Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Children’s literature: for white children only?

Photo courtesy of Leila Rasheed

Photo courtesy of Leila Rasheed

By Leila Rasheed

Leila Rasheed is a children’s author. She also teaches creative writing in a variety of contexts including at the University of Warwick. Independently, she has developed and will soon be launching Megaphone, a new mentoring programme for British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people who wish to write for children; this year-long programme will take place in Birmingham and have 5 places, with funding available to cover 100% of the fees for those in financial need. Primary funding comes from Arts Council England and The Publishers’ Association’s Children’s Book Group, in association with Equality in Publishing (EQUIP). More details to follow soon!


If anyone had asked me, as a child, if I felt excluded from books, I would not have known what they meant. Books were my home. I lived in Narnia (so why did I return, again and again, to Aravis the Calormene and The Horse and His Boy?). I inhabited Middle Earth (so why did I wish for more about dark-haired Arwen, reading the few pages that contained her over and over again as if her story might magically appear between the lines, like the secret writing on Thror’s map?). I loved Roald Dahl, Tove Jansson and Rudyard Kipling (so why did I pounce, wide-eyed with disbelief, on Leila Berg – my name in print!). Why did I feel so angry and disappointed when I read My Mate Shofiq? Why is the last scene in Disney’s Jungle Book film etched into my mind – the moment that a girl in a sari walked onto the screen for all of 60 eye-lash-batting seconds? It was the first time I had ever encountered an Asian girl in a story.

As a child I understood, as children do absorb and understand important facts, without having the words to express them, that I was different – not from the people around me (I went to an international school in Libya and the children in my class were of various backgrounds, including Indian, Polish, Turkish, Ghanaian, Egyptian, Filipino, English, Eritraean) but from the heroes and heroines in my beloved books, who were, almost without exception, English: fair-skinned and light-haired. The only non-white hero I encountered as a child, to the best of my memory, was Mowgli. I therefore understood I could never be Narnian. I would have to be a Calormene – i.e. a baddie, if a savagely noble one – if I wanted any place in this adventure at all. I learned the characteristics of Calormenes and reproduced them as I formed my identity. I understood that I would probably be an Orc, in Middle Earth. At least there was something to be, even if it was negative. Most of all, being mixed-race, I understood that the Bangladeshi bit of me wasn’t as important as the white bit of me – children’s books said so.

Fast forward 30 years, and I write children’s books. I also understand, as an adult, that stories tell you what and who you are. What books were mostly telling me, when I was a child, was that I did not matter, did not even exist. This teacher’s thought-provoking blog post illustrates the problem.

Note the date on the blog post: 2013. In 2015, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children still do not see themselves reflected sufficiently, or with variety, in British children’s literature. From my own experience – looking now on behalf of my own child – finding picture books with non-white characters in them in libraries and high street book stores is difficult. Those you do find will probably be published by the admirable, lonely Tamarind Press.

Others may be part of reading schemes like Biff and Chip, which, being for use in an educational setting, are usually more attuned to the importance of providing a range of characters. They may also be ‘traditional tales’ from foreign countries, about Indian or African children, or stories imported from the USA. What are rarely seen are picture books that feature British BAME children. If an alien bleebled down to Waterstone’s Birmingham New Street (for example) and inspected the picture book shelves there for clues about British Society, it might bleeble back home again thinking that no Black, Asian, minority ethnic children laugh, play, go to school, dream, think, feel, have adventures or otherwise exist in Britain today. When we know how much of children’s mental development takes place before age 3, this seems like more than a shame; it seems like a crime.

It has been said that books can be mirrors, to allow you to see yourself, or windows, to allow you to see others. If you are a non-white child, your reading life is passed looking into mirrors and seeing no reflection that you recognise. In this mirror world something has sucked the blood from you, leaving you without dimension and depth. You appear rarely and when you do, you appear as a problem, as a foreigner, as a victim, as a shadow or a token or a side-kick. As an example, in 2004, while I was working as a bookseller, a very successful children’s book was published, which featured a couple of white, American children discovering they were djinns, going to Egypt and vanquishing evil. Nicholas Tucker reviews it perfectly here. What shocked me most was that the author nicknames the Egyptian boy Baksheesh. My sharp intake of breath when I read that name was not metaphorical –it was a physical reaction, because to read something which chops so neatly at the trunk of your self-worth is like being kicked in the stomach. ‘People like you beg for pennies from people like us,’ read the sub-text, ‘and we think it’s funny and joke with our children about it.’

Ten years later, I was reminded of this when Jacqueline Woodson referred to something much more shocking – a racist joke made at her expense as she was being awarded the National Book Award for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Her response is here.

The joke was made, she says, ‘lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from’.  Insults like Kerr’s, jokes like Handler’s, serve to remind BAME children, lest they forget, that people like you don’t belong in children’s books.

Daniel Handler’s career has not perceptibly suffered; his Series of Unfortunate Events is still apparently regarded as a lovable classic of children’s literature. His apology for his ‘mistake’ and his donation to We Need Diverse Books apparently are enough to silence any further questions that might be asked about his attitude to his readers of colour. Let us not forget, either, that an entire publishing team – editorial, sales, marketing – were involved in bringing Baksheesh to the 3 for 2 tables of Waterstone’s, in 2004 – not 1904.  The problem is not limited to individuals.

Jacqueline Woodson is an exception in the sense that BAME children, excluded from children’s literature, casually insulted by those who purport to produce stories to enchant children (but don’t really consider a child of colour a real child, a human of colour a real human), rarely grow up to hold the pen that writes their story. BAME writers are under-represented as authors of British children’s literature. The reasons for this are many and complex but I would suggest the following are probably to be some of them, based on my own experience, observations and on conversations with other BAME writers.

When British BAME children open books, they are likely to find themselves invisible or stereotyped. It would be unsurprising if many of them close books again as a result. Instead of finding a wider world than the one they live in, they find a narrower one, which excludes them or allows them to stay only on the condition that they don’t step out of line. British BAME children thus face more barriers to reading for pleasure than white children do. They are disadvantaged in the process of becoming keen readers and therefore writers.

Equally, British BAME children do not see themselves as writers or illustrators.

There is less reading of fiction for pleasure, traditionally, in some ethnic minority cultures, and sometimes (by no means always), second generation British ethnic minority children’s parents are not confident readers in English, so books are not a familiar part of home life.

The ‘white wall’ that faces people from ethnic minorities who want to work in publishing, join writing organisations or take a course in creative writing such as an MA (in all of which areas British BAME people are under-represented) is extremely forbidding. This is also the case for someone like me who is, culturally, extremely British.

The pressure of being the only non-white person in networking groups, in offices, at industry social events, in the process of bringing their own book to market (and the editorial changes that are a part of that), is extremely stressful and can contribute to people dropping out. (This can be especially so in the climate of children’s publishing which encourages everyone to be ‘lovely’ all the time and implicitly discourages writers from being ‘difficult’ – which in practice includes voicing uncomfortable truths or valid criticisms of the systems and structures, including their real opinions on race and racism in children’s literature – for fear they may lose out on contracts. Justified or not, those fears are there, and affect behaviour).

The simple confidence that one has the right to write both one’s own story and those of others, is arguably one of the items carried in the ‘invisible knapsack’ described by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. Items 5, 6 and 7 are particularly relevant in my opinion. BAME children do not grow up feeling they have the right to write.

The humiliation of being the ‘token’ black or Asian writer on a publisher’s list – implicitly expected to produce stories that focus on or feature children ‘like you’, to identify with and ‘reach’ readers with whom you may have nothing in common except the country of origin of your parents (if that), while your white contemporaries are assumed able to write about any subject for any audience – can be extremely stressful and can contribute to writers dropping out

The exhaustion, depression and disillusionment caused by seeing no significant move towards real diversity, over decades, can be extremely stressful and can cause people to drop out, and discourage those who might have considered them role models.

These factors operate on ethnic minority writers, in addition to the obvious financial, psychological, etc. pressures on all writers regardless of their ethnicity.

If we are going to have a children’s literature that genuinely challenges rather than supports racism, we need to support BAME writers and listen to their stories. This is why I have applied to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts programme, and to the Publishers’ Association and Equality in Publishing (EQUIP), to fund a year-long mentoring programme for BAME children’s authors.  I am thrilled to say that both have agreed to fund – more news as soon as possible! In the meantime, you may like to try some of these books by contemporary BAME children’s authors:

Catherine Johnson: The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

Sarwat Chadda: The Ash Mistry Series

Candy Gourlay: Shine

Alex Wheatle: Liccle Bit

And some further reading you may find interesting:

A widely-read article by American author of color, Walter Dean Myers, on the lack of people of colour in American children’s literature.

A recently published report by Spread the Word looks at the lack of BAME presence in British literature overall.

An excellent speech by Verna Wilkins, founder of Tamarind Books, is here.

For more about Leila’s work, visit her website. To keep updated on Megaphone, please follow @MegaphoneWrite on Twitter.

21 comments on “Children’s literature: for white children only?

  1. Kate
    September 28, 2015

    Good, strong call for action: thank you Leila!

  2. Leila from megaphone
    September 28, 2015

    Thanks for reading, Kate🙂

  3. Penny Alexander
    September 28, 2015

    Thank you for this most interesting post

  4. g.r.del
    September 28, 2015

    Great, honest article Leila. I identify with so much you have said as a British Asian who was raised, really, between the pages of children’s books. Makes me wonder what my own mixed-race kids experience- both huge readers and though I actively seek out diverse books for them, I see from their own writing/storytelling the default position is generally white/English in terms of characters’ names and appearance. Your programme sounds brilliant.

  5. Leila from megaphone
    September 28, 2015

    Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate them. g.r.del, although I hate the fact that your children are experiencing this, it’s so good to hear other people’s experiences and know I’m not the only one!

  6. Danielle Klein
    September 28, 2015

    Wow! I actually never thought of this, and so you can assume (and you would be correct) that I’m a ‘white’ female (I prefer ‘of Northern European Descent American’, but that is never one of the options on a survey). I enjoyed your article. I was thinking back to my childhood- I remember having several “Little House on the Prairie” books (white protagonist) but since both my parents are science/math geeks, I had a vast library of technical, science, math, engineering, medical, etc… books (my favorite was the Grey’s Anatomy with the clear pages that when laid on top of each other created a complete human, as well as “Medical Parasitology 2nd Edition”-No joke). I can’t remember all the titles that I read, or was read to, as a child, but I do remember some of my favorites were those having animals as the main characters. As my son went through preschool-middle school (in Arizona), I believe his teachers were more aware of this issue and the books/stories were more diverse. I hope this trend will continue and I thank you for the suggested reading list.

  7. Danielle Klein
    September 28, 2015

    P.S. As strange as this might sound, I don’t get the ‘watermelon’ racial/stereotype ‘joke’ (slur). What’s the deal with eating watermelon? Watermelon is delicious, cool, and refreshing, especially when the temperature gets above 100 deg F. I actually don’t understand a lot of stupid things people say that are apparently supposed to be racial. I’ve never considered myself racially ignorant, but perhaps I am. I have discovered interesting comments, various view points, and have ‘learned’ the meaning of ‘jokes’/slurs, etc.. simply by attending a museum exhibit and listening to what others feel a piece of art says to them. I have also gotten a lot more out of the meaning of an art piece when there is someone around who knows the history/ background/ time period/ racial symbols an artist has put into a painting because that person (the viewer(s) I am standing next to) grew up during a different time period and place in the U.S. Is this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? I don’t know. But I am becoming more educated in the ways groups of peoples/ cultures slyly slip racial context into what seems like an normal everyday common conversation or event.

  8. moohara
    September 29, 2015

    Really powerful and informative. There is so much talk about Diversity now but not as much action as one would expect. My own picture book, My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish- The Fintastic Fishsitter’ has a young British Asian girl as the protagonist. It’s not an ‘issue’ Picture Book. It’s a fun, wacky story of a girl trying to pet sit two very strange pets. The girl just happens to be British Asian.
    Thanks for your article.

  9. Leila from megaphone
    September 29, 2015

    Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them. (Love the sound of the zombie goldfish!😀 )
    Can I just add that Megaphone now has a twitter account: @MegaphoneWrite, which is live now and where I’ll post as soon as the website goes live and applications are invited, which will be in 1-2 weeks time. so if you or anyone you know might be interested in applying, please follow for updates🙂

  10. Leila from megaphone
    September 29, 2015

    Danielle, I had never heard of the watermelon thing till I saw the JW story either – because I’m British, I guess, different history – but the important thing I felt was that it meant a lot to her, and to the audience who felt strongly enough about it to make it a news story and clearly to Handler for him to make the joke.

  11. Leila from megaphone
    September 29, 2015

    Just to add – I don’t mean to sound like I’m criticising My Mate Shofiq, either – it was an important book. It’s just that i was looking to be ‘normal’ and have a positive, fun story, if you see what I mean.

  12. Pingback: Announcing Megaphone | Leila Rasheed

  13. debbiereese
    September 30, 2015

    Words matter so much.

    Writers care about those words but, too often, don’t know that some of the words they use are heard very differently by someone who is “other” to them.

    Your example is perfect (“Baksheesh”).

    It reminds me of what we, Native peoples in the U.S., deal with in conversations/debates about mascots, and bias/stereotyping in children’s/YA lit. Generally speaking, images of us are created from spaces of ignorance.

    Perhaps social media–and posts like yours–will move us all to a better place.

  14. Karen King
    September 30, 2015

    A powerful and thought-provoking post, Leila. I was one of the early writers for Tamarind and my reason for doing this was because I feel that children of all races, colours, creeds and disabilities should be able to read stories they can identify with. I might be a ‘white female’ but have a very multi-cultural family and grew up in Small Heath (a diverse area even way back then) so this is a cause close to my heart. Good luck with your new venture. I’m sure it will be a big success.

  15. Leila from Megaphone
    October 1, 2015

    Many thanks, Karen and Debbie.

  16. Zoe
    October 3, 2015

    Leila, you might find interesting – they are a new publishing company aiming at “championing cultural diversity in children’s books”.

  17. Leila from Megaphone
    October 3, 2015

    Thanks for that! Will look.

  18. Pingback: Hello! | megaphone

  19. Mary Smith
    October 3, 2015

    It’s taken me a while to read this post because of reading all the links you gave, which were all fascinating, especially the very thought-provoking one by the teacher, Darren Chetty.
    On the subject of stereotyping – some years ago now I was invited to a book launch of a children’s book about children in Pakistan. The author had spent two weeks there, hosted by a family, and told me it was very difficult to persuade the family’s children to don traditional Pakistani clothes for the photos because they all wore western jeans and tee shirts. I suggested that perhaps it would have been good to show the children as they normally dress but the book had to show them wearing shalwar kameez. This has puzzled me for years! I never understood why the publisher couldn’t show the children as they usually dress with maybe a pic of the traditional clothes as worn to weddings and special occasions. Why pretend?

    I recently read a blog post by a YA author explaining that she writes about white middle class teenagers because she is a white middle class parent.

    I wish you the best of luck with your project and look forward to reading more about it as it develops. I’m now going to check out your recommended reading.

  20. Leila from Megaphone
    October 13, 2015

    Thanks Mary – and that is fascinating about the book set in Pakistan. It just contributes to creating a sense of ‘otherness’ and a fiction about life in other countries. We have to move on from this as a society.

  21. The Melanin Lady
    October 26, 2015

    Interesting piece. And thanks for the reading list. I guess the closer in likeness to us an image appears, the more strongly we are likely to identify with it. Our heroes and heroines are people we feel we have something in common with; whether intellectual, social, physical, spiritual etc. And if we can connect to a character on more than one of these realms, the stronger our connection to that character would feel.

    I find that my 3 year old son already identifies strongly with stories illustrating ‘boy’ characters and seems to be fascinated more by dark hair, brown skin boy characters. He readily points at the characters and says..”mummy is that me”?

    Just like my 3 year old, when exposed to images or characters, I ask the same question, just not in those words.

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2015 by in Articles, Fiction: children's and tagged , , , , , , , .



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