Friday, 10 August 2018

Reflecting Realities will let “everyone breathe a lot better”!

Recently CLPE (Centre for Language in Primary Education) published its report Reflecting Realities  into how children’s fiction and non-fiction books published in 2017 for 3-11 year olds reflect the “wide world in which we live”.  I found myself torn. My initial response was a sense of depression at our lack of progress. The survey shows how, 17 years into the 21st century, only a tiny proportion of new children’s books in the UK reflected the array of experience of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) children in our schools. Only 4% of all the books submitted by publishers featured BAME characters and only 1% when featuring them as a main character. In the words of a friend who was active in this area from the 1970s: “It seems very familiar - did all that work years ago have no influence at all?”  
Her words chimed with me. However, when I read the report itself and listened to the Front Row discussion with Farrah Serroukh and Patrice Lawrence, I felt more heartened. Certainly, this ongoing work-in-progress is in very good hands. Farrar, a former teacher and CLPE’s Learning Programmes Leader, leads the project. The survey, to be repeated annually, was devised with support from the pioneering Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA.
Reflecting Realities aims to be in a nuanced and supportive conversation with the publishing industry about broadening representation and quality. As Farrar writes in the Project Foreword “we are all complex and multifaceted beings”. (Lionel Shriver, with her sadly shallow mischaracterisation of the issues around diversity, should read the report.) It’s almost 30 years since Professor Rudine Sims Bishop wrote her seminal article “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors” about the need for African American, and indeed all, children to see themselves in books, as well as to be able to step into other worlds.  
30 years ago in the UK there was still some funding for awareness-raising of such issues amongst teachers and librarians. For example, I was employed by Dorset Education Authority to work part-time in its English Advisory Team with a specific ‘Cultural Diversity’ brief. That kind of vision went long ago with the marketization of school services. Now we are all, publishers included, left with the destructive effects of ‘Austerity’ on our libraries, schools and book budgets.
Reflecting Realities hasn’t set out to name and shame.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if small courageous Indie publishers, like Tiny Owl, have punched above their weight in providing books that offer the diversity that all our children need to see in the books around them. To quote Farrar Serroukh on Front Row, “If you improve the quality of air in one corner, you’re going to make everyone breathe a lot better.” 

I wrote this blog originally for Tiny Owl, wonderful indie publisher of Cinderella of the Nile and other picture books crossing boundaries of time and place.