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Publishing Diversity in South Africa and the United Kingdom

What’s the Story? Issues of Diversity and Children’s Publishing in the U.K.



Ses quelques 10 ans d’expérience aux Etats-Unis en tant qu’éditrice de livres « multiculturels » de littérature jeunesse, chez Children’s Book Press et Lee & Low Books, ont amené Laura Atkins à s’interroger sur les effets et contraintes exercées par la publication en tant que « mécanisme » sur les livres d’auteurs de couleur (ou « non-blancs » selon la terminologie adoptée au RoY.A.ume-Uni). Dans la continuité de ses propres recherches (voir "White Privilege and Children's Publishing: A Web 2.0 Case Study,” Write4Children, Web), elle centre ici sa réflexion sur les problèmes de diversité ethnique, de représentation et de narration dans la littérature jeunesse contemporaine. Après un retour sur son parcours professionnel, Laura Atkins rassemble ici les fruits d’interviews d’auteurs dits de couleur, dans l’espoir d’amener ultérieurement les éditeurs et directeurs de collection à se pencher sur leur propre subjectivité.

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[W]hile obvious to those within the industry, the impact of the business side of children’s literature has not been given the sustained and systematic scrutiny it deserves by children’s literature scholars and the educational community in general. (Taxel 146)

1I spent seven years working in the children’s publishing industry in the United States, primarily at multicultural picture book publishers. For four years I was an assistant production editor at Children’s Book Press in San Francisco, a non-profit publisher that focused on publishing bilingual picture books. Then, after a year as an assistant editor at Orchard Books (a mid-sized corporate-owned publisher), I spent two years as an editor at Lee & Low Books in New York City, a family-owned independent publisher of multicultural picture books.

2During these years in publishing, I became aware of how books are shaped by the publishing industry on multiple levels, from the particular tastes of an editor, to the culture of each publisher, as well as general assumptions made about distribution and sales. Individually, I came to understand how my subjective responses to texts were based within my own cultural and educational background. I am a white middle class woman with an English degree, raised by liberal politically-minded parents to want to “contribute” something to society. This drew me to multicultural publishing and the idea of providing books that more accurately represented the children reading them. I had ideas about how stories should be told, and also had my own conceptions of childhood and appropriate books for children. These tastes and responses were further shaped within the publishers where I worked.

3In many ways, Children’s Book Press functioned outside of the mainstream of children’s publishing, such as Random House, Penguin and Scholastic – all based in New York City. In San Francisco rather than New York, and running as a non-profit house, Children’s Book Press was mission-driven rather than profit-driven. My first four years in publishing, then, were shaped by a perception that some books were missing, such as ethnic groups not adequately represented – for instance, Filipino Americans in Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel (2006); as well as finding more politically oriented stories – Friends from the Other Side (1993) is a book in which an illegal immigrant is helped by a legal one. While at Children’s Book Press, I worked on books including In My Family (1996) by Carmen Lomas Garza, I See the Rhythm (1998) by Toyomi Igus and Michelle Wood, and From the Bellybutton of the Moon (1998) by Francisco Alarcón and MaY.A. Christina Gonzalez. Inclusion was the key driving influence at Children’s Book Press.

4When I moved to New York to work at Orchard Books and then Lee & Low Books, I was based much more in the heart of the mainstream, profit-oriented publishing industry, even within these smaller publishers. At Lee & Low I edited books including DeShawn Days (2001) by Tony Medina and R. Gregory Christie, The Pot that Juan Built (2002) by Nancy Andrews-Goebel and David Diaz, and The Blue Roses (2002) by Linda Boyden and Amy Córdova. At Lee & Low in particular, I found I was forced to mediate some of my more politically oriented instincts to be in line with greater commercial concerns. For instance, I have written in other essays about the editorial development of the book DeShawn Days (“Publisher’s Dilemma,” “Editorial Reflections,” and “White Privilege”). I learned that commercial concerns, as well as the perception of what the lowest common denominator would find tolerable, had a stronger impact on publishing decisions than I had experienced at Children’s Book Press. I also came to recognize how my own responses were culturally based. And this is the case with all editors. When those responses and expectations mirror the “mainstream” views, then a dominant cultural perspective is maintained, and it is much more difficult for alternative voices or stories to come through.

5Ultimately, I found that this was compounded by the structure of the publishing industry as a whole. Children’s publishing, in both the U.S. and the U.K., is dominated by white, middle class women at lower levels, and men at higher levels of management, which inevitably affects perceptions of audience. This same situation applies in channels of sales and distribution, as I discovered when the single buyer for Barnes & Noble’s children’s books decided not to purchase DeShawn Days for almost any of their stores around the country, as she didn’t think it would be of strong enough interest to their consumers. Institutional perceptions of buyers’ sociological and cultural identities, and expectations about how to reach these buyers, all have a major impact on publishing decisions. This also perpetuates deeper cultural and power dynamics. As John K. Young writes in Black Writers, White Publishers,

…[W]hat sets the white publisher-black author relationship apart is the underlying social structure that transforms the usual unequal relationship into an extension of a much deeper cultural dynamic. The predominantly white publishing industry reflects and often reinforces the racial divide that has always defined American society. (Young 4)

6Author and academic Zetta Elliott further comments in her blog post “Hot Mess” on the current state of the US children’s publishing industry:

For decades, critiques have been made about the lack of equity in children’s publishing, yet here we are in the twenty-first century—so-called “minority babies” now make up the majority of births in the US, and yet 95% of books published for children annually are still written by whites, and these authors find their mirrors in the team of professionals who acquire, edit, publish, and market those books.

7Partially in response to my frustrations about the publishing industry, which I saw as unwilling to deeply engage with these questions of power and voice, I left publishing in 2001 and turned to the academy, completing an MA in Children’s Literature at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at the University of Roehampton in London, where I am now a senior lecturer. I have shifted towards research on this topic rather than working within the industry, though in my freelance capacity I am currently editing children’s book for a Nigerian publisher, Cassava Republic Press, and have provided freelance editorial services to publishers including Vezani Publishing (producing South African-language books in the U.K.) and Saffron Press (producing books based on Sikh culture in Canada).

Current State of U.K. Publishing and Diversity

8From that autobiographical beginning, I will now turn my attention to an exploration of diversity and representation in U.K. children’s publishing. There are no statistics to show how many children’s books are published in the U.K. each year, written by and/or about BME (black and minority ethnic) people. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center does compile such statistics in the U.S., showing that in 2011, out of an estimated 5,000 books published (of which they received 3,400), 219 were written by people of colour (the commonly-used term in the U.S.), while 300 were about people of colour. This means that approximately 6% of the books published were by and about people of colour, while the current equivalent population in the U.S. is over 35% according to the 2010 census data. This disparity becomes even greater when considering that, as Zetta Elliott mentioned in her quote above, as of 2012 the majority of babies born in the United States were not white.

9In the U.K., according to the Office of Nation Statistics in 2006, the BME population in England and Wales was 9.1 million people, or almost 17% of the overall population. In London, where most of the U.K. publishing industry is based, this figure grows to almost 30%. Speaking at the Diversity Matters: Building Markets in Children’s Publishing conference held in 2006, Francesca Dow, then Managing Director at Puffin Books, claimed that by 2010, 1 in 5 school children in the U.K. would be from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and that publishers had a moral as well as a financial imperative to serve these young people. Although no statistics are available for the U.K., a close look at the industry over the last ten years leads me to surmise that the number of books published falls far short of reflecting the population of young people living the U.K., and is even less representative than the books published in the U.S. The following quotes and evidence help to underpin this assertion.

10In December 2003, Arts Council England held a consultation on children’s literature that showed widespread perceptions of “a lack of diversity of children’s books, particularly in terms of content, linguistic origins, cultural and racial background, reading age and format” (Davidson). Sandeep Mahal from Reading Partnerships presented on this topic at the London Book Fair in 2009. According to Mahal,

The main challenge for libraries is getting hold of books that BME readers want. There are whole groups of people whose stories are not available because publishers don't publish them. They're looking straight ahead for new markets, instead of at the life that's going on around them.

Author Malaika Rose Stanley commented on this in a blog post discussing diversity:

I wrote my first published book in 1996, partly motivated by a lack of young fiction books featuring black boys that would appeal to my sons. Since that time, equal opportunities and multi-culturalism have morphed into diversity and in my opinion, publishing is more diverse, but there's still a long way to go. (Rai)

11An author I interviewed in 2011 further adds, “I visit schools where the entire population is from Bangladesh ... yet I've never read a book that reflects the experience of the children I met on these visits. There is a high awareness of this amongst publishers, but economic pressures make it difficult for them to act on it.”

12As a matter of fact, there are a few U.K.-based publishers which focus on publishing books reflecting diversity. Frances Lincoln is a mid-sized independent publisher which has shown a commitment in this area, publishing picture books such as Amazing Grace (1994) by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch, and teen books such as From Somalia with Love (2009) by Na’ima B. Robert. Unfortunately, Frances Lincoln was bought by London-based co-edition publisher, Quarto, in August 2011, and as a result they have closed their young adult (Y.A.) publishing arm, which will diminish their contribution in this area. Mantra Lingua is another publisher which focuses on multicultural and multilingual children’s books (publishing in 35 languages), though many of their books are dual language versions of books published by other publishers, such as the best-selling The Very Hungry Caterpillar (originally published 1969) by Eric Carle.

13It is important to note that both Frances Lincoln and Mantra Lingua are small to mid-size independent publishers. Larger, mainstream publishers, such as Random House and Penguin, do publish books featuring diverse characters. Tamarind was an independent publisher committed to publishing books reflecting black British children and diversity in general, established by Verna Wilkins in 1989 to redress the lack of books that reflected her sons’ experiences. Tamarind was bought by Random House in 2007 and they continue to publish under the imprint name. One may wonder whether Random House actually intended to adapt and learn from this small publisher, or simply wished to integrate the imprint into their existing model. Random House also publishes Malorie Blackman (the only best-selling black children’s author in the U.K., who has published over 50 books for children of all ages) and Bali Rai, the popular British Asian author of Y.A. novels (Un)arranged Marriage (2001) and Killing Honour (2011), amongst others. Several large publishers, such as Penguin and Random House, have instigated diversity committees, which may partially have been a response to the establishment of DIPNet, the Diversity in Publishing Network. DIPNet was established in 2004, funded by Arts Council England and eventually managed by Book Trust, but in 2012 management was taken over by City University London and the name was changed to Equip: Equality in Publishing (still funded by Arts Council England). DIPNet created an Equalities Charter, asking signatory publishers to commit to a set number of equalities actions or initiatives each year. It will be worth keeping an eye on developments there in terms of the Equalities Charter and other activities, as their progress seemed to be hampered by constantly changing management and leadership. At this point, it is difficult to determine the impact of their efforts so far.

14As with the US publishing industry, one key of diversity and children’s publishing in the U.K. has to do with those employed within the industry. The British publishing industry (for children and adults) has extremely low ethnic diversity in terms of staffing, and this proportion further decreases when we look at editorial departments, where the selection of texts for publication is made. In the U.K., according to an article in The Bookseller, the Diversity in Publishing Network carried out a survey in 2007 “which revealed that fewer than 4% of people working in editorial and senior roles within publishing are from ethnic minorities, and the prevailing perception of [the] industry is that it is dominated by the white middle class” (Davies). It is also difficult to get a job in publishing. “In Full Colour” was a report printed as an insert in The Bookseller that stated:

Networks, personal and professional, tend to be dominated by white, middle-class graduates. As a result, those who hear about publishing through social networks and family connections form a large proportion of respondents: 40% got their first job in the business through either a contact, a referral or network of some kind. (Kean)

15Furthermore, entry-level pay is low, and work experience is often required to get a foot in the door – meaning the young person needs to be able to live on little pay in order to make him or herself known and visible in the industry. All of these factors make it more difficult for people to enter the industry if they don’t have family money and connections. The current lack of diversity in staffing has a direct impact on the types of books produced, from the tastes of individual editors, to the perceptions and procedures of sales and marketing. As Malorie Blackman stated in an article in The Guardian,

The publishing industry itself needs to be more diverse. If the majority of people who work in publishing are white, which they are – not only in America, but in this country – then as a writer of colour, or a minority ethnic writer, it is harder for your vision of the world to be understood up front. (Flood)

Perspectives from Authors and Illustrators

16From this overview, it makes sense to shift to the perspectives of several authors and artists, mostly from BME backgrounds, who are currently writing and illustrating children’s book in the U.K. In this section my aim is to feature the voices of those working within the industry and creating the books, gathering on-the-ground viewpoints on the topic of children’s publishing and diversity. In order to counterbalance the white middle-class perspective generally reflected by those working in the publishing industry, I have intentionally drawn on people from diverse backgrounds to gather alternative commentary on the industry. The two main sources are a February 2012 roundtable discussion and author interviews carried out in November 2011.

17On 8 February 2012, I worked with the Runnymede Trust, an organisation focusing on diversity in the U.K. and Europe, and Pop Up, a schools and community programme plus literary festival, to organise a roundtable discussion. This event featured 14 published authors, illustrators and comic book artists: Sophia Acheampong, John Aggs, SufiY.A. Ahmed, Sita Brahmachari, Sarwat Chadda, Candy Gourlay, Miriam Halahmy, Catherine Johnson, Sonia Leong, Irfan Master, Bavit Mehta, Mina Bint Muhammad, Malaika Rose Stanley and Ken Wilson-Max. Our aim was to gather perceptions about children’s publishing and diversity amongst other topics, and while the conversation was wide-ranging, we summarised the main pertinent comments and issues raised as follows:

  • The importance for children to read books featuring black or Asian characters, and the even higher impact for BME children to learn that an author is not necessarily white;

  • Limited publishing view – publishers only want to publish one book featuring a black (or other ethnic minority) character at a time. The same restriction does not apply to books with white characters;

  • There was concern about stereotyping and books focusing on issues (such as gangs or forced marriage). There is the perception that books shouldn’t have too many issues on the one hand, but the idea that books featuring multi-ethnic characters are sometimes pushed towards being too issue-based;

  • There seems to be a fear of showing a non-traditional inside position, such as a book about Afghanistan told from a Taliban member’s point of view;

  • Writing “from the heart” can be effective. Writing based on one’s cultural experience can allow a book to truly resonate;

  • At the same time, people want to be allowed to write/illustrate about whatever they want, not just their ethnicity or cultural identity.

  • 1 Of the ten interviewed, three asked to remain anonymous, so I will only refer to their answers in a (...)

18In November 2011 I emailed questionnaires to ten U.K.-based authors from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, which included questions about the authors’ experiences getting published, as well as their perceptions of diversity and children’s books published in the U.K.1 Their responses help to further explore the points raised at the roundtable.

19The first question I asked was: Do you feel that your cultural background has affected your experiences in getting published? Four out of the ten said “No.” Five saw it as positive – helping them to stand out from others or allowing them to draw on personal experiences to find stories, and feel they had important stories to tell. For instance, Sita Brahmachari, author of Y.A. novel Artichoke Hearts (2011), said, “[I]f anything, I think diverse characters and stories reflecting a diverse society are being sought out by publishers for young readers.” Of those who felt their background had a positive impact on being published, a few qualified their response. Sarwat Chadda, author of Y.A. novel Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress (2012), commented:

I think it’s been remarkably helpful as I think I bring a different perspective from the (typically) white-middle-class viewpoint that is the publishing norm. The publishers are always looking for new voices and coming outside of the mainstream is a great advantage in that case. That said, there is a fear of being too far out. The problem I’ve found is accessibility. I must realise that what is day-to-day to me may not be so for the majority of my readership. I may be from a minority but that does not mean I’m only writing for a minority audience, quite the opposite, my whole aim is to broaden the appeal of eastern settings and ethnic characters, and bring them into the mainstream rather than just preach to the converted.

20The question of the extent to which an author addresses a minority versus a mainstream audience is an important area of tension. Chadda also said that, while he identifies himself as British-born Asian (or Asian Pakistani), he was brought up in Britain and his reading habits, and writing style, are very western, which could help him to bridge from niche to mainstream. He also shows an interest in accessibility, making sure that his books will be appealing and understandable to a broad audience. What is suggested within this quote is that an author might need to steer clear of references or plots that are perceived as too foreign to the “mainstream.” This raises the question of what types of stories are published, and how possible it is for unique, nuanced and alternative voices to to access publication.

21Another interviewee was Native American Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of Y.A. novel Tantalize (2007), who has taken a similar approach in the US, though with perhaps a slightly different intent. She has shifted from writing Native American-specific stories to more “commercial” books that feature diverse characters, accounting for the in shift in this way,

I’ve temporarily pulled back from writing books with Native protagonists. Some of it was to stretch myself artistically and pursue my own diverse interests. But some of it also was to give myself an opportunity (on a more even playing field) to raise my profile and build my skill set so that when I return, I’ll have a larger platform for the conversation around that work.

22In realistic terms, this may be the most effective way of diversifying the books published by most mainstream children’s publishers, although it is problematic in terms of allowing a range of voices and representations. While many people in publishing state they would like to publish more diverse authors and books, they are ultimately working in a corporate, profit-driven structure. There has been a growing focus on producing “commercial” books, especially for teen readers. Those authors who can work in that style, while also integrating more diverse characters and viewpoints, could well move things forward and make a commercial case for books featuring BME characters and stories. Noughts and Crosses (2001) is a case in point here. As noted earlier, Malorie Blackman is the only black author whose books have been on the best-seller list. The books are based on a high concept (race relations reversed in a sort of parallel universe) – and are written in commercial, page-turning prose.

  • 2 For further reflections on this issue, see Sarah Brouillette’s discussion of the marketing of post- (...)

23This drive towards more commercial and accessible books, and a focus on one or two successful authors, can restrict the types of voices and stories published. In the interviews, an anonymous author said, “[Publishers] seem to believe that a single token black writer of any cultural/racial background on their list is enough ‘representation’ to demonstrate their commitment to diversity so they don’t need any more.” And during the roundtable discussion several people mentioned being asked to write another “Malorie Blackman” or “Bali Rai” book, being two of the most successful and well-known BME authors in the U.K. The success of these two authors does not appear to have necessarily opened doors to more authors from diverse backgrounds, but rather cemented an idea of what “success” should look and sound like, sometimes restricting a publisher’s willingness to take on additional authors.2

24Another author raised her concerns when asked about how her background affected her experiences being published. Catherine Johnson, author of middle grade novel A Nest of Vipers (2008), noted, “Sometimes my books are…seen as ‘only for black/ethnic minority readers,’ which I would say is not true.” One of the anonymous respondents agreed, “Publishers seem to believe that books written by or about ‘people of colour’ are only for people of colour and according to a recent email to my agent from my editor ‘will only perform at a certain level.'"

25The idea that books featuring BME characters will only be of interest to children of that background is a recurring one in many discussions, and is one with which I was confronted when working as an editor. This expectation is clearly not the same for books featuring white characters. This is another tricky topic, as projections are often based on the publisher’s previous experience of book sales. Catherine Johnson commented on this further in the blog post on diversity led by Bali Rai:

I have been told that non-white protagonists do not sell as well as white ones and this fact is undeniably true – if only because there are so few books with non-white protagonists. So if I were to advise a new author who wanted to get published it would be sensible to tell them to write white and middle class. The statement that “stories with non-white protagonists do not sell as well as those with white ones” is a major obstacle in itself. It ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I expect in the 1950s and 60s record companies thought white audiences would never listen to black artists too. (Rai)

26Johnson points out that the small numbers of books published is part of the problem – there aren’t enough available to test their true sales potential. There is also the question of how strongly a publisher promotes a book, and how the distribution channels work. Johnson cites the music industry, which has clearly shifted, showing there can be a large market for music coming from diverse communities. I would argue that there is a similarly untapped market in the U.K. – both in terms of general audiences being open to reading more diverse stories, and also a large number of young people from BME backgrounds who would read books (text or digital) if there were more titles that showed a much larger range of experiences and stories, and if publishers explored alternatives modes of sales and distribution.

27While it is important for children from BME backgrounds to see children like themselves in the books that they read, it is equally important for young people from other backgrounds to read about children who are different from themselves, and not just in issue-based books which focus on race or difference. Rudine Sims Bishop articulated the influential theory of books acting as both mirrors and windows in her influential essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” She writes, “When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human” (Sims Bishop).

28Another issue which came out during the interviews was the question of who can or should write these stories. As has already been stated, publishers frequently respond to an aspiring author by saying that they already cover “diversity” through the work of one already-published author – and this can often be a white author who writes about multicultural themes, such as Elizabeth Laird or Beverly Naidoo. The topic is one of authority and legitimacy. I have shifted over the years to feeling that it is important for all people to consider incorporating diversity in their books, including people writing outside of their own background. But they need to do it carefully, carrying out research, talking to people from within that background and sharing their work with them, as well as approaching the whole project with humility. It is important to create unique individual characters, and not draw on stereotypes, just as it is to tell a good story. But there is the risk that a story written by a white middle-class author will be more comfortable to a white middle-class editor and reader. There is a strong chance that they will draw on similar expectations and stereotypes.

29Going further with this point, one anonymous author said,

There is a lot of publishing featuring characters from other countries – but a lot of them fail to have the authenticity of real culture behind them, because they are written by outsiders (tourists) who are imposing their own culture on characters.

Catherine Johnson also commented on this in her article for The Guardian, “Where are Britain’s black writers?”:

White readers might be interested in the story of an African British boy like the protagonist of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, but it appears to be much easier for them if the story comes secondhand. The words of a white author are a comfortable buffer, a reassurance that nothing in the story will be too shocking, too hard to understand; the author is like you, and you can trust him or her to tell you this story in familiar terms. You don't have to make the effort to bridge the gap between your own world and the protagonist's, because Kelman has already taken that step for you. (Johnson)

30There are important questions here about who is telling a story and how – what experiences are being translated or softened to make them less threatening. Other authors, such as Zetta Elliott, have wondered in the American context

whether those working in the children’s publishing industry prefer distant historical moments involving African Americans that, though undeniably traumatic, have some sort of ‘happy ending’ – slavery was terrible, but brave white soldiers fought the Civil War to abolish it forever. Segregation was terrible, but brave white citizens marched to end it. Racism was terrible, but white voters elected Barack Obama! (Elliott)

31I would propose that while the history of race and migration in the U.K. is different from that in the U.S., some of these same inclinations persist – the desire to publish more conventional and comfortable narratives that may not delve into uncomfortable and complex questions about race and power. All of this will have an impact on which stories, and which authors, are chosen for publication. With the children’s publishing industry employing a vast majority of white editors (Catherine Johnson stated that she could think of two black or Asian children’s book editors in the Bali Rai blog discussion), I believe this puts white authors writing stories featuring diversity at an advantage, especially if they are already established.

32It is important to note again that there are U.K.-based publishers who are making efforts on this front. Frances Lincoln is well known for publishing books by diverse authors that reflect different stories and experiences. Wendy Meddour, author of the middle grade novel The Hen in the Oven (2012), is a white British Muslim woman. She stated in the interview,

I don’t think I’d have written my first middle-grade book if it wasn’t for my wacky ‘cultural’ experiences in both Britain and Algeria. And I wouldn’t have submitted it to Frances Lincoln if I didn’t think I had something important to say. (I was fed up of Muslims being represented badly in fiction [or not represented at all]), so actively sought a publisher who encouraged readers to think beyond the stereotypes).

33This issue of stereotyping came up in several authors’ comments when asked about how they perceived the current state of publishing and diversity in the U.K., and was also brought up in the roundtable discussion. As Sarwat Chadda put it, “I weary of how many Asian books are about terrorism (if a boy protagonist) or arranged marriages (if female). I’m not criticising the quality or worth of these stories, but the fact they seem to be the only type of story with ethnic leads. Same with stories with Afro-Caribbean leads (gangs).” Wendy Meddour echoed this when she said, “There aren’t many Muslim writers getting contracts with the mainstream publishers. And when they do, they’re often asked to write about ‘forced marriage’ or ‘young beautiful girls fleeing from oppressive regimes/nasty men.’ But new opportunities are beginning to open up; things are definitely improving.”

34Savita Kalhan, author of Y.A. novel The Long Weekend (2008), reflected on this idea of stereotyping in a different way.

So far I have only written one story where the characters are predominately Asian British. I have felt that where this book is concerned, publishers rejected it on the grounds that Indian culture and society were not “positively represented” in the book. They suggested that this needed to be addressed for them to consider the manuscript.

35This puts a pressure on an author that would not be there if representing “white culture” – leaving the impression that one book is expected to reflect on a general experience.

36This brings us back to Malorie Blackman’s earlier quote about the publishing industry; that to truly make a difference in the books published there needs to be more diversity in terms of who is employed. This reliance on stereotypes is more likely to take place when those acquiring and selling the books do not include greater diversity (in terms of race, class, or region). While the Arts Council has previously sponsored a traineeship to place BME staff within publishers, this no longer exists. It would take a commitment and intentional change in hiring practices by publishers to change their employee demographics, including the realisation that they could expand their market by aiming at a greater range of readers.

37Finally, I asked interviewees how they perceived the current state of publishing and diversity in the U.K. Here are some quotes: “Really rather depressing.” “Very sad. It is almost exactly the same as ten or fifteen years ago.” “Poor – and tokenistic.” “OK – getting better.” The general view was that the characters in books, and authors published, were still white-dominated, though some interviewees were more optimistic than others. The following comments further demonstrate the range of perceptions.

38For Catherine Johnson, “Publishers seem to think that the majority population only want to read books with white leads. When children of all races have posters of Theo Walcott or Leona Lewis on their walls, this seems like a missed chance.”

39Savita Kalhan believes, “…it is improving very gradually. There was a time when there were very few culturally/racially diverse books available, and whilst there is ample room for more, it is no longer a dearth.”

Leila Rasheed, author of middle grade novel Chips, Beans and Limousines (2008), stated,

I think that until recently children’s fiction in the U.K. was very white – you would look along the bookshelves and see hardly any non-British names…. But now I think things are changing. People from mixed or second/third generation immigrant backgrounds have the confidence to write, and it isn’t just ‘issue’ books about race or culture, it’s fantasy, adventure – all kinds of stories.

40These comments indicate that some feel the situation is improving, and that there are more books featuring diverse characters, written by authors from a variety of backgrounds, than there once were. However, most expressed that there was still a lack of books available and that the publishing industry could do more to improve diversity and representation in the books produced.

Looking forward

41This final section aims to reflect upon ways in which the situation might move forward. I’d like to focus on some “good practice,” including new initiatives aimed at increasing diversity and representation in U.K. children’s publishing, as well as areas where I see the greatest potential for improvement.

42There are a few initiatives, such as the Diverse Voices Award from Frances Lincoln and Seven Stories: Centre for the Children’s Book. The award is for a middle grade manuscript that celebrates cultural diversity in the widest possible sense, either in terms of its story or the ethnic and cultural origins of its author. To date there have been three awards and editor Janetta Otter-Barry at Frances Lincoln has commissioned or published eight books by writers who have entered. It should be noted that all of the winners of this award so far have been white. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the judging panel for 2013 includes Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) and Alex Wheatle MBE, an award-winning British novelist of Jamaican heritage. It will be interesting to see if diversity in the judging panel leads to a more diverse winning author in 2013.

43Puffin Books and Commonword (a writing development organization based in Manchester) have also established a prize in 2012. The Commonword Children’s Diversity Writing Prize will be the culmination of fortnightly Commonword writing workshop in Manchester and an annual Puffin and Rogers Coleridge & White Literary agency-sponsored masterclass for budding writers who exhibit potential in children’s fiction writing for 7+ to teenage. The winning writer must embrace ethnic diversity either through their own ethnicity and culture and/or within their writing and will receive a £500 cash prize, professional mentoring and £100 of Puffin books.

44Quotes from their publicity material continue to underscore the need for such a prize. Shannon Park, executive editor for fiction at Puffin Books, states,

As an editor at the U.K.’s number-one children’s publisher I am always on the lookout for exciting new voices for Puffin’s list. The lack of diverse authors and characters has always been an issue for me – our schools and communities are so much more wonderfully diverse than the current children’s book market suggests. I look forward to working with Commonword and RCW [Rogers Colergidge & White Literary Agency] to discover and develop some fantastic new talent.

Catherine Pellegrino, children’s book agent for RCW, continues,

As a children’s agent, living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, it struck me that there was a gaping hole in the children’s writing community; in the authors I represent, the writers published and consequently in the books we are able to offer our children to read, books that should represent our rich cultural diversity but so often fail to do so. The opportunity to address this issue alongside Commonword and Puffin Books is enormously exciting and I am confident that working together we will bring to light original and talented new writers and writers in the making.

45Both individuals, working within the established publishing industry, acknowledge the lack of diversity in the authors they represent and the books they produce, and the need to redress this imbalance.

46Prizes such as these have an important role to play. Frances Lincoln and Puffin show a commitment to the issue by co-sponsoring these awards. Frances Lincoln has published several books entered for the prize, which will hopefully also be the case with Puffin Books. The mentoring aspect of the Commonword prize is also useful, offering aspiring authors an opportunity to develop their craft. It is interesting that neither prize requires the author to come from a BME background. When working at Lee & Low Books in the US I managed the New Voices award in its first year. This award, established in 2000, is for a picture book manuscript written by an author of colour who has not previously published a picture book. In its first year, and after an intensive effort to promote the competition, we had over 300 entries. I feel that requiring that entries come from authors of colour has been crucial in drawing on truly diverse voices, and based on the previous comments about a potential publishing bias towards books written by white authors, I would see that as a positive aspect to add to U.K. initiatives. Though I realise that the concept of affirmative action is controversial, and in the U.K. it is negatively talked about as “positive discrimination.” Still there are prizes, such as the Orange Prize, which are restricted to women authors, and I see a real case for this to be made in children’s books as well.

47Based on my experience working in multicultural publishing and the research I have carried out in the field, I have been considering how I might become more involved to make a positive impact and work for change. Initially I contemplated the development of workshops to run within editorial departments at publishing houses; to look at editors’ subjective responses to texts, and also to consider the wider institutional pressures and their impact on diversity and publishing. However, given the increasing emphasis on commercial fiction, and my perception that few in publishing are interested in making deep changes to the status quo, I have been looking towards alternative publishing models, which is where I see the most potential.

48As mentioned above, I have worked with individuals who are setting up their own publishers, or self-publishing (such as Cassava Press in Nigeria, Saffron Press in Canada, Vezani Publishing in the U.K., and Wendy Hue who self-published her middle grade novel about a Nigerian boy who moves to England, Tópé Arrives (2011). As new technologies allow people to publish their own work and distribute it digitally via the internet, there is much greater potential for new voices to be made available. Though there are challenges in terms of promotion and distribution, as mainstream publishers can still dominate. Many booksellers won’t carry self-published books, and many teachers and librarians buy books from established distributors, or buy books based on reviews (from reviewers and distributors which don’t include self-published books). So while there is great potential for individuals to publish their own works, this route still carries great obstacles to reach large audiences.

49I have been especially encouraged by the Pop Up project, a social enterprise model for engaging children, young people and families through literature and stories which was established in 2011. Pop Up is based in north London and has focused on working in schools and communities often under-represented in published books and unreached be festivals and literary events. I worked with Pop Up in 2011, and we had some discussion about developing a new publishing branch to the project, though for various reasons, this collaboration is not moving forward at the moment. I think there is real potential for partnerships between community-based organisations working with children, and those who wish to publish more diverse materials for young readers – in print and digital formats. I believe that new technologies and means of distributing “books” will radically transform the way young people access and read texts, and for this reason it could be useful to work with people from the music and games industries to think of how to reach broader audiences more effectively. I haven’t been overly impressed so far with the publishing industry’s response to this shift, though there are some publishers taking a lead (such as Nosy Crow or Winged Chariot in terms of developing book apps). But publishers generally seem to be slow to respond to technological shifts, staying attached to paper and print-based texts.

50It is hard to imagine how publishing will change. But I do believe that with new technologies and means of getting books out there, including self-publishing, along with a changing demographic as the population grows increasingly diverse, the situation will eventually improve. It might be that the big publishers are left behind unless they move beyond thinking in terms of short-term profits and their perceptions of the market, and start to consider broader audiences and new ways of reaching them. Those who will succeed will be the ones who look at ways of commissioning and producing books/stories outside of the mainstream publishing industry and drawing on new technologies, with a real potential to radically transform the publishing landscape.

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1 Of the ten interviewed, three asked to remain anonymous, so I will only refer to their answers in a general way. If I name someone, they gave their permission for me to do so.

2 For further reflections on this issue, see Sarah Brouillette’s discussion of the marketing of post-colonial authors in Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace.

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Laura ATKINS, « What’s the Story? Issues of Diversity and Children’s Publishing in the U.K. »e-Rea [En ligne], 11.1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Atkins is a freelance children's book editor and specialist based in Berkeley, California. After seven years working at children’s publishers in the United States, she received her MA in Children’s Literature from the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton University, London. She worked as a senior lecturer at the NCRCL until August 2013, where she continues to act as a visiting lecturer on their Distance Learning MA in Children's Literature. Laura also runs a freelance editorial business, offering children’s book manuscript critiquing, and editing books for self-publishers and children’s publishers such as Saffron Press in Canada and Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria. She is the editor of Cassava Republic’s award-winning Millennium Development Goals picture book series; as well as Mayowa and the Masquerades, which was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors literary prize; and Eno’s Story, which was one of the three finalists for the Nigeria Prize for Literature (NLNG). She is deeply committed to presenting a diversity of children’s worldview across the world.

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