Windows and Mirrors: Children and young people’s access to diverse literature
7th May 2021
“Imagine loving stories, inhaling book after book, imagine books being such an important part of your life. Now imagine never seeing yourself in books, never seeing someone who looks like you or feels like you. Imagine never seeing someone like you as the hero of the story. Imagine never believing you can be a hero in your own story… I was never the hero of the story. If I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me in stories, what did that make me? Invisible? Not to say there weren’t books about people of colour but those that did exist were not made accessible to us, not given the same visibility.”
These are the powerful words of Serena Patel, author of the book series ‘Anisha, the Accidental Detective’.Imagine never seeing yourself in books, never seeing someone who looks like you or feels like you. Imagine never seeing someone like you as the hero of the story. Click To Tweet
She was speaking at a seminar to mark the launch of Inclusion Labs’ ambitious Decade of Diversity.
Schools can now join the movement which seeks to ‘embed diversity, equity and inclusion in every young person’s educational, cultural and personal development’ by signing up to one or both of the pledges to:
- Have 25% diverse literature in schools by 2030
- Have diverse governing boards in schools by 2030 Schools can now join the movement which seeks to ‘embed diversity, equity and inclusion in every young person’s educational, cultural and personal development’ Click To Tweet
A cross-sector coalition of incredible organisations will be lending their support to schools and CfEY are excited to join as Inclusion Labs’ research partner.
Vanessa and I were delighted to join Serena and Temi (Inclusion Labs’ founder) to share findings from research highlighting why schools should sign up to the literature pledge.
This blog summarises the four main takeaways from the research we reviewed.
- Reading and sharing books and stories supports children’s emotional, social and identity development
- Children are aware of stereotypes and develop prejudice from a very early age
- Diverse literature has been shown to have a positive impact on children and young people’s attitudes and understanding of others
- Currently, children and young adults’ literature is not diverse enough
1. Why literature and reading matter
Reading and book sharing supports children and young people with:
- The development of their social skills and relationship skill (Kara-Soteriou and Rose, 2008)
- Emotional development and their sense of wellbeing (Zeece and Stolzer, 2002)
- Identity formation and a sense of belonging (Bennett et al. 2018)
Schools know how important it is to get pupils reading and to encourage a love of reading. Crucially, reading enjoyment is linked to reading ability which is turn is linked to a range of life outcomes. Reading ability at age 11 is predictive of education attainment across all subjects at GCSE and beyond and poor reading ability is associated with long-term negative life outcomes from unemployment to poor health, (you can read our report on the link between reading ability and life outcomes here).
But how can children and young people be encouraged to love reading if they cannot see themselves and their world reflected in the books around them?How can children and young people be encouraged to love reading if they cannot see themselves and their world reflected in the books around them? Click To Tweet
2. Children develop prejudice early
Children as young as three years old exhibit gender stereotypes and racial prejudice to a similar level as adults, as I explored in this blog.
Stereotypes and prejudice are likely to flourish in an environment where children are not able to learn about and discuss differences. However, many children and young people have very little opportunity to mix with and learn about others who are different from themselves in real life. In terms of ethnicity, diversity in Britain is not ‘evenly spread out’, so many children and young people grow up in ethnically homogenous communities with little opportunity to mix with others from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Similarly, in 2014, a survey found that nearly half of the British Public do not know a disabled person and two thirds would feel uncomfortable speaking to a disabled person and. Many of these people said that getting to know a disabled person would make them feel more comfortable, and similarly, research suggests that multicultural experiences can reduce racial prejudice.
Literature can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. Researchers exploring LatinX representation in children’s books explained:
‘When young children are presented with literature that only reflects their background cultural heritage, and experiences, they may believe that their experience dominates all others.’ (p.58 Bradan and Rodriguez, 2016)
In contrast, an intervention in which children explored books with disabled characters found that:
‘Through exploring characters in books, children not only learned about various disabilities, but they came to understand characters with disabilities as full and complex beings, similar in many ways to themselves.’ (p.1 Adomat, 2014)
3. Diverse literature can have a positive impact on attitudes
Little box of Books, who are also a Decade of Diversity partner, have a handy explanation of what we mean when we refer to ‘diverse literature’ or ‘diverse books’ and a variety of studies have demonstrated the impact this can have. For example:
- A small-scale intervention in which children read and discussed books on race, individuality, inclusion, activism over six weeks found a decrease in negative & an increase in positive attitudes towards human differences (Yates, 2019).
- A US study found that when White children heard stories about famous African American figures and the discrimination they suffer(ed) they developed more positive attitudes towards outgroup members (Hughes et al., 2007).
- Meta-analyses of anti-prejudice interventions find that media or story-based interventions have a positive impact on attitudes (Aboud et al., 2012).
A team of researchers who spent ten years examining multicultural children’s literature concluded that:
‘[Multicultural literature] provides an opportunity for all children to see themselves in literature, fosters development and positive self-esteem, prevents people from feeling isolated, and it cultivates respect, empathy, and acceptance of all people.’
The argument for ensuring school pupils have access to diverse literature is not just about reducing prejudice. All children and young people (and adults!) deserve to see themselves reflected positively in the world and are enriched by building their understanding of other people, cultures, traditions and ways of being. This is not just about keeping people in a bubble of what is familiar, in fact, everyone needs both ‘mirrors and windows’: mirrors to reflect their own identities and windows to understand the experiences of others.This is not just about keeping people in a bubble of what is familiar, everyone needs both ‘mirrors and windows’: mirrors to reflect their own identities and windows to understand the experiences of others. Click To Tweet
However, despite some positive progress in recent years, the literature available to children and young people is not yet diverse enough.
4. Literature available to children and young people is not diverse enough
In 2020, 7% of the children’s books published in the UK featured characters of colour. A 2017 study which looked at main characters found that only 1% of children’s books had a main character from a BAME background. Given that, just under 35% of children in UK primary schools are from a BAME background, many children do not have books that can act as ‘mirrors’ and all children are lacking books that can act as ‘windows’.
Only 1% of children’s books had a main character from a BAME background. Click To Tweet
It is not just racial diversity that is lacking in literature, though this is the most commonly explored dimension. In 2017, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a US organisation monitoring diversity statistics in children’s books, found that only 3.6% of books featured content about LGBTQ+ characters and relationships.
Diversity is lacking in the publishing industry as well as in the content of books. BookTrust’s review of the publishing landscape found that only 7% of children’s books published in 2019 were authored or illustrated by a person of colour. In addition, fewer than 1 in 7 novels and plays on the English Literature GCSE curriculum are by an author of colour. When this study was published, Teach First pointed out that this means that pupils can ‘leave school without reading a single book by an author of colour or featuring characters that represent your life.’
At the end of her speech author Serena Patel highlighted that there is reason to be optimistic. Children and young people are excited to engage with a diverse range of characters and stories if we can just give them access to them.
“I had always loved writing, but never shown anyone my words, never believing anyone would want to hear what I had to say. Perhaps this was another effect of feeling invisible. Later, as a mother I remember looking at our bookshelves and thinking something is not right here. Where are the books that reflect our life, where are the British Indian main stories? Starting to write but still disbelieving even on the journey that anyone would want to read this book. How wrong I was – the reception for the book from readers, librarians, teachers, parents and children has been amazing. They all accept and love Anisha as the hero, no questions asked. And now it feels so simple, of course Anisha can be the hero. Why couldn’t I see it before? Was it because I had always experienced the people of colour in stories as secondary, background characters, not important enough to have their own story?”
Now, schools can take action and draw on support from the Decade of Diversity partners by joining the Decade of Diversity pledge and ensuring that all pupils can benefit from access to diverse literature.
Find out more about the pledge here and sign up here!
Only 7% of the children’s books published in 2020 featured characters of colour. Click To Tweet