Tag Archives: CCBC

Reality, Reflected? CLPE, and the Search for Statistics about BAME Children’s Publishing

When I was writing my first book, Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians and British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2008), a number of people asked me if there was really all that much literature to write about.  Most could not name a single Black British author or character in a book for children, and if they could, it was because they had gone looking for Black British literature specifically either for their own children, or for children that they knew and/or taught.

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When I wrote Soon Come Home, many people wondered if there were any West Indians in British Children’s Literature.

By the time I wrote my most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmilan 2017), this situation had changed for the better somewhat; most (British) people that I asked could name a few authors (though they were less likely to be able to name characters, indicating something about the “classic” status, or lack thereof, of Black British children’s literature)—and my American family, friends and students, who had to listen to me banging on all the time could also name a few authors, despite the fact that Black British authors are seldom published in the US.  But nonetheless, I still found myself able to write in that later book, “Depressingly little has changed in British publishing over the last 50 years” (Children’s Publishing 184), and “Publishing is an industry which is self-reinforcing: books that ‘sell’ are books that serve the majority population in society, so these are the books that are published—but groups outside the majority population do not see themselves in books, so they do not buy these books, and then publishers can argue that certain groups ‘don’t read’ and therefore don’t require attention from the publishing industry” (185).  Obviously this formulation is something of an oversimplification, but it has been true for a long time that the publishing world did not mirror the real world when it came to children’s books.

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By the time of Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, more people were aware of Black British authors–but they could count the ones they knew on a single hand.

Just how far apart the industry was from reality, however, was an unknown quantity.  The British publishing industry did not keep (or release) statistics about the diversity of either its authors and illustrators or the characters in its books.  No UK institution (government or academic) attempted to keep such statistics either, as far as I know.  But this is about to change.  This week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a press release.  It read in part:

“The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has announced a pioneering new study into ethnic representation in children’s literature. The Reflecting Realities initiative will evaluate the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing and will be the first ever survey of its kind in the UK.

The study will be produced alongside and complemented by research from BookTrust, who will publish a Representation research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illus­trators of colour in the UK in recent years. Both surveys are funded by Arts Council England and aim to promote conversation and awareness around representation in children’s books. Findings for CLPE’s study, looking at books published in 2017, will be announced in July and followed by BookTrust’s report in Sep­tember.”

I’m very excited to be a part of the Reflecting Realities project.  CLPE’s Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the project, has put together an excellent team.  We come from a variety of disciplines—sociology, philosophy, education, literature—and organizations (including Letterbox Library and Amnesty International), so we bring different ideas, suggestions, and frameworks to the question of ethnic diversity and publishing for children.  But we all hope to move beyond a “numbers game” where a publisher can say, oh, I published a BAME author last year, so I don’t need to do it this year.  Or, I have an award-winning diverse author on my lists, so I don’t need to encourage and nurture new authors.  As Sita Brahmachari wrote in a tweet on hearing about the project, “The fissure between the children I visit in schools and representation in stories is a constant reminder to me of how that absence feels as a child & what impact it can have on opportunity.  Knowing, seeing & feeling it fuels my energy to imagine stories” (2/8/18).

Sita Brahmachari’s latest book, from Barrington Stoke, is part of a long list of books reflecting the different realities of BAME people in Britain.

In the Reflecting Realities project, we hope to fuel publishers’ energy to produce such books and celebrate the ways that publishers are trying to respond to the nation’s child reading population, through looking at the quality of ethnic representation, and not just the quantity.

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Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet were part of publishers’ efforts in the 1970s to produce more books that reflected the realities of British youth.

Reflecting Realities is based on a model from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who publishes similar statistics on US children’s publishing and has done in some fashion since 1985.  The CCBC began keeping statistics because one of their librarians had judged a national prize for African-American authors and found that very few authors existed.  The CLPE Reflecting Realities project is somewhat different in origin, because it comes at a moment when many stakeholders—including publishers—have expressed a desire for change.  But—as those who were around to witness publishing efforts of the 1970s (Macmillan’s Nippers and Topliners series) and 1980s (Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Other Award plus multiculturalism in series such as Puffin’s Happy Families by the Ahlbergs), and on into the 1990s and 2000s well know, desire to participate in a trend is not enough.  Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, “Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books to be Examined” allowed CLPE director Farrah Serroukh to sum up both the positive and the negative: “Serroukh at the CLPE, a charity which works to support the teaching of literacy in primary schools, said that there was currently ‘a momentum across the industry calling for better representation’. ‘We want to contribute to that conversation and move it on,’ she said. ‘It’s great that the industry has been reflecting on this, but that’s only effective if it ultimately leads to change’” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/07/ethnic-diversity-uk-childrens-books-arts-council-england-representation).  No single person, publisher, or organization can change children’s publishing—but we are hoping to do our part to make the nation’s children’s literature better reflect the reality of its reading population.

Actively Engaged: Diversity, Activism, and Children’s Books

This week I’ve been visiting the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in Madison, Wisconsin, to find out more about their work.  The CCBC is a state examination site, which means (among other things) that they get sent review copies of most of the books published for children in the US in any given year (in 2016, this amounted to about 3,400 books).  They keep track of all these books in logs, but they only keep most of them for a limited amount of time (they save award winners and unique books for teacher education and library students to use in their research).  They’ve been doing this since 1963, but that’s not the reason I know about the CCBC. If you aren’t already aware, the CCBC publishes yearly statistics on diversity in children’s book publishing in the US and have done so in some form since 1985.

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These shelves hold the fiction that arrived at the CCBC over the last 18 months. Picture books and nonfiction are shelved separately.

In 1985, Ginny Moore Kruse was not only directing the CCBC but serving as a judge for the Coretta Scott King Award.  The Coretta Scott King is awarded annually to the best book written by an African-American, but out of 2500 books published that year, only 18 met the criteria for the award.  Kruse, and the other librarians at the CCBC, began publishing statistics on African-American authored books; in 1994, they expanded to include Latin@, Native American and Asian authors as well as books with major characters from those groups.  These are the statistics you can find on their website (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp).

I learned that the CCBC actually keeps track of much more than these basic statistics.  Each book is logged in for several different attributes, and each category has various sub-categories.  Therefore, while the statistics available on the website give a snapshot of the number of books published about Africans and African-Americans, the CCBC logs will actually indicate the geographic region (if identifiable) or cultural background of major characters—such as Jamaican or Jamaican-American.  This is a massive operation compiled each year by the relatively small staff at the CCBC, and I’m grateful to K. T. Horning, Merri Lindgren, Megan Schliesman and Madeline Tyner, all of whom took the time to explain to me the who, what, when, why and how of the workings of the CCBC.  The statistics they compile have helped to raise awareness in the US about the deficiencies in US publishing for children.  Even though the numbers have increased since the dismal 1985 numbers, they are still incredibly small; the statistics give scholars, writers and activists information that they can (and we all should) use to help put pressure on an industry which has for too long ignored what the US looks like.

In addition to the CCBC, Madison is home to a wonderful independent bookstore called A Room of One’s Own.  They have a wider variety of children’s books than I’ve seen in a long time at an American bookstore, and—at least in terms of what they highlighted and displayed while I was visiting—many of these books are by or about people of color.  Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of books written about activism for (and by) children.  I’m not sure whether this is due to the current political climate or to the historical political climate (Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated fifty years ago this April, not to mention the other uprisings and protests of 1968 around the globe).  Either way, there seems to be a (renewed?) interest in teaching kids, not just about past protests, but about how to become activists themselves—and many of the books that are being published focus on young activists of color.  I’ll just highlight two books that I purchased at A Room of One’s Own to give an idea of what is available for kids.

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Bob Bland produced The Little Book of Little Activists after the 2017 Women’s March.

The first is The Little Book of Little Activists (Viking 2017), which was created (it’s not really authored, per se) by Bob Bland, the co-chair of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.  Bland, who was nine months pregnant at the time of the march, wanted to create the book to emphasize two things: one, that ordinary people can make a difference (she started it as a Facebook event), and two, as she writes in her introduction,

People from all walks of life joined together in solidarity, many of them engaging in social activism for the first time.  This book seeks to inspire them and others to keep on resisting.  And to remind us all that the future is in the hands of our children, and they are poised and ready for action. (n.p.)

The rest of the book contains photographs of and quotations from young children (some too young to offer quotations or create the signs they were carrying) who participated in the march.  Additionally, a couple of pages define words connected with the march, such as “Equality”.  One of the pages I find most interesting is the one that defines “protest” as “Disrupting the usual flow of things in order to call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed” (n.p.; bolding in original).  It then goes on to list several types of protests, including boycotts, sit-ins, and walkouts.

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The defining of protest types gives young activists different ways to react to injustice.

This caught my eye because the first book I had picked up at A Room of One’s Own, Innosanto Nagara’s The Wedding Portrait (Triangle Square 2017) had a discussion of the types of protest as its very raison d’être.  The subtitle of the book is, “The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes we Break the Rules” and it opens with an epigraph from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  After an opening page introducing the photograph of the title, the book continues with a discussion of different types of civil disobedience—beginning with the bus boycotts in the American south in the 1960s.  This discussion struck me particularly because rather than show the expected picture of Rosa Parks, Nagara decided instead to introduce readers to an earlier protester—the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, like Parks, refused to move to the back of the bus when police demanded she do so.  Nagara indicates that Colvin was arrested, but also that “In the end, the laws were changed.  This is called CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.”

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Most books that mention the bus boycotts highlight Rosa Parks, but Nagara focuses on the young protester Claudette Colvin.

The book continues through different types of protests (my favorite line is in the section about the Salt March in India, where Nagara writes, “So the people said, ‘Sorry, British Empire, but it’s time for you to go home’”) including a page on Black Lives Matter and their protest against the confederate flag, before finally returning to the original wedding portrait.  It is only then that we learn that they bride and groom were married at a protest, and were handcuffed and arrested.  Like The Little Book of Little Activists, The Wedding Portrait shows protesters of every color.  It also emphasizes what young (and not-so-young) activists need to hear in troubled times: protest does not always lead to change right away, but with enough time and commitment, all people have the power to make a difference.  How you decide to do it is up to you.