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Children’s books and a creeping obsession with race


These days, if you’re looking out for a book for a young person, the choice has never been bigger or more catholic. If a book takes your fancy you can probably Google a review, or at least a description, of it in under a minute: the book itself is available at the touch of a button on Amazon or Wordery, within 24 hours if you are impatient or have Amazon Prime. And, of course, there are more and more books published every year, not to mention organisations advising you what to buy for almost any purpose, whether you’re scrupulously PC or simply looking for more gory versions of the latest graphic novel. Yet something curious is going on. Last week two reports, eagerly taken up by the Guardian, berated the publishing industry for short-changing the young.

How so? You might have guessed: the problem is the big D. Meaning diversity. A charity called the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), with a grant from the Arts Council, undertook a report and engaged a steering committee of, among others, an associate professor of sociology at Birmingham City (one of whose other luminaries appears here on TCW), a professor of race and teacher education at Roehampton University (sic), a representative of Amnesty International, the editor of a journal dedicated exclusively to non-white writers and illustrators, and a co-director of the overtly PC book distributors Letterbox. Not surprisingly its report concluded that children’s books didn’t have enough non-white (sorry, BAME) characters in lead roles and didn’t reflect the make-up of society: self-importantly it then told us that it was ‘tremendously damaging’ if children did not ‘see their realities reflected in the world around them’, and that to ‘redress imbalances in representation is not an act of charity but an act of necessity that benefits and enriches all of our realities’.

As if this was not enough, an earnest academic at about the same time lamented an ‘inequality of production with serious cultural consequences’ in books for teenagers published in the UK. Disproportionate numbers of books were, she said, written by white women: the number by non-white authors had gone down between 2006 and 2016: these were ‘dire statistics’ and they were the publishers’ fault. The industry needed ‘to engage in more sustainable action, rather than discussions, to help shift the entire publishing culture, which is clearly outdated for, and not reflective of, the communities it serves’. Interviewed in the Guardian, she continued, in the style of Peter Simple’s ‘We are all guilty’ Dr Heinz Kiosk, ‘we have a collective responsibility as publishers, booksellers, literary agents, librarians, educators and readers to redress the imbalance by publishing, selling, teaching, promoting, and reading quality books by and about minorities’.

In other words, these representatives of the world of progressive, planned reading have plans for the book trade as they have for the lives of the rest of us. The book industry in Britain may have made rather a success of the idea that its job is to publish books that appeal to publishers’ tastes and specialities and which publishers think they can find reasonable sales for: but this must change. From now on they need to become the equivalent of parents telling their children to eat up their greens; they are to produce wholesome material that takes care to remind us all how multicultural we are and make sure we have a balanced representation of the racial groups that make up our society.

Some people might have their doubts. For one thing, it seems odd that books, whether for children, teenagers or adults, should be expected to be ‘reflective’ of any community whatever. True, there is a place for gritty realism in literature of the Room at the Top or The Hate U Give type: but it is limited. Many of us read books to be inspired: to take us out of our ordinary, humdrum lives and into another world. If we live in a semi in Solihull, the last thing we want is a book telling us about life in suburban Birmingham.

Nor does it seem that even with children or teenagers who can be resistant to reading, books of this type are necessary. Hunger Games or Game of Thrones, enormously popular with the young, do not seem to reflect any society I’ve ever come across; nor (I hope) the vampire-themed fantasy romance novels in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. And unless I’ve missed something there doesn’t seem much reflection of contemporary reality in Harry Potter. Nor, for that matter, have I ever heard any young person complain that any of these don’t have enough BAME characters, whether in lead roles or anywhere else.

What is more worrying, however, is the obsessive concentration on race. For sixty years and more we have been trying, quite rightly, to to persuade people to put aside hang-ups about race, and to read books for the quality of the writing rather than the skin colour of the author. But now apparently racial representativeness is everything. Why is not clear. There’s no suggestion that BAME authors somehow naturally write differently (indeed, to its credit, the CLPE report described above deprecates the idea that BAME characters should be portrayed as somehow oppressed or essentially different from the rest of us): but if that’s so, why does it matter? Or are we suggesting that the young now choose what to read by the colour of the author? I hope not.

Furthermore, there is another point worth remembering. In the suggestion that BAME writers don’t get enough of the limelight, there is an underlying implication that successful authorship is some social benefit to be distributed equitably and transparently by some coterie of the enlightened. It isn’t: talent comes into it, but as much as that it’s a matter of fashion, serendipity and sheer luck. We might even tell our BAME young this: get out and write, knowing you might strike lucky or you might not. It would do them a great deal more good, one suspects, than patronising them by seeing them as delicate flowers who might feel harmfully excluded if they’re not spoonfed books that someone else determines are relevant to their experience. But try telling that to our priggish, edgy and oh-so-woke literary establishment.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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