The CLPE Reflecting Realities Report 2021 has been released and I have thoughts. On first glance, there are lots of positives and I'm sure that some of these statistics will be widely shared (especially in national news) without context. But there is still major work to be done, especially within fiction. It is not enough to simply have characters of colour as a diversity tick box exercise. The representation needs to be authentic, otherwise is it really representation at all?
Let's get into it.
15% of the children’s picture books, fiction and nonfiction titles published in 2020 featured characters of colour, compared to 10% in 2019.
8% of children's books published featured a main character from a minority ethnic background - this is still very low.
48% of picture books now feature a character of colour (compared to 6% in the 2017 output)
3.4% published featured a black main character (199 books out of 5875)
10% of titles were comedy (up from 1 title!)
*It should be noted that again, catch-alls are used throughout the report so some statistics are undetermined "mixed-race" for example gives us no indication of the ethnicities being referred to.
An increase in representation is fantastic, thats the aim. It's vitally important that all children should be able to see themselves represented in literature; of which the work of the inimitable Rudine Sims Bishop has been pivotal “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”
The report noted that there was a conscious effort by publishers to make content more representative, which lead to more multi-faceted characters of colour - again, brilliant.
90% of the main cast of characters of colour featured in the submissions influenced the narrative in their expression of thought, voice or action. "This is a positive indicator of the agency afforded to characters of colour" - Ridiculous that characters of colour are now being "afforded" agency by the publishing industry, but a positive at least.
6% in 2017 to 48% in 2020 is a huge increase. Regarding this, the CLPE noted “Although this is the text type in which it is often easiest to identify characters of colour, it is also a text type in which presence can fail to be fully actualised. Based on our observations, the quality of portrayals of characters of colour in picture books tend to sit on a spectrum of vague at worst to great at best.”
So, whilst VISIBLY there is a higher presence of characters of colour in the illustrations, it's not always carried through in detail to the text.
Worryingly, there there are still instances of ambiguity and fluidity in portrayals of ethnicity in illustrations, along with signifiers of ethnicity that served as shorthand cues that weren’t always developed beyond the cues.
The CLPE believe that there is still a need for producers of picture books to look at the guidance regarding degrees of erasure which was published in the 2018 and 2019 reports.
The smallest increase in minority ethnic presence was in fiction; this needs the most investment of time and effort if it is to become truly reflective and representative of readers’ realities.
The percentage of fiction books featuring characters of colour published in 2020 remains the same as the percentage in 2019
The report states that in many titles featuring characters of colour, the presence was too insignificant to be recognised as a meaningful reflection and/or the portrayal was insufficiently or poorly developed
“It is crucial that all readers are able to encounter characters of colour as a meaningful part of the mainstream. The benefit is twofold as it serves as affirmation in one instance and broadens world outlook in another. To encounter characters and worlds that resemble your own can allow for powerful connections to be forged between the reader and the world of the book. To experience people, cultures and worlds beyond your own can deepen and enrich a reader’s understanding of the world and their place in it. A representative and inclusive shelf therefore benefits all readers and should be an entitlement for all of our pupils”
A double burden
Within the books surveyed, 18% of the surveyed books featured a main character who spoke about their ethnicity and whose ethnicity formed the basis of a plot point. This was an increase from 2019 where this figure was 6%, "an upward trend that resonates with our current social context in which discourses on identity seem more prevalent." - I have many thoughts on this, one of them being that I believe our children shouldn't bear the burden twice. As the most affected by social justice and environmental issues, minority ethnic children shouldn't be used as teaching tools too. This perhaps, should be another blog post.
Personally, I find that the key recommendations "remaining consistent with what we have advocated for from the very first report" show that there is much, much work still to be done. As a reminder - the key recommendations are:
Characters of colour should reflect the UK population and the world at large, not as a tick box exercise
Content should be balanced, allowing for cultural specificity without reducing characterisations to derogatory stereotypes or one dimensional shorthand.
Characters of colour need to be well developed and authentically portrayed.
Characters of colour should not be predominantly defined by their struggle, suffering, exceptionalism or ‘otherness.’
Characters of colour should be central to a broad range of narratives.
Characters of colour should exist across a range of genres and within both fiction and non-fiction, allowing readers to experience the full spectrum of emotions when enjoying these representations.
Thorough research and careful consideration should be exercised to ensure respectful, nuanced and layered portrayals.
The industry should continue to invest in both established and new authors from a range of backgrounds who are able to paint characters and worlds with the integrity that the subject matter deserves. - On this subject, I tweeted this today as I hope that the increase has been reflected in the creators of books too.
Has there been an increase in the representation of creators of colour?
Unfortunately, I received confirmation that the next report is published in Sept 2022, which I feel is a missed opportunity. Is the positive change reflective throughout children's literature or purely on the pages? We will have to wait and see whether steps have actually taken place to ensure representation is occurring both inside and behind the books. It's also concerning that there's a lack of noise regarding the importance of authentic voices. There is a belief that #OwnVoices has lost its integrity for reasons stated here, however that shouldn't mean we stop pushing for people from marginalised groups, cultures and identities to tell their own stories, in their own terms.
Finally, thank you to the whole team and steering committee for their dedicated work in researching, compiling and presenting the findings: Farrah Serroukh, Louise Johns-Shepherd, Fathima Ali, Dr Fen Coles, Darren Chetty, Professor Vini Lander, Nicky Parker, Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Professor Karen Sands O’Connor and Dr Zaahida Nabagereka.
* Quotes and info taken from CLPE Reflecting Realities 2021
Cover Illustration © Onyinye Iwuand
Photo by Charlotte Gray