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I found it difficult to relate to characters in children’s books, there is still a shortage of characters who are not white

One in three children and young people say that they don’t see themselves in what they read, all children should be able to connect to the stories in literature

Nathan Bryon
Sunday 21 March 2021 08:57 GMT
Five per cent of children’s books now Black, Asian or minority ethnic main characters but it’s not enough.
Five per cent of children’s books now Black, Asian or minority ethnic main characters but it’s not enough. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When Dapo Adeola and I came together to create Look Up! one thing was never in doubt – the children in our story were going to look and sound like us.

Rocket is loveable, obsessed with space and she wants everybody to be as excited as she is about a meteor shower. But her big brother Jamal is too busy staring down at his phone to look up at the stars. It is a dilemma we can all relate to in some way. What sets Rocket and Jamal apart from the characters in most children’s books is that they are Black.

Reading was a problem for me when I was growing up. I am dyslexic and I have always needed to read and write at my own pace. But I also found it difficult to connect with the stories we had at school because they didn’t reflect life as I knew it.

I have rediscovered books as an adult, learning in my 20s how to read for enjoyment – and I love it. But all these years later I find there is still a shortage of characters in children’s books who are not white.

One in three children and young people aged 9 to 18 say that they don’t see themselves in what they read, and I understand why. Although things are slowly starting to change – 5 per cent of children’s books now have Black, Asian or minority ethnic main characters, improving on 1 per cent in 2017 – this needs to happen much faster. To put that figure in perspective, 33 per cent of primary school-aged children in England are from a minority ethnic background.

When we do book readings at schools, it’s amazing to watch how the children respond. In one class where we were doing a reading of Look Up! every kid was a Black kid. When we started, they were all sitting down, but as we went page by page, they were all stood up, leaning into us. The energy was wild. They saw themselves in the book.

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If we really want more kids to read, we have to engage with them, giving them stories and characters that inspire them, that make reading exciting. We also have to make it easier for all children to get hold of books.

So many kids don’t have books to read at home and they will be full of enthusiasm after returning to school. But it is also the case that too many schools don’t have money to buy books, with more than half of primary school teachers saying their school does not have a library. Schools may now have even less time or resources to focus on their libraries when their routines have been turned upside down, and with the added pressure of catching up on curriculum learning.

If a child’s parents can’t afford books and there isn’t a library in their school, how can they be expected to enjoy reading?

When my publisher Puffin asked me to become their first Puffin World of Stories ambassador, I was delighted to accept. The programme is a partnership with the National Literacy Trust and works to transform participating schools’ libraries into hubs of imagination and creativity, offering free bespoke training together with hundreds of new books and resources. It has already provided more than 80,000 books to 225 schools in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged areas.

As ambassador, I’ve made it my mission to promote diversity in children’s books, so that many more children can experience the joy of books and all the benefits they bring. A book has the power to can change anyone, so it must be available to everyone – with young people from all backgrounds able to feel excited and inspired by the characters they read about.

My imagination is full of ideas, and I never know where my writing is going to take me. One thing is certain: the characters in my books will be as beautifully diverse as the world around us.

Nathan Bryon won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2020 – he is the first ambassador for Puffin World of Stories

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