Narnia Must Fall: people of colour in children’s literature. A DDMU Kimberlin session delivered by Leila Rasheed, RLFF (DMU) and Children’s Author, January 13th 2020

The lack of BME characters and authors in children’s literature has been recently highlighted by research from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and from Book Trust. This noted lack raises questions such as: 

  • How does this lack of BME characters and authors in children’s literature affect children? 
  • What can we do about it? 
  • What support can BME Writers access? 
  • What barriers still need to be removed? 

This workshop, led by Royal Literary Fund Fellow Leila Rasheed, included highlights from a report on Megaphone: An Arts Council England funded project to support BME children’s authors, ran by Leila Rasheed until 2016. In the workshop, attended by DMU professional and academic staff, Leila Rasheed considered the questions above and explored the importance of diversity in literature. She expanded on the negative impact of a lack of diversity in literature (both characters and authors) and the potential positives afforded by an inclusive approach. In this Kimberlin Session she raised the issues explored in the text below:  

Power: Who holds the power? Who are the most powerful characters in a text, what do they look like? What is their background, ethnicity and life experience? Where do they get their power from? Can their readers relate to this power, through imagination or through lived experience?  

Windows and mirrors Literature provides the reader with a window into another world, whether the reader can see themselves as an observer or a participant depends on the relatability of the text to the reader’s own experience. Readers may feel excluded or socially distanced from the text if they cannot connect it with some of their own lived experience. The closeness of association may be dictated by how much an individual is reflected in the characters of a book. Characters and their experiences may mirror our own, either as a direct reflection or a distortion. Characters with whom the reader identifies and their role and profile within the text offer subliminal messages around status, agency, power, aspirations and possibilities to readers. If the only character that shares your ethnicity or culture is a negative stereotype who behaves stupidly, is a figure of  evil, untrustworthiness or  a figure of fun who the readers are made to laugh at, how would this make you feel? 

Development of characters:  It is important that there is a diversity in the characters that develop, learn, enjoy adventures and grow in a book. This enables a diverse group of readers to feel a sense of connection, possibilities and aspirations that may spill over into their own lives, possibilities and confidence. There are also hidden messages of power and agency in the ethnicity of central and powerful characters. Part of the joy of reading is the vicarious enjoyment of another’s life, experience, emotions, adventure, success or imagination, if that character is of a different culture or ethnicity to the reader is the vicarious pleasure retained, weakened or enhanced? It is essential that characters with a range of ethnicities are seen to develop and succeed in children’s literature (and arguably, adults too). 

Voices standard behaviours and hierarchies: Who has the strongest voice? What lends their voice power?  Books can reinforce predominant hierarchies, racial, social and economic inequalities in the worlds they present.  This can lead to a feeling of exclusion, that a book or story is not “for us” and perhaps a reluctance to engage with the text and perhaps, subsequently others. All of which is damaging to a reader’s development and confidence. 

Publishing and the financial instability of authorship: The world of publishing is a privileged, white, middle-class world which is difficult to access or to survive economically without a separate stream of income.  Often there is no reliable stream of income for a published author. As the world of publishing changes, promotional opportunities become minimal and sales outlets will buy small quantities of titles. This makes it difficult to succeed as an author.  

Adults as gatekeepers: Adults exert power over what children read and therefore their experience of the world of books. If the majority of books read and offered are white western centric then this is the world view offered as the dominant perspective. This is a perspective where BAME characters may be absent, ineffectual, powerless or “quirky”/not “mainstream”.  This is not a positive message for BAME readers or their connection and development through the world of books. Books given to children to read or that are read to children contain powerful messages of approval, status and power. Think of “improving books”, “books you should read”, iconic texts, the canon of children’s literature. How powerful are these messages and if your lived experience and ethnicity are either omitted or only featured in supporting or negative roles, what message does this give? How does this impact id on a reader’s identity, confidence and engagement? 

Socialization: Books and the worlds they offer can play an essential role in the socialization of children. Books tell us how the world is, how it could be or interpreted as how it “should be”. Thus, it is vital that children see themselves reflected in the central characters, experiences and power structures of books, fiction and non-fiction.  

Books may provide their readers with self-affirmation in terms of how characters react to certain circumstances, in how they grow, in the life experiences and world they have available to them , in the emotions they experience and how they deal with them. Books may help readers develop a firm sense of identity, to see and imagine their place in the world, to realise their agency to change this place and experience.  

In the light of these issues you may wish to reflect on your favourite authors and books from your childhood, the ethnicity, culture, social class, relationships, sexual “norms”, presence and portrayal of disability. How did this reflect or compare with your own life experience, culture and beliefs? If there were mismatches, omissions or differences how did this make you feel?  This all impacts on what the reader takes from books of fiction and non-fiction, their engagement and connection with the text and desire to continue reading.