Diversity has decreased in children’s book characters; we discuss the issue with a publisher and illustrator

A new report from WordsRated has revealed that, after a “BLM bounce”, there's been a 23 per cent decrease in Black characters in children’s bestsellers since 2020.

Date
22 April 2022

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Last month, WordsRated, a non-commercial research organisation, published a report revealing the lasting impact the Black Lives Matter protests – and the resulting surge of commitment to representation – had on a historically homogenous medium: children’s book illustration. Analysing 1,511 children’s bestsellers published between 2012 and 2021, the report outlined the following: the percentage of Black characters in children’s bestsellers decreased by 23 per cent from 2020 to 2021; there was a 31 per cent decrease in children’s bestsellers written by Black authors from 2020 to 2021; in 2021, there are still 3.5 children’s bestsellers by a white author for every bestseller by a Black author.

The report concluded that, following an uptick in representation in 2020 – when there were more Black characters than white characters in children’s bestsellers for the first time ever – the increase in diversity not only halted, but took a step backwards in 2021. Despite previous year-on-year rises, the momentum around representation diminished as fast as it came.

To discuss how the industry looked from the inside during this “bounce” and resulting “fade”, as the report states, It’s Nice That spoke to children’s book illustrator Onyinye Iwu and Marssaié, creative director of independent London-based publisher Knights Of. “Following the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder there was a buzz in all industries to do better where it comes to racism,” Onyinye tells us. “It was obvious this was a very emotional response and everyone wanted to be seen to be doing something ‘for Black people’, some of it was genuine, some of it was following a band-wagon.” For Onyinye, the “buzz” had translated into real-world opportunities. In the summer of 2020, she found herself going from an unknown illustrator to receiving five unsolicited representation proposals from literary agents, alongside a multitude of work offers.

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke / illustrated by Onyinye Iwu, reproduced by permission of Walker Book Ltd, London, SE11 5HJ (Copyright © Onyinye Iwu)

As a publisher invested in telling stories with diverse characters, Knights Of experienced a similar boom in interest throughout 2020. “It was a time where it felt as though people were finally sitting up to not only listen but to act, and this brought about a lot of amazing opportunities, interest in our books and wonderful partnerships such as our collaboration with CLPE and Booktrust.” These collaborations resulted in major projects for Knights Of, including Happy Here, a recent anthology, amplifying, uplifting and celebrating Black storytelling.

Yet, “unsurprisingly”, says Marssaié, “as of now, a lot of those initial opportunities and enthusiasm has slowly dwindled. We know all too well that representation is a trend for many and so Knights Of continues to exist as an inclusive publisher focused on bringing underrepresented voices to the forefront of commercial children’s publishing – because of our position, the industry’s declining figures of Black characters and authors is not reflective of our experience.”

Onyinye witnessed the dip in representation the report records too; the illustrator believes the story in 2022 is entirely different to the one she saw in 2020. “I am lucky to still be working with my amazing agent, publishers and editors, but the buzz, I believe is well and truly over. The murder of George Floyd has been forgotten and what is left is some good intentions but poor execution.”

“We cannot remove a whole group of people from literature because it is no longer in fashion. Black children exist and they deserve representation in literature.”

Onyinye Iwu

Looking through the report, Onyinye also draws attention to another takeaway: bestsellers are not only significantly more diverse than children’s books as a whole, but according to CCBC data, while only 12 per cent of children’s books are about Black or African characters, only seven per cent of children’s books are written by Black or African authors; nearly half of Black and African characters in children’s books have been created by authors who aren’t Black or African.

“I am seeing this trend in the illustration world where many white artists have begun to just draw Black characters as the protagonists of all their work.” Onyinye comments: “As a Black woman, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a story from the perspective of a child from another race, because my voice wouldn’t be authentic and I’d be robbing the opportunity for someone else to breathe life to a story that might resonate with multitudes of children.”

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Onyinye Iwu: African Red Riding Hood (Copyright © Onyinye Iwu)

While Onyinye believes the presence of these books in the industry is important, the voice behind them is just as crucial. “I am saddened by the fact that Black author/illustrator voices are being lost, stories are being overlooked and hijacked. There is no shortage of talented Black writers and artists who often decided to self-publish, knowing how difficult it would be to get a foot in the publishing industry.”

While a degree of short-term change may have proved possible in 2020, the report evidences that this changing tide didn’t give way to lasting industry reform. In fact, the waters seem to be receding. “I think the publishing industry needs to show genuine desire to make a change, not jumping on a band-wagon in order to look good on social media, but really promoting diversity due to our reality of living in a diverse world,” says Onyinye. “We cannot remove a whole group of people from literature because it is no longer in fashion. Black children exist and they deserve representation in literature. All children deserve to see a wide range of faces, skin tones and body shapes in order to become wholesome members of the global community. Representation should not be an option, it should be a duty.”

“We know all too well that representation is a trend for many.”

Marssaié

So, how do we affect change that reaches beyond representation when and where convenient? As Onyinye comments: “Books cannot be diverse if the people working in the publishing industry aren’t... Publishers need to be open to diverse stories, hiring Black authors, illustrators but also editors, designers and working with Black agents.” Marssaié says that one of the first steps must be “to hire more diverse decision makers and empower them to pursue commercial stories with Black main characters, by Black authors.” The second step, she adds, being that adequate budgets and relevant marketing campaigns need to be put behind debut Black authors and illustrators starting out in the industry.

Ultimately, evolving the narrative beyond the shock factor comes down to actions that are possible for all of us, from the tools often sitting in our pocket, Marssaié concludes. “We can all do more to use our voices and platforms to consistently celebrate and highlight Black creators instead of only focusing on finger pointing. I use my personal Instagram stories and my platform outside of publishing to shout about dope black creators and to create opportunities for them where possible. There is more that can be done in order to have books that reflect the world we live in.”

GalleryOnyinye Iwu: International day (Copyright © Onyinye Iwu)

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke / illustrated by Onyinye Iwu, reproduced by permission of Walker Book Ltd, London, SE11 5HJ (Copyright © Onyinye Iwu)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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