Once upon a time, in the homogenous world of children’s book illustration…
As new reports find a despairing lack of diverse representation in children’s book characters and the people who create them, we talk to illustrators and publishers about why, and how things can change.
Anyone who regularly reads to a small child will know they often look for themselves on the page; shouting “That’s me!” pointing to the protagonist. It’s cute, then suddenly staggering when you find out that only five per cent of children’s books published in 2019 feature a Black, Asian or minority ethnic main character, according to the latest UK report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE). Just ten per cent of published books featured any non-white characters at all, despite the fact that 33.5 per cent of UK school age pupils came from minority ethnic backgrounds. It’s infuriating and despairing, particularly when you explore the impact that gross lack of representation might have on children.
In 2019, UCL professor Melanie Ramdarshan Bold wrote a report published by BookTrust that went beyond the depiction of diverse characters and investigated the representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators, in books published between 2007-2017. Inclusive children’s literature is vital, she writes, because books “can act as mirrors, to reflect the readers’ own lives, but also as windows so readers can learn about, understand and appreciate the lives of others”. Books have the power to shape how young readers see themselves, and how they see and understand diversity, she says. Worryingly, the absence of an inclusive range of characters or creative role models in the illustration and publishing industries could potentially deter children of colour from reading, not to mention pursuing careers in those fields.
A recently published follow-up report states that in 2019, 8.68 per cent of children’s book creators (authors and illustrators) were people of colour and they created just over seven per cent of titles published that year. The number of creators of colour in publishing is increasing, but painfully slowly, up from 7.17 per cent in 2018 and 5.58 per cent in 2017. But why is there such a lack of representation in children’s book publishing? It’s a multi-layered issue that begins in the hands of a commissioning editor, and gets handed back through illustration agency talent lists, to school education, and permeates families and culture. The fact is there are a scarce few Black, Asian and minority ethnic children’s book illustrators who are published. Yet there are many unpublished illustrators waiting for their break. While these reports and the Black Lives Matter movement this year have given some impetus to the issue and called on all publishers to try harder, it is going to take some serious work to shake up how this highly traditional industry goes about finding talent.
Dapo Adeola is one of the most prominent Black children’s book illustrators in the UK, even though he only made his breakthrough in 2019 co-creating and illustrating Look Up! with author Nathan Bryon. He says they created their main character, Rocket, without an awareness of the desperate need for non-white characters. They pitched the book in 2017 at Bologne book fair and had a whopping 14 offers from publishers, followed by a constant stream of attention. “At first it was great but then I was like, hang on, why are they giving me all the work? Why aren’t they trying to find the other Dapos?” he remembers. “Publishing can be lazy; if they find one thing that works, they all do the same thing.” Dapo says only when he started going to events and meeting his peers in the children’s book illustration world, did he notice “something was off... I was the only one who looked like me”.
Looking further, he found one big established name, Ken Wilson-Max, who has had a stellar career illustrating over 50 books for children yet, Dapo observes, still gets “brought up by publishers when they want to say ‘there is diversity’”. He also mentions authors like Atinuke, who is behind the bestselling Anna Hibiscus series and many other titles, yet Dapo believes does not get the credit, or marketing budget, she deserves. “She is not as commercially known as she should be,” he says. “It’s just not a level playing field.”
Dapo has also noticed that many of his offers for books are “lumped into one space,” many of the stories focusing on race, or hair or the “same old” character settings. “If you come from an ethnic background, it’s hard, doubly hard as an artist. There are certain things you have to deal with, and pigeon-holing is one of them. I’m grateful I’m confident because if I don’t want to work on something I say so.” The aforementioned CLPE report also said that, of the four per cent of books which actually had Black, Asian and minority ethnic characters, ten per cent of books contained “social justice” issues, and only one was defined as a comedy. It’s an issue that independent London-based publisher Knights Of set out to address when it launched in 2017, aiming to tell inclusive stories. Marssaié, the publisher’s creative director, says the company prides itself on its diverse characters, authors and illustrators, with subjects that “aren’t just about trauma and race, just regular stories any child would want to read”.
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Jason Reynolds: Look Both Ways, illustrated by Selom Sunu (Copyright © Knights Of)
The Knights Of founders came from mainstream publishing and saw a gaping hole to be filled, tackling the issue from the ground up by hiring diverse. “The majority of publishing doesn’t look like the Knights Of team,” Marssaié comments, explaining this allows them to “tell more than just one story”. She, however, did not have a publishing background, and found it surprising how traditional it had remained compared to other creative industries. “It’s hardly moved on from its genesis,” Marssaié says. “It seemed bizarre to me they struggled to find diverse artists.” She believes it’s because most publishers have a trusted list of artists and agents they return to time and time again, not purely out of lack of imagination but to avoid the financial risk of trying a new artist or process. “I understand it’s efficient to use agents, but if you put efficiency over diverse talent, it will always be a barrier,” she says. Marssaié, on the other hand, finds artists on social media and through various networks, but admits that commissioning for a small independent publisher has less red tape. “We can work more personally and spend more time looking… but if you keep looking in the same places, you’re always going to find the same thing. I don’t believe there is a lack of diverse talent, it’s about being comfortable to look beyond what you know.”
Marssaié’s approach sees her pairing authors and illustrators from the same background, as she believes the artist will be able to relate to the story better, making the book more authentic. This often allows her to give illustrators their first go at working in publishing, creating access to publishing, which has previously led to one of her artists getting an agent and, therefore, a foot in the door. It also means a diverse variety of characters and stories are told. “It’s so important you can see yourself, not just in one way, in many different ways, because you can aspire to that.”
This is echoed by fellow publisher Wonderbly, which makes personalised books for children. Beyond including the child’s name in the story in various clever ways, you can also choose an avatar for the main character that most resembles them in skin tone and hair colour. “If a child can see themselves [in a book] it makes the experience closer and more visceral,” says David Cadji-Newby, Wonderbly’s founder and creative director. “It’s a powerful tool that has a big impact on a person’s formative years and memories.”
David says he and his team realised the responsibility they held only after they published their first book Lost My Name, and quickly realised it was “morally right” to try to represent everyone, though that is an almost impossible challenge it continues to work towards. As of now, the publisher offers six “adventurers” in gradations of skin and hair tones, and is hoping to soon add more to the spectrum. “What we don’t want to happen is someone to say ‘that can’t be me’,” David says. “We want to inspire self-belief in any child.” Offering this choice means David believes they do “diversity by default” where no matter what the character looks like, the story doesn’t change. “We represent children of colour better than the mainstream can ever do. We don’t cater to any market, we are impartial, and everybody is treated the same. We just create the best story we can think of, then invite them in.”
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Julia Gray and David Cadji-Newby: Bed Time For You, illustrated by Pedro Serapicos (Copyright © Wonderbly)
It’s equally important young people see diversity not only on the pages of their books, but in the people making them. Onyinye Iwu is a children’s book illustrator whose career is just starting to take off, with her work adorning Atinuke’s Too Small Tola which came out this year. It hasn’t been an easy journey to this point, though, with Onyinye until recently still holding down a full-time teaching job while pursuing illustration on the side. While it’s true many artists and illustrators struggle to establish themselves in the early years, regardless of background, it will remain a privileged and homogenous industry if only those who don’t have to worry about money or the struggle for connections can break in. Having not studied illustration, Onyinye says social media was “the only connection I had” to the industry (which did eventually garner her a commission) and she needed to work full-time otherwise she “wouldn’t be able to survive”. “Sometimes it came down to, do I want to pursue my passion or do I want to eat?! I had to get a job, sort out my life, then do illustration. It’s difficult to grow when you have those restraints.”
There’s also a cultural blocker, she says. “You need to be strong-minded and not worry what everyone is saying at home.” Onyinye says, coming from a working class background, there’s a lack of exposure to the creative world, but a sense of pride knowing a Black artist has contributed to something. “There’s no one in publishing and no artists in my family. It’s difficult for families to understand and not worry when no one you know does it for their job. There’s no one you can point to and say ‘they’re doing it’. You have to find a way in, and there’s a lack of guidance on how to get there.”
Born in Italy to Nigerian parents, she grew up loving books but never read any by Black authors, and agrees with Dapo’s point about mainstream awareness of author Atinuke. “All her stories are Black children characters from different countries and the diaspora. Surely these stories need to be told? You have to be authentic in the way you’re depicting aspects of lives.” Especially in children’s literature, where Onyinye says illustration is “often the majority of the story”.
Considering that fact, it is particularly appalling what illustrator Yasmeen Ismail reports to have been told in one of her feedback rounds on a book last year. “I’ve been told a character is too Black, and could I make her less Black. Are you effing kidding me?” she exclaims, stating that lack of diversity in the publishing industry is “rife”. Apparently, the unnamed publisher reasoned white families wouldn’t buy it, and that they didn’t want to alienate their white customers. Despite that horrendous anecdote, Yasmeen says the children’s book publishing industry is largely “full of heart” and while they have markets to consider, “for the good ones it’s not all about the bottom line”.
Born to a Chinese mum and South African Indian dad, Yasmeen grew up in a small Irish fishing village in the 80s in an entirely white Catholic population, and became subject to seemingly every slur you can think of. “People just can’t place me,” she chuckles, showing perhaps learned resilience. Despite that, Yasmeen has carved a successful career and doesn’t feel her background has held her back, but says “I look Asian. It must be very different to be Black. I haven’t experienced that ingrained racism.” She adds though that she, like many others, would “love to know if there’s a pay disparity”. With her work, Yasmeen says she always sets out to create diverse and inspiring stories and characters, taking very seriously her responsibility in the hands of a child. “I have been given a tiny microphone and it’s directly talking into that child’s face,” she says.
Since Yasmeen’s shocking meeting, the Black Lives Matter movement has resurged and now, Yasmeen says she’s being asked to draw more diverse characters. “They’re saying ‘oh crap we need more diversity’,” she laughs, but adds that the content is “dramatically changing”. While she did have the confidence and financial security to say no to that particular commissioning editor, she admits she was scared to be labelled as “difficult” but that, after the movement, “you can call things out now”.
More importantly, there are seedlings of grassroots efforts in the industry to make real change. Yasmeen mentors on Pathways into Children’s Publishing, a two-year programme founded in 2019 in response to the CLPE report, which guides artists from under-represented backgrounds into the industry. The course, which is halfway through its pilot scheme, was produced by House of Illustration and literature non-profit organisation Pop-Up Projects, and backed by 21 publishers and universities.
BookTrust Represents was also launched off the back of the charity’s report, and supports creators of colour with workshops and training events for an online community of authors and illustrators. It also is continuing its programme of school visits with creators, working with schools to spotlight creators and improve representation; and partnerships across the book publishing industry to support and promote creators of colour.
Meanwhile, there are numerous prizes and schemes being launched individually by publishers, but Dapo says he is sceptical this is enough. “Most companies are doing something in a performative manner,” he comments, “not just people going ‘hey we’re doing diversity.’ The industry wants it conditionally… it needs to change its approach, back it up with grassroots efforts. It’s not enough to have one prize, that reinforces this rhetoric about one person at a time. It has to be ongoing, not just for Black History Month, all year round, doing things with the community.” Dapo himself recently organised a Facebook group called the Black British Illustrators Network, with the aim of facilitating Black illustrators and imparting his knowledge. He adds that his apparent fame in the industry is “a burden I plan to put down. My plan is to kick the door down and let in as many people as I can, then leave and just go and make books about dragons and dinosaurs in peace”.
Onyinye is also cautiously optimistic. “This summer was encouraging, but I need to see that ongoing support to see if there has been a real change,” she says. “In the next couple of years, I want to see what is produced and published, and if there is diversity in the imagery and the people who draw them.” It’s vital not just for children to see themselves reflected but to feed their imagination and view on the world, and their place within it. “It’s important to have representation because there’s a level of aspiration the creative industry creates for young people,” Onyinye says. “We create different stories. The way we portray experiences and the nuances we can bring to a story and book has advantages not just for underrepresented children but for all.”
Copyright © Yasmeen Ismail