Melati Lum at a book launch of Ayesha Dean in Adelaide. Image Credit: Supplied

As a child, Don Tate wasn’t a reader. When he did read, he especially enjoyed illustrated encyclopedias. Encyclopedias took him on adventures all over the world, where he learnt about all kinds of people — real people.

“Brown people, too, who were mostly absent from other books in my home,” says Tate, an award-winning American author, and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children.

“To this day, I still remember the image of a smiling African woman on the cover of one of our ‘Funk & Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias’. There were 20 encyclopedias in the set, but it’s that one cover — that one image of a black face that sticks with me 40 years later. I saw my family, my history, through that image. I saw myself.”

Finding himself on the cover of that encyclopaedia — and characters he could relate to — made him who he is today. His first book as an author, “It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw”, was an award-winning biography of folk artist Bill Traylor, a former slave. His 2015 picture book, “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton”, told the story of the 19th-century slave in North Carolina who became the first African American to be published in the South, protesting slavery in the form of verse.

Tate’s experience as a young reader highlights a reality that many in the book publishing industry have lamented for years — the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The 2012 Census data in the US shows that 37 per cent of the population consists of people of colour, but America’s children’s publishing industry does not reflect this diversity.

A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reveals that the total number of children’s books with multicultural content has been static at about 10 per cent since 1994.

Organisations such as We Need Diverse Books, which Tate is a part of, are working to raise awareness and encourage diversity both in books and in the publishing world. We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organisation in the US which was formed to address the lack of diverse, nonmajority narratives in children’s literature. It advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people, not just a privileged few.

Across several countries, a growing band of writers, illustrators and publishers are promoting racial and cultural inclusiveness in children’s literature. US-based publisher Lee and Low are producing multicultural children’s books with the slogan “About Everyone. For Everyone.” Simon & Schuster announced a new imprint in February 2016, Salaam Reads, dedicated to publishing books that feature Muslim characters and stories.

“I believe it is a necessity in the time we are living,” says Mehrdokht Amini, an Iranian-British children’s book illustrator living in England. “In the past it wasn’t really a big deal because people would hardly leave even their natal city and there was no pressing need for understanding other cultures. But now we are living in a time of globalisation and multiculturalism. People from different backgrounds come to live with each other in different situations, whether they like it or not. If they don’t have enough knowledge of each other’s cultural backgrounds, it might lead to alienation and misunderstanding, which is dangerous in any society. It is best to start the process of understanding and integration from childhood when ideas are just taking shape.”

One of the books Amini has worked on is “Chicken in the Kitchen”, a picture book for children published by Lantana Publishing and written by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor. The book introduces readers to a world of magical chickens and nature spirits, the New Yam Festival (an annual festival of the Igbo people in Nigeria), and traditional masquerade culture.

Books as mirrors

The movement for diversity in YA books asks for cultures to be authentically represented, reflective of the many diverse lived experiences. The worlds in books provide one of the first opportunities children have to explore the world. Under-representation can be problematic and leave lasting “colonising” effects on the mind that can be difficult to shrug off. Activists also warn that under-representation of the different worlds we live in may hinder the development of self-esteem in children because their identities are absent in the books they read.

Author Tarana Khan, who just wrote a YA book for Juggernaut, a digital publishing house in India, remembers her childhood days growing up reading Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer, and “being confronted with somewhat flattish, white characters on impossible adventures and a foreign ethos and value system. I often wondered what hot buttered scones tasted like! The world that we inhabited in our books was hardly representative of our pre-liberation times.”

Sayoni Basu of independent Indian publisher Duckbill Books, which produces books and digital products for children and young adults, finds that most books in India are set in an urban and middle class milieu, written by authors who lead lives of privilege and whose imagination seldom travels beyond a very circumscribed idea of what is suitable for a children’s book.

Basu feels this can be problematic in a scenario where children, especially middle class children, lead lives of diminishing interaction with the world around them. “So sometimes fiction is the only medium in which these children engage with the lives of others. Therefore, we need books which talk — not as information or as education, but simply as the setting — of diverse kinds of lives. Sadly, most of the kids I encounter socially or in schools tend to be privileged in different ways and their aspirational goals are met through the British/American literature/movies/media that they consume.”

Tired stereotypes can establish personal and institutional manifestations of racism, sexism, classism. Yet for the most part, children’s literature represented one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the fight against bigotry and racism in American culture, wrote Alvin Irby, a former teacher and the creator of Barbershop Books, a community-based literacy programme that puts child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops.

“The stereotypical ways in which people of colour are represented in modern-day children’s literature, or are altogether missing, bear some responsibility for the prominence of racism in American culture,” said Irby in “The Charleston Shooting: Why White Kids Need Diverse Children’s Books”, a piece written in 2015. The year before that, New York Times had published an op-ed by children’s book author Walter Dean Myers — “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”.

This apartheid of literature limits characters of colour to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth, says Myers. This results in a gap in sense of self-love that comes from recognising oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Myers goes on to say that children see books less as mirrors and more as maps. “They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”

Many writers and illustrators are using various platforms including awards to push for diversity and equal representation in children’s literature. Author Matt de la Peña, the first Latino male Newberry Medal winner for his picture book “Last Stop on Market Street” (which also won a 2016 Caldecott Honor and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor) said that he visits high-poverty schools and told Publisher’s Weekly he hopes to show kids “that they are worthy of being the hero in my books”.

Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel “Chinese Born American”, was a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US. His commitment to diversity comes across in his ambassadorship platform Reading Without Walls — a movement encouraging young readers to move outside of their literary comfort zones. In his platform statement, Yang urges students to “read a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you”, affirming that “by reading other people’s stories, we can develop insight and compassion”.

“The world has become a smaller place over the last 20 years, especially with the internet, all at once the world can be at your fingertips,” says Melati Lum, an Australian/Malay/Chinese writer of fiction for pre-teens who has worked with the UN as a criminal lawyer. Her first book, “The Istanbul Intrigue”, features Ayesha Dean, a teenage girl who sets off for an adventure in Istanbul after finding a mysterious note. “Australia has also become a multicultural society, making it more relevant for our books and media to be more reflective of the society in which we live.

“But while our society has been steadily changing over time, and becoming more representative and inclusive of the diverse cultures around the world, our media has been slow to respond. The vast majority of television shows based in Australia, feature a full cast of Anglo Australians with rare appearances from non-white people as background characters. I think over time, the persistent nature of promoting all-white characters in film, television, books and other mainstream media can send the message, especially to children, that if you’re not ethnically white, you can only ever play a background role in society.”

Her character Ayesha Dean defies that stereotype as an Australian Muslim teenager. She loves travel, adventure, and to solve mysteries. Being from an environment where a lot of what people hear about Muslims in the media tends to be negative, Lum was overjoyed to hear from a 9-year-old non-Muslim reader that she loved the book and learnt a lot from it.

“‘The Istanbul Intrigue’” is written in the style of Nancy Drew, which I absolutely adored reading as a child. I’ve had the idea of writing a children’s novel for quite some time, probably since my son was a child of about 10 and I was struggling to find him reading material that could speak to him as a Muslim kid. I ended up writing a story that I know that I would have loved reading in my preteen years. I wanted to create a lovable Muslim heroine who was friendly, compassionate, fun, and someone who modern young people of all backgrounds could relate to and enjoy reading about,” says Lum.

There’s been a really positive reaction to the book so far from both adults (parents) and children, Muslim, and people who aren’t Muslim. “The overwhelming positive feedback I have received so far has related to Ayesha’s character. They love the fact that she is Muslim, but it doesn’t impact on her being best friends with people who aren’t Muslims, and the fact that she’s Muslim, does her prayers, and wears a hijab doesn’t stop her from fighting bad guys and having a great adventure.”

Lum hopes in some way her book and those by other diverse fiction writers can contribute towards increasing the level of understanding and friendship among children of different faiths and backgrounds. “As a general concept diverse children’s fiction has the ability to shape cultural understanding amongst future generations.”

It’s not just the books, it’s the industry

The root of the problem could well be the fact that the publishing world — the gatekeepers — isn’t exactly what you would call diverse. A study of major publishers, commissioned by Lee & Low Books, showed that the publishing industry as a whole — including sales, publicity, and executive departments — is 79 per cent white, 78 per cent women, 88 per cent heterosexual, 92 per cent non-disabled.

In 2015, UK authors Nikesh Shukla and Jon McGregor slammed UK publishing for its failure to take diversity seriously. “Where are the brown people,” asked Shukla, slamming an industry which he said “work[s] to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home”.

His comments came after World Book Night (WBN) revealed that none of the 15 books it will give away in 2016 would feature a single BAME (Black, Asian and Minor Ethnicity) author. WBN project manager said that no publisher had put a BAME book forward, pointing to another factor — publishers are reluctant to take risks with books that they say are not ‘marketable’.

“It’s a perfect loop-de-loop of blame and it gets very wearing — nobody wants to take responsibility,” said Shukla, author of novels “Meatspace” and “Coconut Unlimited”. The novelist said that he had got small presses and authors and bloggers to back him but hardly any major publisher has come forward.

Lantana’s Alice Curry and Caroline Godfrey point to the 2015 ‘Writing the Future’ report commissioned by the writers’ development agency, Spread the Word, which drew attention to the fact that the publishing industry itself is unrepresentative of the ethnically diverse population in the UK.

“In the last couple of years, publishers have tried to address this by finding different ways to recruit a wider range of people into the industry. In January this year, Penguin Random House in the UK removed the requirement that applicants have a university degree — often a barrier for people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, many of whom are from diverse backgrounds — and the initiative, Creative Access, provides paid internships in the creative industries for young people from under-represented BAME backgrounds.

There’s room for improvement. Some see the growth of small press publishers of colour as one way to expand multicultural representation in young adult fiction. Innovation comes from the small press world. “Self-publishing has made a huge difference to the opportunity for diverse writers to gain a platform from which to have their story heard,” says Lum. “Some of the more well-known publishing houses have made calls for submissions from writers of diverse backgrounds which is promising for future diverse voices to be appreciated.”

Things are definitely changing in Australia, she says. “Recently, the most coveted award in popular Australian television was won by a non-white Australian Muslim of Egyptian heritage which is a first in Australia.”

Curry and Godfrey feel that while progress is being made in the UK, institutional changes are necessarily slow to take effect. “We have seen the inauguration of many new initiatives this past year or so,” says Godfrey. “The Bare Lit Festival, a platform for writers of colour to speak about their work, is a good example. Run by the nonprofit organisation Media Diversified, which cultivates and promotes skilled writers of colour, this festival counteracts the pigeonholing of BAME authors as BAME first and writers second by giving them a platform to speak in their own right, not as part of a ‘diversity panel’.”

Earlier this year, novelists Shukla and Sunny Singh also launched the Jhalak Prize — a book of the year award designed solely to celebrate the work of writers of colour in the UK. “These examples demonstrate that change is occurring, and quite visible and vocal change,” says Godfrey.

But there’s still have a long way to go before festivals and awards specifically celebrating writers from BAME backgrounds are not necessary, simply because mainstream events and prizes are just as likely to recognise those from diverse backgrounds as they are those of white British heritage.

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. In a TED Talk, novelist Chimamanda Adichie told the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warned that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. “Do we want our children to live in a bubble like we did,” asks Tarana Khan. “Tolerance, understanding and sensitivity towards others is the key to living in the world of the future. I think a movement focused on ‘bibliodiversity’ is needed to foster these values.”

Tate — who is also a founding host of The Brown Bookshelf, a blog dedicated to books for African American young readers — says it’s dangerous when children become used to not seeing themselves represented in books and other media. “If they are invisible in books, they may feel invisible in the world in which they live. I see invisibleness written all over the faces of brown-skin children at schools where I visit all over the country. When I enter their libraries, with my books featuring brown-skin people, these kids’ faces light up. You can see the excitement in their eyes, it’s like they’ve been recognised for the first time—proud to see books featuring people that look like them.”

–Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.