Industry insiders have reacted angrily to analysis from the Guardian that shows that only five out of the top 100 bestselling picture books of last year featured a person of colour in the central role, and male characters were more prominent than female.
The newspaper analysed the top 100 illustrated children’s books of 2018 using data from Nielsen BookScan and found that the bestsellers featured very few BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) characters. Out of the five that did feature a person of colour in a central role, three of those are just one character from the same series: Lanky Len from Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks’ What the Ladybird Heard (Macmillan Children’s Books).
The newspaper also found that a quarter of the books in the list portrayed only white people and 70% of the books that did have characters of colour featured them in non-speaking roles. Older texts still dominate the bestseller list because more than a fifth of the books were first published in the 20th century.
In terms of gender, male characters outnumbered female in more than half the books and one in five of the bestsellers did not feature any girls or women at all. Only 79 female characters spoke, compared with 149 male characters, and only 11 characters of colour had speaking parts.
The analysis did not take into account 66% of the picture book market, by only focusing on the top 100 books.
Many industry observers reacted angrily to the research on social media and author and librarian Dawn Finch said: “I’m placing a big chunk of the blame for this firmly at the feet of those who oversee the marketing and publicity budgets at mainstream publishers. Editors and others work damn hard with great authors only to find the focus is still on clawing back supermassive celeb advances.”
Author Chitra Soundar placed some of the blame on bookshops, saying: “Bookshops discriminate against small publishers who are publishing diverse books by not stocking them and creating campaigns around them. The battle is already lost even an average high street bookstore doesn’t have a huge section of wonderful books.”
She added: “Until we make systemic change and not shut down libraries and school library services we're going to be stuck here. My brother-in-law in spite of my constant offering of diverse books, reads the whole series of Dahl and Blyton to my nephews. My sister says he's reliving his childhood.”
Agent Jodie Hodges tweeted: “The frustration is that there are books being published starring BAME and female characters (more to be done, though, no doubt) but unless they get into the supermarkets they’re not going to reach enough people. The supermarkets are the missing link.”