June 14, 2019

Children’s books in the UK remain biased against BAME and female characters for yet another year


Back in July 2018 we reported that only 1% of children’s books in the UK depict Black And Minority Ethnic main characters (BAME), and almost a year later, it seems things have not have improved.

The Guardian and Observer have carried out their own investigations into the children’s publishing, analysing Nielsen BookScan’s data on the top 100 bestselling illustrated children’s books of 2018 in the UK. They discovered that only five bestsellers featured a BAME character in a central role, and one of those characters appears in three books: Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks’ Lanky Len from their What the Ladybird Heard series (who is a baddie). When BAME characters did appear, only 30% of them had speaking roles and in fact only seven books actually even named BAME characters, so insignificant where they to the story.

Given that the Department of Education reported last year that a third of school children in the UK are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, these findings are seriously worrying.

The Guardian’s investigation is not as comprehensive as the study the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education carried out which looked at all 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, but it gives us an interesting snapshot of the UK’s most popular books and what that can reveal about the current publishing landscape.

Continuing with the bias, The National Office of Statistics states that 48% of school children in the UK are female, yet the new study also showed that male characters outnumbered female characters in more than half of the books analysed, and one in five bestsellers did not include any female characters at all. Male characters were found to be 1.6 times more likely appear as leads over female characters and male characters were also more likely to have speaking roles: in fact roles for male characters rose by 19% over the previous year. It was discovered 149 male characters had speaking roles in 2018 compared to 79 female characters. And only two books had BAME girls in main roles.

Jess Day, from the gender equality campaign Let Toys Be Toys told Alison Flood at the Guardian:

“It’s really disappointing to see that things are getting worse, rather than better, and that newer books aren’t helping to make our kids’ bookshelves more balanced … What we tell very young children has a strong influence—and what they’re seeing in books is a world where male is the default, male voices dominate and BAME characters are rarely at the centre of the story.”

Books published continue to reflect the bias of the wider industry. Flood reported on a publishing survey carried out at the beginning of this year, which found that of 6,432 individuals working for 42 publishing organisations, 11.6% of respondents identified as BAME when the UK population is 14%. Given the industry is so London-centric and London’s BAME population is 40.2% this is particularly poor.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result, when looking at the authors themselves on the top 100 list, not a single one identified as BAME and 65% were male.

The lack of change we see from this new children’s book analysis, when diversity has been such a hot topic within the publishing industry for a couple of years now, can also partly be attributed to the continuing popularity of enduring favourites. Classics published in the last century such as Dear Zoo, The Cat in the Hat, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, made up over a fifth of the top 100. As author Chitra Soundar told Charlotte Eyre at The Bookseller:

“My brother-in-law in spite of my constant offering of diverse books, reads the whole series of Dahl and Blyton to my nephews. My sister says he’s reliving his childhood.”

Soundar also criticized bookshops for contributing to the lack of diversity, saying:

“Bookshops discriminate against small publishers who are publishing diverse books by not stocking them and creating campaigns around them. The battle is already lost even an average high street bookstore doesn’t have a huge section of wonderful books.”

Claire Malcolm is chief executive of New Writing North, an organisation aiming to address the London and southern bias in the country when it comes to publishing, and offer support to talent across the North of England. She told Flood at the Guardian:

“We need to work towards a progressive industry that makes opportunities for talented people whatever their background and wherever they come from … and which publishes books that reflect the diverse range of experiences in this country. Unpaid internships and low starting salaries have made it very difficult for young people from outside London to access the experience and networks that prove so invaluable in entering the industry, although we are seeing some progress from publishers who recognise the need to facilitate change.”

The Publishers Association has set a target of achieving 15% of all UK employees identifying as BAME by 2022.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.