Monday, 7 January 2019

Learning from Reflecting Realities and Reading the 1% by Chitra Soundar

Based on the children's books published in 2017, CLPE researched and analysed the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s publishing. Their findings are available here

Here in this blog post I wanted to highlight the findings for picture books.

According to their first ever analysis in 2018, only 6% of picture books published in 2017 featured a child from an ethnic minority. As an aunt of mixed-race nephews I was also deeply concerned to find that only 0.2% of all books published in 2017 featured mixed-race children in the narrative.

I looked at this report as a writer and wanted to explore how as writers we could contribute to the growth of this percentage. UK is a multi-cultural society, not now, but from Roman times. Check out this article and furore over Mary Beard suggesting it was.

But whether they were fairy tales or the stories that Victorian Britain published even as an empire was hardly inclusive. But in 2018, if we are still discussing the lack of representation and not just by race, but also by ability, gender, sexual orientation, diverse types of families, then as a writer I think we do play a part in changing this.

Reading through the recommendations of the CLPE Reflecting Realities report (that sentence is weirdly alliterative), here are some of my key lessons for me as a writer, which not only applies to writing inclusively but also generally good writing.

a)                    Avoid the shorthand; Include the Specific: When portraying a child from a minority group, the details we use should be specific and authentic and should not degrade to a stereotypical two-dimensional shorthand. Isn’t that true of all stories and all children? The key to make something more universal is not making it two-dimensional, but highlighting the specific that is so authentic that the underlying truth shines through.
b)                   Well-rounded representation of characters from ethnic backgrounds – research plays a huge part in this. Understanding a culture from the inside is no mean feat – there are subtle clues, vivid details and yet so many places where mistakes can be made. But isn’t that true for all character portrayals? Perhaps it feels easier when we write about things we know intimately. But when we write about something slightly distant from us, whether it is about another race or culture or even a person with a differing ability, should we go beyond the surface?
c)                    Children love having fun. Isn’t that true? So why do children from a different race or ethnic group or even from families that are different from us just talk about their problems and issues? Should my nephews worry all the time about why their mum’s family eats different food to their dad’s side? Or should they just have fun, try different foods and do things their own way? While it’s great to showcase another culture or ethnic group, it’s important not just to portray the difference or their struggles lest the children should grow up thinking fun is for not for them.
d)                   Children identify with characters in stories. Isn’t that why we have so many character led series that are such big hits? By extending that to children from a different race, why shouldn’t they see children they can identify with, as a series lead or as the main character of a picture book? Why do they have to be sidekicks always?
e)                   First do no harm - And finally, while representing all races in important in stories, it’s also the responsibility of creators not to include characters just for the sake of it. A bad representation is worse than no representation. If a nuanced portrayal of a child from another culture or background than you is not possible either due to time or other constraints then as a writer I have to consider if I’m correct in including it anyway.

I’m from India and I often write stories set in India or Indian families. But even when I write about India, I do a lot of research to understand the region or family I’m writing about. Even though my stories would fit into the 1% that’s recorded in the survey, I still think there is a lot to think about when I choose topics to write or characters to portray. My goal is to write stories set in a mixed-race family and write about children just like my nephews, having fun, celebrating birthdays, making friends, going on vacation etc. And this report was helpful in identifying the areas I needed to focus.

CLPE are now re-launching their survey for books published in 2018. As an author or illustrator, if you think your book would qualify, read here and request your publisher to submit your book to the research.

Want to read inclusive books and don’t know where to buy them? Check out Letterbox Library.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and internationally published author of children’s books, based in London, England. Chitra writes picture books, poetry and fiction for children and often visits schools, festivals and libraries to tell her stories. Find out more at Chitra also teaches a course in writing picture books. Find out more here. Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.

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