Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman has said there are not enough characters from ethnic minorities in children’s picture books.
Her views have been backed up by other children’s authors, with illustrator Quentin Blake saying she was “probably right”, while Anthony Horowitz said Blackman was right to raise the issue but that he was not sure he could help, as he would not be creating characters from his own experience.
Blackman, who organised the UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention held at the weekend, told Reuters news agency that “very, very few picture books are published in this country that feature children of colour”.
“We might have dogs, cats, rabbits, puppies, but when it comes to children, very few [featuring different ethnicities] are published,” she continued.
Blackman also said there are not enough ethnic minority authors in Britain. “I can reel off 10 or 15 black and minority ethnic authors in the UK, but I should be able to reel off a hell of a lot more,” she said.
The author said when she first started writing she was told white children would not want to read books featuring black characters, and that a focus on the bottom line by publishers meant it was still difficult for authors from different ethnic backgrounds to become established.
"When I first started 24 years ago, there was more leeway to go with the potential of the author, where they [publishers] could stick with an author for a two or three book contract," she said. "Now your [first] book has to hit the ground running and prove itself, so you have less chance to establish yourself."
Talking about his own illustrations in the Independent, Blake said: "If I have a group of children I generally do some kind of mix. I became aware of that over time – one sort of learns things as you go along. It rather depends on what the story is. The book that you illustrate very often has an assortment of characters, but perhaps not the lead.
"Two or three years ago I did David Walliams's first book, The Boy in the Dress (HarperCollins Children’s Books), which was about an ordinary lower-middle-class white boy. I asked to do eight extra pages of drawings of the other children in the school, who were not characters in the book … there's a fair mixture there, I think."
Blake said it was up to authors to create ethnic minority characters.
"We need people to write those books," he said. "It's not really for me to make rules for writers and illustrators, but I think they will become aware of that. It has to spring naturally out of things. Maybe Malorie talking about it may make people a bit more aware, but you've got to write it properly; you can't do it on a quota system or something like that."
Horowitz, who called Blackman a “brilliant champion for young adult fiction and for black readers and black writers”, said: "Can writers like me help? I'm not sure. If I try to write a character from an ethnic background I will not be writing from my own experience and I may lay myself open to all sorts of accusations – tokenism, for example. Am I being patronising? And is it my job to tell a story or to help shape society?
"We simply need to create more Malories – and I'm optimistic. Look at Steve McQueen, Idris Elba, Lennie James, Ben Okri, Ozwald Boateng and many others. In every area of culture and the media, there are black people making their mark."