In the books I read as a child, there was never anyone like me.
There was no brown-skinned girl with dark brown hair and eyes. There was no brown-skinned girl who spoke to her relatives in another language. There was no brown-skinned girl who went to the temple on Sundays.
In the books I loved as a child, the main characters never looked like me. The beautiful heroine whose life turned out perfectly never had brown skin. The adventurer who overcame adversity and saved the world never had brown skin. The girl at the heart of the story never had brown skin.
In the books I devoured as a child, there might have been the occasional brown-skinned sidekick. There was never anyone who I could read about while thinking ‘you are like me’. There was never anyone who I could read about while thinking, ‘I could be like you.’
The #weneeddiversebooks campaign reached thousands of people last week. Parents, librarians, writers, book-lovers, teachers, and book readers all used social media to back the call by a group of writers for greater diversity in children’s books. The campaign was centred around three days of action during which people were asked to say why greater diversity was needed. They were also encouraged to bring that diversity into their homes by buying a book which did reflect the diversity of our real world. But those three days of action are over – and where are we going from here?
#Weneeddiversebooks was undoubtedly effective in generating a viral response and attracting column inches in mainstream media. But will it make a difference to the books I can buy for my children?
For ethnic minorities to be fairly represented in children’s literature will require a massive shift given how far there is still to go. A US study of children’s books published last year found that of 3200 titles, only 93 were about black people and 69 were about Asians. There is no doubt this imbalance must be addressed – but it is going to take time and commitment.
Publishing houses need to lead this change. It is up to them to ensure their writers are not all one colour. It is up to them to ensure the characters in their books are not all one colour. And once we see greater diversity on the page, we can all play a part in ensuring these new books are read. We need more diverse books, yes, but we also need to read them when we have them.
As a British Indian woman who never saw herself in the books she read as a child, I want a different experience for my children. I never felt like I could be one of the children in the adventure stories I read. I never felt like I could be one of the children in the dramas I read. We might have liked the same things, we might have worn similar clothes – but the fact that these heriones were never Asian was too big a difference for me to see past as a child.
In the worlds I inhabited as an avid reader, I was invisible. Would I be like this throughout my own life, I wondered? My family, my culture, my history, my language, my people – we were absent from the world as it appeared on the page. Were we of so little value?
I want my children to feel inspired by the books they read. I want them to see the world for what it is – diverse, varied, full of all of us who are different – and I want them to feel a part of it. With their brown-skinned mother and white-skinned father, I want them to see girls and boys like themselves in their storybooks. I want them to believe they can be superheroes or adventurers or ballerinas or astronauts. I want them to be included.
My daughter is nine months old. My son is nearly two and a half. The books we read them feature talking animals and mythical creatures such as dragons. They feature all-white girls and boys and families in all the central roles. They don’t feature brown-skinned people like their mother. It is time for change.
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