Desperately seeking… diversity in childrens’ books

A few moons ago, my then three year old daughter was sad when she came home from nursery. I asked her why and she explained that she loved everyone, but she didn’t love herself.

A stab in the guts, “Why? Why don’t you love yourself?”

“I don’t love that I have brown hair.”

A second stab, that’s partly my fault and not easily fixed, “But that’s beautiful. Your hair is so lovely.”

“Yes but, my friends said I couldn’t play with them because they have blonde hair and I have brown hair.”

WHAT? What’s a mother to do? How dare these blonde kids? Where are they? Which ones? Who are their parents? Or maybe… they’re just kids being kids.

Of course the new family project that ensued was to point out all the brilliant examples of people who are not blonde. Thankfully we know some real ones, but that doesn’t get you far in the heat of the playground. There are plenty of non-blonde story characters who exist on the pre-schooler’s coolness radar, but the tricky thing is – most of them are Caucasian. My little ones are creamy faced with grandparents who speak funny languages. Where are the aspirational characters for them to relate to?

There are a few non-white faced characters in books and cartoons, but they often live in jungles or in distant countries and they wear nothing but pants (gotta love Kipling) or cute ‘native’ dresses. There have been a few recent tokens to tick the diversity box, but nothing that I’ve seen truly resonating with kids. Walking through toy shops (a true test of any child’s obsessions) and you will be bombarded with Frozen, Star Wars, Lego and a bunch of animals. Libraries and book shops? For the most part, no. Google is better, but you have to be prepared to hunt and know what you’re looking for.

This made me sad as:

a) it reminded me of growing up in 80s England with a little brown face in a sea of white. There were no aspirational characters in that world who resembled me. That world taught me there was no story to validate ‘me’ – outside of feelings and emotions and the experience of just being a human. Which in some way was a good thing as that’s how I chose to see myself – just another human. But until I became a teenager and was able to consciously make that choice (after gorging on mountains of novels and US-imported TV shows), it sucked.

b) it made me realise that three decades on – despite all those diversity targets and the shifting cultural landscape – for the average schoolkid, almost nothing has changed.

A recent Guardian article noted that although a third of UK children are from BAME (black, Asian or minority ethnic) backgrounds, they struggle to find characters who resemble themselves. In 2018, when even the Royal Family is now interracial, why isn’t this diversity acknowledged in the stories we feed our children?

So, after speaking to my daughter’s nursery, I did the next best thing I could think of: open my laptop and just write the stories I want my kids to read.

Prior to this, I mainly wrote stories for adults, something I love and will always continue to do. In addition, my career has been spent writing for numerous companies, generally with the intent to promote something: brands, products, people, causes. These experiences have been invaluable.

I now feel if I’m going to pump the hell out of anything, it needs to be my stories for children. I want to offer kids examples of people doing wonderful things, regardless of their hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or whatever the limiting world around them may have taught them so far. I want to offer the stories I wish I had growing up and ones I am searching for to read with my own children. These stories are long overdue.

I know that if there is to be any real shift in the cultural validation we offer our children, it will take time and many people to make it happen. But we have to start somewhere. I am starting here with mine, I’d be so grateful if you joined me.

If you want to see more diverse representation in children’s books, I’d love your support. Please share, subscribe, follow, tweet or just connect with me. I’ll keep you updated on my children’s stories and where you can read them.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved.