At Tiny Owl
, diversity isn’t just a buzzword or a passing trend: it’s in our DNA. The company was started because our co-founder and publisher Delaram Ghanimifard, who is originally from Iran, couldn’t find books that reflected her sons’ heritage. Now we’ve launched a campaign called Diversity Now!
to fight for greater visibility for diverse children’s books. Organisations like IBBY, BookTrust, Inclusive Minds and Letterbox Library are working tirelessly to promote this issue in different ways, and now we’re bringing our own experiences and ideas to the fight.
We started our campaign partly in response to the Reflecting Realities
report published in 2018 by CLPE. This investigated the representation of BAME characters in children’s books, with some truly damning results. While 32% of schoolchildren in the UK are from BAME backgrounds, only 4% of the children’s books surveyed had any BAME characters. Of these, only 1% had a BAME main character.
This is a problem with deep roots. When children from BAME backgrounds aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the books they read, they feel marginalised. When they don’t see authors or illustrators with names like theirs, they start to think publishing isn’t ‘for’ them. This then leads to a lack of BAME authors and illustrators years down the line, and so the status quo is perpetuated.
We know that teachers and librarians do care about inclusion, but they often struggle to find and buy diverse books when their budgets are constantly being slashed. And when diverse books are published they face the problem of visibility—and that is what this campaign hopes to address. We’ve seen countless parents complain on social media that it is impossible to find books with characters that look like their child. Those books are out there, but if they don’t appear in chain bookshops like Waterstones, parents simply can’t get hold of them.
Larger publishers are leaving the important work of promoting diversity to the independents. Independent publishers like Lantana, Alanna Max and Knights Of also do a lot of great work publishing wonderful diverse books. But if we want to really make a difference, smaller publishers need more support.
There’s also the issue of the media. With some notable exceptions like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, BAME inclusive books aren’t given much coverage in reviews or roundups of children’s books. The breakout successes also tend to be American, and don’t reflect the reality of British BAME people. When they do get exposure, it’s often in the form of a specific report on the best diverse books. This is great for those who are already seeking these titles, but we also want to see them included in the general review section so that those who aren’t will also see them.
A book with a black girl or an Asian boy on the cover can be a mainstream success, but not if the media and bookshops continue to regard it as a niche interest. Tiny Owl’s tagline is ‘Picture books for everyone’. We believe that books with BAME main characters are for all, and not just people from those backgrounds. It’s also important to note that this isn’t just about BAME representation. We need to be fighting just as hard for inclusion of disabled and LGBT characters.
The first step is raising awareness of the issue, but it can’t just stop there. We need concrete ways to create change. We’re interviewing authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers and more to get their perspectives on the situation. We want to gather a variety of thoughts about how we can work to make inclusive books more visible and accessible. So far we’ve had some fantastic responses from Elizabeth Laird, Beverley Naidoo, Savita Kalhan, Jackie Morris, Catherine Johnson, Ken Wilson-Max and many more.
These responses will be collated into a report outlining our recommendations for next steps. We hope that the practical suggestions contained in the report will spur the book trade into action and help to make a real difference. In a sense, this campaign is destined to never end, as there is always more work to be done.
You can follow the campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #DiversityNow.
Phyllida Jacobs is intern publisher's assistant at Tiny Owl. Visit Tiny Owl's website here
Diversity Now! illustration: Polly Noakes