I am however getting tired of the stats, the surveys and rhetoric and whilst this research is so so important (no one is saying otherwise), to quantify, prove and show evidence, the series of graphs, pie charts and percentages often gets lost around boardroom tables and on conference panels.
I feel very strongly, that what is often missing behind this constant quest for more data, data, DATA is the holistic picture of this so called “publishing and education landscape” that we often hear so much about.
What is the impact of this landscape having on our young people, the books they have access to, the industry as a whole and the wider community who works within it?
What is this holistic picture and what is this landscape?
“I love your books and we need them in my school, but if I speak up, I will be seen as a troublemaker and be targeted, so I say nothing” These were the words of a teacher buying books from our stall in 2019.
Within this ecosystem and landscape - the opportunities are vast and the question is how to capture information we need, without running the risk of becoming obsessed with data and fetishising statistics and hiding behind them. The human stories and feelings are so much harder to quantify and easy to overlook and therefore rarely captured at all - but so vital! Who are the teachers who still feel they can’t speak up? Who are the people in education and publishing that still feel silenced - their opinions and thoughts matter too!
The human stories behind the erasure, that aren’t always reflected in a piece of research - the whys, the whos, the how did this happen and most importantly the how did it make us all feel, is where we need to keep placing the emphasis going forwards. From the editors, illustrators and publicists, to the distributors, shop merchandisers and teachers - what are their thoughts and what are the thoughts from the Black and Brown people from marginalised groups who sit within these professions?
Even when it comes to the research, the very people and situations under “analysis” are often left out of the research teams all together! But these voices are important, we are authentic and we are needed. Together we know it’s not just about putting more Black and Brown characters in books - it’s about so much more than that.
So, how do we capture these stories from this landscape? These stories of erasure and the impact it's having on not just those working in the industry but on our Black and Brown young people in education too?
How do children feel when they’re not seeing themselves represented in the texts they are being presented with in the classroom? How do teachers, particularly those educators from so called “marginalised” groups, feel knowing the texts they themselves are handing to children, do not always contain content that speaks to them?
How does it feel to a child that can fluently speak an African or Asian language at home, but is denied the opportunity to study it at GCSE level - only to be told that French, Spanish or another “mainstream” European will be offered instead?
So how do we capture these stories?
The problems are vast, the solutions are complex and whilst we do need the research and the surveys, there is no quick and easy solution. We certainly do need the stats and data to tell the nay-sayers that books representing our communities are few and far between in our shops, classrooms and libraries, but how do we do it in a way that does not dehumanise the child or the Black employee working in a publishing office?
What can we do to move away from just Quantitative based research to Qualitative research? In 2017 a statistic revealed that less than 1% of UK children’s books published in 2017 included a Black or Brown character as the main protagonist. In response to this, many targets were set and boxes were created to be ticked.
Educators were instructed to buy in more “diverse books” and inclusive reading corners were put together, sometimes hurriedly. Publishers were encouraged to find more Black and Brown authors and illustrators.
Writers were asked to include more “diverse” characters in the books they were creating and illustrators to depict more inclusively.
Really positive steps were taken, but how much of it in some quarters was knee-jerk, poorly thought through and a panicked response and how did anyone capture how any of those excluded and marginalised groups felt or how we continue to feel? In response to this work carried out in 2017, it feels that the focus has been on more and more targets, but I believe we need to talk! I believe that we should be inviting more Black and Brown people to have a say on what they want to see at Senior level in publishing, in bookselling and in education - right across the landscape, so it becomes more holistic and qualitative and equal. This work must be remunerated.
Talking, sharing and listening in shared and safe Black and Brown led spaces is therapeutic and it can open conversations that surveys and quantitative research often can’t.
Remember - this method too has its sensitivities, as this work can itself also be marginalising, triggering and exploitative. However when carried out with respect and with the right tone and with assumptions not being made that all Black and Brown people want to engage, on this subject of race and representation - talking and conversations can lead to positive results.
It’s good to talk
What I do know is this - I do not want my stories or the voices from the range of beautiful and diverse communities we are blessed to have amongst us, to feel like “extra work” to anyone in any educational setting anywhere. I don’t want to be made to feel someone’s chore or some kind of obligatory demonstration or box tick exercise during Black History Month for example.
My Stories and those of my counterparts and colleagues are not “too niche”. “Diverse” is not different and our voices bring a deep richness to a palette to be embraced, explored and celebrated. It’s a blessing to be able to hear, see, feel and taste the richness of someone’s identity - who they are and what they represent, is a gift to the world.
If you are not already doing so, talk to your colleagues and the children in your classroom and libraries and listen - really listen to who they are!
Maya Angelou: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength”
Samantha Williams, founder of Book Love, a travelling multicultural book carnival that travels around the country with a vast array of multicultural, anti-racist, bilingual, and inclusive books for adults and children. started the organisation after 15 years of working in the media, frustrated by the lack of diversity and cultural representation in TV and in books.
Passionate about representing a range of cultures, with an emphasis on marginalised Black and Brown voices in adult and children’s literature, Samantha believes there is a massive under-representation, not just within the curriculum, but across all media, especially within books, and BookLove is on a mission to change that. BookLove seeks to highlight and amplify marginalised voices, characters, stories, and histories in the books on the shelves of our homes, schools, libraries, and bookshops. She believe that broader and more accurate representation in books helps to empower and educate everyone within our beautifully diverse communities.