Racism and Representation in Children’s Books
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Many children are raised with a hearty appetite for fictional stories, from Dr Seuss to Beatrix Potter. Their days start and end with fairies, rebels, elves, and other inspirational characters. But why is it that the most common protagonists are animals or white individuals, rather than characters from Black, Asian, or other minority backgrounds?
This article will review and evaluate representation within picture books, fiction and non-fiction, for ages 3–11 in the UK.
Recent research & findings
Let’s take a look at the stats according to the latest Centre of Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) report. Publishers reported that 38% of the total books they published in 2019 featured animals or inanimate objects as main cast characters (protagonists), and 64% featured human main cast characters. Of this 64%, only 5% included an ethnic minority main character. This is a mild improvement from previous years (4% in 2018 and 1% in 2017), but there’s still a long way to go.
"Only 5% of children's books featuring human main characters included an ethnic minority protagonist."
Regardless, the point is that it would still be more likely for a Black, Asian or minority race child to see an animal, rather than someone representing their origins. In 2019, 33.5% of the school population in the UK consisted of individuals from minority backgrounds. That’s 33.5% of school children being underrepresented and excluded from society through literature.
Additionally, in order to assess the legitimate impact of these characters on younger audiences, numerous factors must be considered, including the character’s verbal expression, character development, and importance to the plot. 96% of ethnic minority main characters featured in the CLPE research submissions actively influenced the literary narrative with their expression, thought, or voice. This positive indicator of inclusion (although only applicable to the underwhelming 5% of protagonists) shows improvements compared to previous years, promising a future with stronger protagonists from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The recent wave of books featuring social justice themes may justify the current progress in diversity within literature. 29.5% of CLPE research submissions fell under the former category - a 9.5% increase from previous years. The CLPE concluded that “This may be as a result of a general trend towards a larger volume of social justice themed books being published. These aligned with contemporary societal concerns about themes such as climate change and may partly be the reason why 20% of the books identified as having a social justice theme were focused on the environment.”.
Unfortunately, not all the numbers have been increasing, and not all evaluations of ‘social justice’ apply specifically to ethnic diversity. It has been discovered that only 8% of books submitted in 2019 featured an ethnic minority presence in the form of background characters, compared to a whopping 27% in 2018. Along with the 18% of books featuring a multicultural cast (1% less than in 2018), there seems to currently be a lack of awareness for this issue in the publishing world.
A brief history of discrimination in literature
Subsequent to the Scramble for Africa (1881-1914), many literary works glossed over the brutality of colonialism and slavery. Children’s books depicted an exaggerated vision of Africa, presenting Black individuals as uneducated savages. This birthed an era of children’s literature in which races that weren’t white were usually automatically villainized or completely ignored.
However, this devotedness to imperialist fantasies and lack of diversity was not shared by all authors. One example of an exception to this would be Roald Dahl’s famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). As described in an article by The Guardian suggesting that the book could be considered 'anti-racist', the original protagonist was designed to be a “little black boy”. In this story, titled Charlie’s Chocolate Boy, Charlie ends up in the ‘Easter Room’. Willie Wonka helps the boy into a life-sized chocolate candy mould, but accidentally leaves him there due to a distraction. The mould suddenly closes, and Charlie is slowly covered in chocolate, almost risking suffocation. He’s in pain, trapped, as the chocolate hardens around him. The boy is then taken to Wonka’s house, where he is displayed in Wonka’s son’s Easter basket (Wonka is married in this version). Soon, Charlie earns his freedom by preventing a robbery, and is rewarded with his own chocolate shop.
This version of the children’s book was promptly rejected by Dahl’s agent. Catherine Keyser, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, sees the chocolate mould as a metaphor for racial stereotypes. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the US and in England was very reliant on imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate. Keyser expresses her appreciation as “in this mid-century moment Dahl has this black boy get stuck inside a mould that fits him perfectly – he emphasises that – everything about the mould fits Charlie, except [that] once the chocolate inside the mould hardens, it’s uncomfortable! So, what better symbol of what it’s like to be turned into a racial stereotype than a black boy who gets stuck inside a life-size chocolate mould and can’t be seen or heard through this chocolate coating.”
So, might this particular book have been anti-racist? Wonka makes the active decision not to help Charlie until the boy prevents a robbery, using him as an aesthetic item or guard dog, seemingly villainizing Wonka’s white character. Alternatively, Charlie might have represented diverse racial classes that, according to previous societal beliefs, were often seen as helpless and inferior to whites. Charlie was unable to break from the chocolate mould independently, rather he needs help from Wonka, the white hero.
Dahl’s first draft was followed by other versions in which Oompa-Lumpas were a tribe of African pygmies. This version was heavily rejected with accusations of racism and colonialism. This came as a surprise to the author, therefore Dahl’s eventual use of racism might disprove Keyser’s analysis, as he could have been oblivious to the implications assigned to his characters through the use of race.
Why is lack of ethnic representation in literature a problem?
The quality of literature and education surrounding children partly moulds their capacity for growth. Researcher Debra Ausdale proved the importance of literature through her research at multi-ethnic day care centres. In her study ‘The First R: How Children Learn About Race and Racism’, Ausdale claims that children as young as three have already entered into and begun experimenting with race ideologies compatible to the adult world. She addresses how racist attitudes are often absorbed, using the children’s interactions with books as an example of how they internalise what they encounter in real life.
“Literature helps us to dream differently. It can inspire ambition, plant seeds of hope and, of course, educate us.”
- Professor Vini Lander, Professor of Race and Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University
Literature provides a story which, notwithstanding the genre, can usually be applied to daily life. However, as explained by Bettye L. Latimer in 1973, “[i]f books supposedly deal with all kinds of people, one consequently begins to rationalise that blacks are not people since they do not appear in symbolic form”.
"If children in the UK are still being raised by art which consistently excludes other races, then how are we to achieve equality as a united nation in the future?"
Classic works such as Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Pippi Longstockings are commonly criticised for their use of racial stereotyping or exclusion. The protagonists, along with most of the other characters, are white individuals who carry out a set of typical middle-class tasks. This contrasts many works in which characters represented by individuals from a minority race wouldn’t have the pleasure of celebrating their birthday, purchasing chocolate, or going to the park with their family. If children in the UK are still being raised by art which consistently excludes other races, then how are we to achieve equality as a united nation in the future? This lack of diversity and inclusion likely breeds subconscious prejudice as racial stereotypes urge children to sustain pre-conceptual views on different ethnicities.
“Reflecting Realities must be just that; we need to honour children’s lives by handing them identifiable, relevant landscapes.”
- Dr Fen Coles, Co-director at Letterbox Library
How can you support diversity in literature?
Fight against racial stereotyping and social alienation: encourage the use of diverse resources for the nurturing growth of younger generations!
● Discover more about the current development of representation and misconceptions in children’s literature by reading through the full CLPE Reflecting Realities Report
● Raise awareness! Contact relatives and friends to further discuss the inclusion of diversity in children’s literature. How can you encourage your community to make a change?
● Take a look at The Guardian's recommendations on the ‘50 best culturally diverse children’s books’!
For more resources on racism and society, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.