nomination for both the ‘Distinguished Woman of African Cinema Award’ for her cinematography, and the Carnegie Medal for her books.
"Stories are a bit like snapshots in a family album. I hope that once we achieve diversity in literature, it'll mean that no matter what race you are, your age, sex, gender or sexuality; irrespective of any disability or the superpowers you possess, you'll find pictures of yourself in the album and relish the tales they tell."
Yaba’s latest book ‘Lionheart Girl’ is a fable inspired by African myth and magic. Endowed with shape-shifting abilities, story protagonist Sheba has to uncover the murderous truth of her childhood and her family’s mystical powers.
After studying English at university, Polly initially worked as a teacher in a primary school, waking up early before classes to write down stories. Her very first book ‘Boy in the Tower’ came directly from these early-morning scribbles and after a slurry of books, Polly now works full time as a writer. Her first three consecutive books were each nominated for the Carnegie Medal and ‘Boy in the Tower’ received nominations for the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize and The Blue Peter Book Award.
“Stories are us. Every time I write, I'm reminded by this as my brain gently takes me down a path and reflects a mirror back at me - of me, of every person I've ever met, of the world as I experience it. We live in a glorious, complicated, diverse world and this is what our literature should reflect.”
Polly’s latest book came out in July 2021 and is titled ‘How I Saved the World in a Week’. When a young boy is brought up by a survivalist mother, a deadly virus soon ravages the Earth and he realises his true mission, to save himself and the world. Perfect for young readers who are fans of dystopian fiction, this book is gripping and thrilling.
Amberin is an illustrator and artist based in London, she studied illustration at the University of Falmouth and has been creating beautiful art pieces since 2008. Creating for books, general art pieces and decor, Amberin’s stunning artwork brings books to life making timeless classics.
“As a child I did not question why there was not anyone like myself in the books that I read. It did not even cross my mind that the books I read and the media I consumed could have a place for me. This is why I know that diversity in literature is important. As an adult, the joy I get from seeing people like myself and my fellow people of colour on the front cover of books, for old and young, is something I did not realise I missed whilst I was growing up. The feeling of belonging is visceral. Imagine if I had expected this for myself from a young age, if I had seen myself reflected in the art that I consumed. The feeling of acceptance and the feeling of belonging cannot be underestimated in the children who are growing up now. It is imperative that they see themselves in literature so that they know that their existence is worthy of being written about. Their stories and experiences matter and that their voices are worth hearing.
And it is not just in the stories that we need diversity, it is also within the industry. It is important that diverse voices tell these diverse stories, from the authors and illustrators, the editors and art directors, we should have a seat at the table. Not just to speak up for diverse stories but to pepper our knowledge and experiences in all aspects of publishing. But it is not only diverse stories that we should be a part of, after all we are human too. We fall in love, dream, join bands, go on adventures and believe in ghosts just like any other fanciful young person. We are not defined by our ethnicity or the colour of our skin. Not all stories written and illustrated by POC have to be about racism or other hardships, important as these stories are, these stories cannot be ignored. As long as there is discrimination these stories must be told. However, young people should see themselves in all sorts of stories where they are not defined by the colour of their skin; in space adventures, fantasy coming of age stories or even just as the drummer in a cool new band. They should know that they can be the hero of any story.
Diversity in literature isn’t something that needs to still be debated. Many more learned and knowledgeable people than myself have spoken on this subject for years. It is time for the changes to be made now, it is time for the people at the top to implement the promises that were made after the peak of the BLM movement in 2020 to make sure the world of literature and the people working in it reflect the everyday world that we see. And, most importantly, show the young people of colour that they are not other. They belong. They have a voice. And their stories should be shouted from the rooftops.”
Amberin’s latest book is alongside writer Chitra Soundar and is titled ‘Sindhu and Jeet’s Detective Agency’. This young readers’ book follows top detectives Sindhu and Jeet who go on holiday to England, but their detective work doesn’t end there! Amberin’s wonderful illustrations accompany Chitra’s gripping writing to create this brilliant mystery book which also comes with online guided reading notes from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).
Since Penguin’s Lit in Colour research was released, CLPE also undertook an investigation with similar motives looking into Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature, these findings are shown in the CLPE Reflecting Realities report. In this 2021 report (the fourth of such findings from the organisation), CLPE found a positive increase in children’s books featuring a minority ethnic character rising from 10% in 2019, to 15% in 2020. This positive trajectory is an optimistic sign that the narrative of children’s literature is shifting towards a more inclusive position. It’s important to note that Penguin’s Lit in Colour investigated BAME authors featured in our curriculum while the CLPE research looked into the characters shown in books. Regardless of this, the positive movement is one to be celebrated, but more still needs to be done. Until everyone is adequately represented in the books we love so much, there will continue to be more work we can all do to support those who need it most.
Thank you to every single person who took part in this piece. This piece is for those who shared their experiences, and for those who do the incredible work of pushing for representation in books, schools and in the world. Your work is crucial, important and appreciated. Never stop.