The power of diversity in reading for the Black child

Updated: Nov 8, 2019

As a child, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by books that celebrated my culture and identity. Jamaican schools of both primary and secondary standards have always celebrated Caribbean Literature and BAME characters were present in phonetically decodable books from the kindergarten stage that graced our early reading years developing into more complexed storylines as we grew into confident teenagers. Themes twisted from comical intentions to one-upmanship and finally a preoccupation with empire, colonialism and emancipation (not just from slavery - but enslavement, political or otherwise).

This did not mean we abandoned the classics of literature either. Our education was in fact quintessentially British with as much attention being given to the likes of T.S.Elliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Geoffery Chaucer, William Blake, Robert Frost and of course - Shakespeare. We even had our fill of American classics like Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird to name a few. Books of high standards and deep vocabulary were our staple and those of us lucky enough to afford a solid education were raised to quote from these texts with gusto. Literacy was treated as the eye into distant lands but fundamentally we were grounded in our identity and history through a persistent reference and celebration of settings, language and characters that were our own. Patois (Jamaican dialect) and English often harmoniously intertwined in texts like 'Escape from Last Man's Peak' and Louise Bennett's 'Jamaica Labrish' and we even learned about our Caribbean neighbours through texts written by the likes of Derek Walcott, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid and George Lamming. Our reading was wide, rich and full of diversity.

The recent CLPE publication of the

Reflecting Realities - Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2018

highlighted that despite minorities accounting for just over 33% of the British population, of the 11,011

children’s books published in the UK in 2018 only 743 featured BAME characters. The acronym BAME is a sweeping one - of which CLPE is aware- only signifying broad categories of Black, Asian and other minority ethnics. I would really love a break down of the ethnicities they did observe present within the 743 to determine exactly how many of these were, in fact, black African, black Caribbean and of black mixed parentage and all the breakdowns in between for the other categories of minorities. Regardless of the slight increase from the previous survey published in 2018 from 1% to 4% representation of BAME characters, it is obvious there is still a huge deficit in racial and cultural diversity in children's books in the UK.

A recent study from the CCBC at the University of Wiscosin-Madison also showed a low level of diversity in the representation of minorities in their sample of 3,134 books published in 2018 for children however 23% represented BAME, of which 10% were African American. Their statistics are broken down into greater detail


. Their conclusion states "what the numbers for multicultural literature still mean is that publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture".

The recent 2019 SATs results in reading revealed that black Caribbean children achieved the lowest rate of age-related outcomes, even lower than white British children despite broad categories of black children and white children achieving ARE at a matching 64% overall for reading, writing and Maths. As a mother of black British children who will fall under the category of black Caribbean or black other - this disturbs me greatly. What exactly is this barrier to attainment in reading that has resulted in such a disparity with other minorities and indeed other peers? While the CLPE results show a need for further work in literary representation, I do not believe there is a direct connection to attainment in reading. In fact, I believe attainment in tests generally is down to the mindset behind the cultural connections to testing. Asian, African and most middle-class homes place much emphasis on academic achievement. These parents often seek out tuition, homework and further study to ensure their children excel. This in my experience has not always been at equal measure in Caribbean households within the diaspora. There is a need to reflect on how personal migratory experience has left black Caribbean children at grave risk of disenfranchisement.

The table below gives a breakdown of total number of eligible KS2 pupils and percentage ARE.

Despite limitations in diversity many other minority races and cultures excel in reading outcomes beyond Caribbean children. So the question is - can raising diversity in BAME characters help with this picture? Possibly.Caribbean culture is as a result of fragmented histories brought together by processes of slavery and colonisation therefore identities are in need of reinforcement. But more importantly, increasing BAME characters will help all children to see that our world is made up of diverse humanity valid for acknowledgment and a reader's voice. It will enable empathy to grow between cultures and races and break down barriers of understanding. Increased BAME characters in children's books serves to qualify the role of minorities in the fabric of Britishness for generations to come. Perhaps this increase in presence will pave the pathway of acceptance and ethnic minority children can enjoy a childhood like many others where they are equally celebrated alongside the stories and histories of white culture and people. Surely all of this makes for a more confident, content and willing reader and learner.

I applaud CLPE for bringing this research to the fore for two years and look forward to the next one. In the meantime, I will embrace the challenge of ensuring there are diverse texts with BAME characters (and authors) made available to children I teach so that each one can see themselves made manifest in a book. There is nothing more encouraging than being seen and heard.

Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading using a mastery approach. She works across primary schools in the West Midlands, UK providing whole school CPD and coaching teachers daily to be their best reading teacher in the classroom. Follow her on twitter - @rogue_reading or contact her via FaceBook @brightideasedconsult