Why CLPE's Reflecting Realities project matters

This year, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education we are launching our Reflecting Realities project. This is a ground breaking survey and will be the first UK survey of ethnic representation in children’s literature. The project is funded by the Arts Council and we are aiming to publish the results of the survey in July. We want to make this an annual survey which will provide a meaningful benchmark to help all stakeholders to invest in and improve the extent and quality of representation in our children’s literature. Alongside, and complementary to, our work our colleagues at Book Trust are publishing a research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illustrators of colour in the UK in recent years.  

At CLPE we talk a lot to teachers about choosing books for their classrooms. We talk about how important it is to have a range of quality children’s literature in your classroom. Literature that is multi-layered—capable of being read at different levels, books where language is used in lively, inventive ways and books by skilful and experienced children's writers and illustrators. We also talk about how important it is that the literature in classrooms and schools reflects the realities of the world in which our children live. This is because the power of the books in schools and homes goes far beyond the teaching of reading. What children see, hear and read shapes their sense of self and of others. As my colleague Farrah Serroukh says: “To find a fragment of yourself in the pages of a book is a profound and powerful experience. It holds a mirror up to your existence and reassuringly suggests that you are not alone. Conversely, when the page offers insights that are beyond the reader’s personal experience it expands the membrane that is the bubble of your world and provides the opportunity to reflect on differences as well as the common threads of humanity that connect us”.

We spend a great deal of our year reading, discussing and choosing the books that we put on our lists and courses and that underpin our work with schools. We choose from everything that is currently in print in the UK.  We aren’t tied to particular publishers or artists and we look at the full age range of books published for three to 12-year-olds. So we have thousands and thousands of books to choose from. And yet, it feels to us that our conversations are always the same when we are trying to ensure that we have a range and balance of books that reflect the population of children in our schools and indeed in our world. We struggle to make sure that we have enough books where representation is meaningfully and sensitively portrayed and we find it very hard to have sufficient numbers of books on our lists which feature the range of backgrounds of children in our nation’s schools.

In America, the Co-operative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison has been undertaking a yearly survey of representation for more than 30 years. They report annual figures to show the true representation of minorities in children’s literature. It is an important piece of work that helps to ensure that the issue is kept at the forefront of people’s minds and the conversation continues. We have no such figures in the UK so, whilst we know that we struggle to find representative books at CLPE, we also don’t have any concrete statistics to support our assertions—or any way of tracking improvements. The industry has shown a lot of goodwill in wanting to redress the balance and we want the survey to support this. There is a strong moral, ethical and financial case for wider representation in children’s books. Engaging books make for more engaged readers and so reflecting the realities of your readership and offering a gateway to worlds beyond our own, makes sense for all.  

Full details about the research, the steering group and the publication of our survey are available on our website.

Louise Johns-Shepherd is chief executive of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).