Where am I? Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature

Zainab Asunramu
Jan 22, 2018 · 9 min read

I was around 9 or 10 when I asked my mother to relax my hair. Asked, is actually a gross understatement. I begged. I whined. I moaned. Until she finally did. “Relaxing” hair is a chemical process to permanently, straighten naturally curly kinky hair. It’s a procedure that many black women undertake at least once in their lifetimes. “Relaxing” my hair was a way for me to change who I naturally was, to feel a sense of belonging. And because I will be reviewing a wonderful picture book called Love Thy Fro, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to address all three. Belonging, literature and hair!

My life and embracing literature

First of all I want to exclaim… There is a lack of diversity within the literature available for children and young adults. There, I’ve said it, and the world didn’t explode. I’m going to go a bit further and say that the lack of literature for people who looked like me, distorted my sense of belonging in the UK.

For a while we were the only black family in our immediate block of flats. I went to a primary school, where I could count the number of black children on two hands. Our school library, full of wonderful books, were books with white characters. The earliest book I can remember reading was probably Spot the Dog by Eric Hill. Fast forward a number of years and I had immersed myself in a plethora of Roald Dahl books. I read the classics, including but not limited to, The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit, The Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett.

A rather embarrassing fall on the bus on my way home from school while dozing, would cement my title as a bibliophile, by latching onto books by Jaqueline Wilson and Louise Rennison. All books with white characters’ front and centre. The only books I can recall reading during my childhood with a main character being a black girl was the Amazing Grace series, by Mary Ann Hoffman recommended to me by an older cousin. The same cousin would also give me a book called ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’. In secondary school I was introduced to Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. All books brought to my attention through word of mouth. As a frequent visitor to the local library, not once had I ever seen these books on the shelves. Somebody else could have borrowed it perhaps, but as a frequent visitor to the library (almost every day), I never once came across these books, not even one time. Books written by black authors about black characters were never visible, nor where they very well publicised.

By this point, in my journey as an avid reader, the worlds within the literature I had escaped to, were white worlds, with infinite possibilities. I hear from time to time that literature is supposed to be an extension of our reality, a comment on our cultures, environments and lives. If this is true, then according to the books I read as a child and young adult, little blacks girls didn’t exist! Of course, in literature I learnt to identify with other things, for example — I am a girl, I know what it feels like to have a crush and experience the complexities, laughter and confusion of puberty. However, none of these books captured my experiences fully.

Surprisingly this didn’t put me off reading. Perhaps because I could identify with other parts of the character’s personalities, or lives. As a child reading, I don’t think it made me feel lesser, or more unfulfilled as a human being living in the UK. Looking back as an adult however, I can see the profound and subtle ways it affected me. Looking back, I can see how it influenced the way I interacted with people. At secondary school, I wanted white friends (ones who looked like the characters I read about in these books). The majority of my crushes were also white (early secondary school), mimicking the guys that the girl characters in my school had crushes on, or had as boyfriends.

It wasn’t until I found the books of African American authors such as Omar Tyree and Eric Jerome Dickey, and watched shows such as Moesha, Sister Sister and Girlfriends, that I could identify with my blackness in public (albeit through an African America lens). At home I knew who I was, I was black, I was African, Nigerian (Yoruba) and a Muslim. In public and within school, it was a different story. I had to assimilate. I had to self-sensor.

Looking back as an adult I can see that if I had books that explored the stories and imaginations of people who looked like me, at that young age, I would have felt a better sense of belonging in the world. I would have felt more comfortable talking about my culture. I would have known that I mattered, that I existed and that my experiences were important.

As an adult, I have come to appreciate books such as those written by Mary Ann Hoffman and her Amazing Grace series. In one book, Grace (who is black and from the illustrations has natural hair) exclaims that she would like to play Peter Pan. She is told that she can’t by a white male student, because in the book a) Peter Pan isn’t black and b) because Peter is a boy. What a revolution! Here we have a black female, overcoming racial and gender stereotypes, battling through to play a role that only white boys could play. Here we have a book, that takes on the complexity of race and gender, with a black protagonist, with the message that we can do whatever it is we want to do. A black protagonist in an important role — with a message for everyone, regardless of race. It also provided an important message for young black girls more directly, you too can be seen.

Love Thy Fro by Casey Elisha, illustrated by Aliecee Cummings

Image from www.caseyelishabooks.com

As a child and young adult most of the literature available to me within schools or libraries did not reflect my own experiences as a black British African girl. The books I read did not mirror what I looked like. I didn’t have long hair that drifted in the air with a breeze. I had thick, curly hair which grew upwards. An afro. The books I read didn’t glorify the afro. Although I was never mocked for the way my hair looked, I was very aware of the fact that other black girls were. Our hair was messy and undesirable against the backdrop of the norm (straight blond hair — as a typical example)

Love My Fro excites me because it has a black girl as the main character, with yes, you’ve guessed it… an afro. Author Casey Elisha, describes the book as being “a message to every single little girl out there that feels she’s different or doesn’t meet the media’s definition of beauty, I wrote this book as a message to my younger self. To let her know that it’s okay to have hair that’s not quite as silky straight as the next little girl, and that this hair is a blessing rather than a burden”.

It’s a book that captures one aspect of being a black girl. The book is about accepting our hair in a culture and environment that seems to favour straight silky hair… The book is a celebration of Afro-Caribbean hair, it exerts that just because our hair differs from the British norm, doesn’t mean that it is any less beautiful. It may sound trivial, but believe me it isn’t. It’s a rare book that celebrates real, unimagined difference. It teaches people who aren’t black about one of the most distinctive features and representations of “blackness”. And it’s a fantastic demonstration of the versatility of black hair. The different styles we can create, whether temporarily straightening it, putting it into a bun, plaits, adding extensions or creating amazing patterns with cornrows. Long have we needed a book like this.

It’s an empowering and wonderful book for young black girls, in a world where there just aren’t that many books that capture their experiences well enough, if at all. It is a celebration. Embracing what makes you different, and being free to express who you are. This is a self-published book, and it begs the question why?! It is clear from numerous articles and publications that the publishing industry is keen to embrace diversity and in illustrative children’s book, there is a definite need for a book just like Love Thy Fro.

The publishing industry has come a long way in acknowledging that they need to be more diverse. Last year the chief exec of Penguin Random House UK, Tom Weldon, unveiled a scheme to discover and mentor authors from underrepresented communities in the UK (BAME, LGBTIQ, writers with disabilities etc)[1]. His call wasn’t the first and has not been the last to address lack of diversity in publishing. In June this year, CILIP announced that Margaret Casely-Hayford would be leading a diversity review of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, following concerns in 2016 raised about the lack of BAME representation on the 2017 Carnegie medal longlist[2].

Good children’s books should allow them to dream, imagine and learn.

Literature should be diverse. It should capture a myriad of experiences and voices. BAME children shouldn’t have to wait until young adulthood or adulthood to feel like they can see themselves within literature. They shouldn’t have to wait to get that diversity, to see themselves valued in literature. Darren Shetty is an educator who has taught in inner-London primary schools for almost 20 years. He hits the nail on the head when he says, ‘if children do not encounter a rich diet of literature at school they are being denied key knowledge about themselves and the world.’ It’s incredibly refreshing to see authors such as Sita Bramachari, write articles about the importance of diversity within literature.

In an article for the Guardian she talks about why she chooses diverse names for characters in her books. She told an anecdotal story of how happy a group of Somali girls were when a name they were accustomed to would appear in a book, as the name of one of the central characters. ‘The name I gave my character was one of the things the girls weren’t sure about. When I suggested that they come up with an alternative they chose ‘Aisha’ because they said it would be a popular name with appeal across cultures and they were keen that as many people as possible like and understand her. The girls were so happy that a British girl from a Somali background is to be one of the central characters in a book that they have had a part in creating.’[3]

Not only does a lack of representative diversity affect those children (like myself, 20 odd years ago) who can’t see themselves within the pages of the books they are reading, it also affects and does a disservice to children who do see themselves represented. On one level, it upholds the pervasive view that their stories (stories about white children) are the only ones that matter, on the other, they are prevented from diving into and benefitting in an enriching way from the different cultures and ways of living that exist, outside of their own bubbles. As Rudine Sims Bishop, states in Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, ‘books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world, may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world, a dangerous ethnocentrism’.

If children’s books are a ‘vital tool for moral and character education as well as for the promotion of diversity’[4], what happens when diverse experiences are not represented in the literature children read. Whiteness becomes the norm, and white British values, become the standard by which everyone (including those from BAME communities) live their lives. This singular narrative is counterproductive and damages children’s perception of the world from early on.

If even in a world of what could be, the imagination, we (people like me, a young black girl, immigrants, diaspora children) can’t exist and don’t exist, who are we and does our existence here (in Britain), even matter?

You can purchase Love Thy Fro here: http://www.caseyelishabooks.com/shop/

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/10/publishing-risks-becoming-irrelevant-warns-penguin-random-house-boss

[2] https://www.cilip.org.uk/news/margaret-casely-hayford-lead-diversity-review-cilip-carnegie-kate-greenaway-medals

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names

[4] Why literature Is a vital tool for teaching students about equality — Farzana Khan (quoting Andrew Moffat, a teacher at a Birmingham school).

Zainab Asunramu

Written by

Intense Bibliophile. Advocate of Human Rights, interested in politics. Muslima. Millennial lover of good things.

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