Children's fiction still rarely features the lives of black and other ethnic minority families, but the book trade is now moving towards diversity. Geraldine Brennan investigates
The world of children's books is still one where the faces are almost entirely white, unless they belong to a character in The Arabian Nights or other traditional tales.
All of the five highly acclaimed children's novels shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, announced today in TES Teacher magazine, are about white characters. And of the 10 picture books on the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist, the companion award for outstanding illustration from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Jane Ray's Jinnie Ghost (Frances Lincoln, Pounds 10.99) is alone in showing a mixture of brown and white children.
The Branford Boase Award for first-time children's writers (shortlist to be announced next week) shows a similar world view among new authors.
Big-name children's authors who are not white are the exception: Malorie Blackman (the only black author for adults or children in the BBC's The Big Read Top 100 in 2003), whose novel Checkmate (Doubleday, pound;12.99) was nominated for the Carnegie this year; Benjamin Zephaniah; Jamila Gavin; and relative newcomer, Bali Rai.
The majority of picture books reflect non-white cultures only in retellings of traditional tales from outside the UK, offering young black children few opportunities to recognise themselves in stories. There is an overwhelming tendency for illustrators to settle on toys, animals and fairies - white ones - to tell their stories.
In a recent publishers' and booksellers' debate on fiction for seven to nine-year-olds, children's books consultant Wendy Cooling said the monocultural nature of recent publishing for key stage 2 readers was abundantly clear.
"Even where schools have lots of new books, the kinds of stories seem rather similar. We need all kinds of diversity in children's books; we need to look at class and disability as well as culture. That's how children learn empathy."
Beverley Naidoo, who 21 years ago published Journey to Jo'burg, the first children's novel about life under apartheid, could not agree more. She quotes a letter she recently received from an 11-year-old boy in north London who had just read Web of Lies (Puffin Books, pound;5.99), her novel about young Nigerian asylum seekers' living in Britain. "Thank you for making me understand a little more about myself," he wrote.
She said: "Children are interested and engaged in worlds beyond their own.
The publishers are concentrating on what they know will sell, but why shouldn't more of this kind of story sell?"
Mrs Naidoo is a member of Arts Council England's steering group set up last year to promote diversity in children's books. It is collaborating with the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education to run a weekend conference in June, Diversity Matters. Keynote speakers are Council for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips and Malorie Blackman, and the conference is expected to focus on the commercial realities of publishing, and to highlight good practice by publishers such as Frances Lincoln, which has just launched a culturally diverse primary fiction list.
It is also, said Mrs Naidoo, "a chance for teachers, among others, to tell publishers what is needed. There has been a great shift in the knowledge and awareness available since the 1970s, when children's publishing was a very pristine little world. It is time to pool that knowledge ."
In 2003, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising report on ethnic diversity calculated that UK black and Asian buying power (the institute called it "the brown pound") was worth pound;32 billion. A session at The Booksellers Association conference in Bournemouth next week will ask: "What can the book trade do to sensibly, sensitively and profitably access this market?"
There should be some answers in Books for all, a report due out at the conference from the Bookseller and Arts Council England. Publishers, literary agents, booksellers and librarians have been asked what they are doing for BME (black and minority ethnic) readers, including children.
The other side of the story is writers who are trying to be published; a forthcoming smaller-scale study of UK black and Asian poets gives some pointers. The Spread the Word literature development agency talked to 230 poets for Free Verse, its report commissioned by the Arts Councils of England, Scotland and Wales, due to be published on May 16. The report does not specifically cover poetry for children but some factors seem likely to apply across the board. It points out that the most established black and Asian poets in the UK (including some who write for children such as John Agard, Grace Nichols and Valerie Bloom) are from the Caribbean; a new generation of British-born poets is struggling to get into print.
Its recommendations include "a formalised programme of mentoring, adequately funded and administered, that benefits both presses and poets"
as a contribution to "breaking down the barriers, whether real or perceived, that stop (black and Asian poets) submitting their work".
Laura Atkins, lecturer at the University of Surrey's Roehampton Institute and another member of the committee behind Diversity Matters, is researching a PhD about non-white authors' experiences. Some writers she has talked to hesitate to submit stories that they think will be rejected as "not white enough", others "don't want to feel boxed in on content - they want to be allowed to experiment".
For publishers, she said: "It's a matter of making it clear that you're open and interested, and it might mean looking at new sources of writers.
The generation we are publishing for is very culturally integrated, yet the success of black and Asian writers for adults is not happening in children's publishing."
Annie Eaton, fiction publisher for Random House Children's Books, which publishes Malorie Blackman and Bali Rai, said, "When we see something good from a non-white writer, we jump at it if it is of the same quality as the rest of our list, or we know we can work successfully with the writer to improve it. Ninety-nine per cent of what we publish comes from agents; I suspect there are new black writers who have not considered writing for children because there are not many role models, and we are going to have to think of ways to find them."
Malorie Blackman's career took off in 1992 when her third book, Hacker, won a W H Smith Mind-Boggling Books Award. She says Diversity Matters reveals "a will to change things. It's a chance to raise the debate in a positive spirit, and I hope it will encourage people from ethnically diverse backgrounds to get into every aspect of publishing, writing the books, making them and selling them. It's very white and middle-class at the moment. It's also important that the publisher cares about the book rather than feeling that they are ticking a multicultural box. That's what I looked for in my early days."
The Free Verse report also notes the large majority of white decision-makers in the book world. This was explored in another BooksellerArts Council survey in 2003, which found that of 500 people who worked in publishing, only 13 per cent were not white, and senior staff were almost exclusively white.
Since then, the Diversity in Publishing Network has been set up, with aims that include:"to promote the status and contribution of people from diverse ethnic groups in all areas of publishing".
* "Diversity Matters: growing markets in children's publishing" will take place on June 24 and 25, at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, Westminster; www.artscouncil.org.ukdiversitymatters tel: 0845 300 6200l Free Verse: publishing opportunities for black and Asian poets will be launched on May 16 with a debate at London's South Bank (www.rfh.org.uk).
To download or order a print copy see www.freeverse.org.uk Spread the Word tel: 020 7735 3111 l www.diversityinpublishing.coml The Quentin Blake Award project on representation of disability in children's books will report soon; see www.booktrust.org.uk for detailsl www.tes.co.ukbookmarks for book recommendations