Do your bookshelves need diversity updating?
What happens if children do not see themselves represented in the books they read?
The National Literacy Trust surveyed almost 60,000 children and young people aged 9 to 18 from 315 UK schools and found that a third did not see themselves in the books they read.
If children are asking their teacher “Where am I Miss?” when it comes to seeing themselves in a book then this is going to impact on their engagement with reading and its life-long benefits. Imagine hearing the words: “I don’t exist!”
This is worrying.
Their key findings are as follows:
- 32.7% of children and young people aged 9 to 18 say that they don’t see themselves in what they read, and 39.8% would like more books with characters who are similar to them.
- More children and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds than White backgrounds say that they don’t see themselves in what they read (40% vs. 30.5%). This is particularly true for children and young people from Black ethnic backgrounds.
- More children and young people who receive free school meals compared with those who don’t say that they don’t see themselves in what they read (37.3% vs. 31.9%).
- Twice as many children aged 9 to 11 compared with their peers aged 14+ say that they don’t see themselves in what they read.
- The issue of representation was particularly salient for children and young people who describe their gender not as a boy or girl, with 44.3% of these children and young people saying that they struggle to see themselves in what they read compared with 32.7% of boys and 32.5% of girls.
Clearly if there are characters that reflect a child’s identity or culture within a book then these are going to spark a love for reading.
Books featuring characters that look like them helps children because it provides a mirror to their identity.
In their survey, they cite a study from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE (2020) which found that just 10% of children’s books contained characters from an ethnic minority and only half of these were a main character. This is far from representative of the UK school population of ethnic minority children, which currently represent 33.5% (CLPE, 2020:7).
See also Nic Stone’s sequel to this, Dear Justyce:
The struggle to find characters who look similar or share similar characteristics can impact a child’s engagement with reading.
Just one book a child really connects with can spark a love of reading which can change their life story and help them to succeed in school and in life.
When children see themselves in books then it encourages positive self-perceptions, it contributes to how children see the world around them and establishes an affinity with reading. Despite big leaps in many respects, children’s books that feature culturally diverse characters are still hard to come by.
I’d recommend reading this brilliant article by Jennie McDonald in which she quotes Eric Velasquez, award winning author and illustrator of many children’s books including Grandma’s Records and Grandma’s Gift as saying,
Once children see themselves represented in books, their existence is validated, and they feel that they are part of the world.
So, librarians and teachers, it’s time to check those shelves and recognise the blind spots.