Publishers must be ethical leaders… now!

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The education sector is predominantly made up of white people. White teachers and senior leaders, in fact only 3% of headteachers in the country are black. The lack of diversity in education however spreads much further than the school walls: the majority of those working for exam boards, publishers, illustrators, even DfE Ministers and management are white. In addition to the work that needs to be done to bring more diverse people into these groups, , there are many organisations within education who can and should at least be ethical leaders in what they produce.

At a recent school visit I spoke to one of the few black headteachers we have. She highlighted the benefit of her black pupils seeing her as a role model and reflected on other schools with diverse pupil cohorts but less diverse staff. How can they successfully bring diversity into their classrooms? How can they create diverse role models and share diverse experiences and opinions? The answer we both agreed on… books! But are publishers doing enough? Are they providing a selection of diverse books, fiction and non-fiction, across all phases and stages of education? Are they reflecting real life in their illustrations and showcasing writers from all walks of life?

On too many occasions the answer is no. To be fair to many publishing houses, most are commissioning new books by authors of colour. However they are often being lost as they are submerged into existing portfolios that don’t have the same level of diversity. Although many have made big leaps, their job as ethical leaders is far from done.

So, what can publishers do to lead the way?

Below are my top suggestions along with practical recommendations for the industry.

Increased realism

Teachers have told us they would like to see grittier stories, even for young readers, reflecting the sometimes harsh realities of life today. Do children whose parents are experiencing severe financial difficulties want to read stories about days out at the zoo that their parents can’t afford or do they want to read stories that gently reflect their everyday reality? I would argue that there is a place in children’s literature for both – for escapism but also for that reflection of your reality which if handled sensitively can make it seem less frightening.

Practical recommendations for publishers:

  • Recognise there is space for abundant types of narrative and realities
  • Expand your output to encompass stories that show life as it can be for children at every level of advantage
  • Think of books as valuable mirrors that show children their lives are worth being shared, as well as enticing doors to other worlds that are different to theirs


Neurodiversity is another area publishers need to reflect more widely. Last year Pearson ran a competition called My Twist on a Tale in which we invited children to write and submit their own short stories. The theme was diversity and I read a handful of entries. More than half of the ones that I read featured an autistic protagonist trying to navigate the uncertainties of everyday life. Through the competition, children were telling us that the way their mind works wasn’t reflected in the characters they read. How scary it must be as a child trying to understand how your mind works when that might be different from the rest of your family or friends, but how comforting it would be to read a book that you can relate to and feel less alone.

Practical recommendations for publishers:

  • Make yourself available to hear what children are really saying, and directly asking for 
  • Ask yourself whether the stories you publish present more than one way of thinking, or if you are assuming a uniform kind of ‘normality’
  • Remember that diversity not only relates to how people look on the outside, but how they experience and process their environment internally

Diverse authors

For me, probably the most impactful development has been using diverse authors to write about topics they truly understand. In the past, when we, as in Pearson, have asked authors with no experience of another culture to write about it, it has felt inauthentic. In recent years, we have started to change the way we work and would call on other publishers to do the same. We must have diverse authors writing about their own experiences, childhoods, passions, feelings and opinions. That is when we will capture all children’s imaginations and make sure that everyone feels seen.

Practical recommendations for publishers:

  • Look at who is being invited to write and share stories through your organisation. Is there a pattern, or commonalities in backgrounds?
  • Ask: Who is currently missing from the table?
  • Cast the net widely: agents may be able to source diverse authors for you or look for articles or social media posts by people with the experiences you are looking to portray.


When it comes to illustrators, the approach is similar to that with authors. A book which tries to represent a particular culture or landscape is always best illustrated by someone from that culture or someone who is familiar with that landscape and if you don’t follow that rule, inauthenticity can quickly seep in. Similarly, someone who is a wheelchair user themselves can draw a character in a wheelchair much more faithfully and we owe it to the people we are looking to represent to give them that faithful depiction.

Practical recommendations for publishers:

  • Seek out illustrators who are embedded in the culture and landscapes your stories are portraying
  • Create a space for artwork that speaks to real authenticity
  • Ask: What are you doing to help the next generation of diverse illustrators see a place for themselves in children’s literature?

I don’t want to put Pearson on a pedestal because we are very much still on our own journey in this space, but our publishing project with Bug Club, last year especially, had diversity very much at its heart. Our authors ranged from the mother of an adopted daughter to the father of a daughter in a wheelchair, a man of Jamaican origin and a woman brought up in the UK to Sri Lankan parents. They wrote some amazing diverse stories from a girl in a wheelchair travelling through time to discover inspirational figures like her, to a story about a child losing their favourite cuddly toy who just happens to have same-sex parents. We also partnered with Disney and chose from their franchises to further that diversity – from Moana and the Princess and the Frog to Encanto and Lilo and Stitch.

I am very proud of the work we have done but like ethical leaders in all walks of life, we need to continue to challenge ourselves. Only being humble, self-reflective and constantly asking ourselves what more we can do, can we keep up with an ever-changing world.

So to come back to that phrase “ethical leader” – is it really a question of ethics? In my view, it very much is. The part we play in shaping how children from minorities view themselves and what they think is possible for themselves cannot be underestimated. Plus, we contribute to how children from majority groups view their minority peers and, therefore potentially access a more empathetic future. This is an ethical responsibility but also a privilege.


Penny Sharott is Head of Primary Literacy, Extended Curriculum and Professional Development at Pearson Education.

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