Supermarket Sweep: The All-White World of Supermarket Children’s Books?

Poking through a local charity shop last week, I came across a board book by Patrice Aggs called Teatime. I was interested in it for two reasons: one, it had cute, multiracial babies on the cover; and two, the cover of the book made it appear as if it were called Sainsbury’s Teatime. Sainsbury’s? As in the supermarket? Yes, indeed.

Tea at Sainsbury's looks tasty!

Tea at Sainsbury’s looks tasty!

There isn’t a lot of academic research on the books sold in supermarkets (well, not in literary circles, anyhow; Supermarket News runs frequent stories on children’s books and sales in grocery store chains) although it’s been going on for a long time. I remember Little Golden Books (The Saggy Baggy Elephant was my favorite) being available near the checkout during my childhood; and maybe (I seem to recall) Great Illustrated Classics were there too—although of course, those had a more dubious reputation than Golden Books because the Great Illustrated Classics were comic book versions of book everyone was supposed to read eventually, like The Three Musketeers or Dracula. Karen Raugust (writing in Supermarket News 26 March 2001: 47) thinks that “children’s books simply make sense in supermarkets. They carry high margins, and appeal to the young-family demographic coveted by supermarkets. Their presence makes shopping more entertaining, and their prosocial attributes are increasingly valued by parents.” Just what I was thinking! All those great literary qualities . . . oh. Nonetheless, I was surprised that Sainsbury’s had their “own brand” of children’s books. Although Teatime was published by Walker Books, a mainstream publisher, it was published by them “exclusively for J Sainsbury” in 1995.

The book made me wonder about two things: first, was the Aggs title a fluke or a momentary trend in supermarket children’s books? And second, how did other supermarkets fare in terms of multicultural publishing? I live near two superstore supermarkets (the kind with clothes and cookware as well as food), one of which is Sainsbury’s, so I thought I’d do a little market research and find out what I could. I went to the non-Sainsbury superstore first—and I won’t name it, because it was certainly disappointing. The book section was small, and the picture books were exclusively either non-human or all-white people.

The all-white world of supermarket book sales?

The all-white world of supermarket book sales?

To be fair to them, I went to their website (perhaps my particular store had just sold out?) but, except for one book about Dora the Explorer, there was no non-white representation on book covers (I know book covers do not tell the whole story, but it was all I had to go on). There are a couple of other nearby grocery stores, but they are not large ones and I didn’t think it would be reasonable to judge them on an equal level with superstores, so again, I just looked at websites. Morrisons and Waitrose did not have children’s books available on their websites (Waitrose is connected with John Lewis, and book sales, at least online, are found there). Marks and Spencer does not really sell supermarket books because they developed as a department store with a food hall, but they do have children’s books, and on their website, they have some nonwhite book cover representation, including a couple of titles by the Ahlbergs, a book about Egyptians, and a London bus book (a couple of the websites I looked at have a version of the London Bus book, and though it is not the same London Bus book, it is always filled with multicultural people). Another of the major chains only carries books with “brand” characters, such as Peppa Pig and Disney Princesses—in other words, books that can be sold alongside other products, from sweets to pencil cases to t-shirts. It goes without saying that, of the human character brands, most were white. It was not clear to me from any of the websites if the children’s books that these supermarkets sell were “own branded” like the Sainsbury board book I’d found.

It seemed unlikely that even Sainsbury’s would have continued to “brand” books, but when I finally went down to my branch, I was surprised to find that they did. It took me a while to find the books in the first place (they were way at the back, and surrounded by more electronic forms of entertainment), but when I did, there was a whole section of picture books branded with the Sainsbury name. Not all were published “exclusively” for the chain (only one of the three that I bought is listed as being published “for” Sainsbury’s, Julia Seal’s 2015 Swim Like a Fish).

Swimming exclusively for Sainsbury's in 2015.

Swimming exclusively for Sainsbury’s in 2015.

But several had pictures of non-white children on the cover, some (like Kerry Timewell’s Ready, Steady Dress-up Time, also 2015) had only non-white children on the cover. I was disappointed that the titles by more prominent authors published in Sainsbury editions, including Helen Oxenbury’s and Shirley Hughes’s concept board books, all had only white children on the covers. But at least two of the Shirley Hughes’ titles, Numbers and Opposites, did have multicultural representation inside the books.

A page from Shirley Hughes's Numbers.

A page from Shirley Hughes’s Numbers.

But if supermarket books are designed to increase profit margins for stores and keep children entertained (and quiet) while parents shop, then does it matter whether a book has multicultural representation or not? Aren’t they just the equivalent of readable candy bars? This was certainly Sam Jordison’s opinion in The Guardian when Sainsbury’s won an award for booksellers in 2011. “It’s sad to think that my daughter’s generation may have no more attachment to choosing their next read than to choosing a tin of beans, and that books will be lumped in with the general boredom of cleaning products, potatoes and checkouts,” he wrote (you can find the article here http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/may/19/sainsburys-book-seller-year-award). He does admit that “Perhaps I’m romanticising too much. It’s easy to be snotty about the books in Sainsbury’s, and to complain about their lack of range. The chain could reasonably argue that it gives people what they want and does it well.” Sainsbury’s might be giving parents what they want, but they are doing it in a way that deliberately—if my survey of their children’s book section is representative over time—embraces books for ALL children. And unlike other supermarket booksellers, they underscore their value system by putting their own name right on the book cover.  They might not ever become my first choice for book shopping, but they do–to borrow a phrase from advertising–put their money where their mouth is.

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