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UK author James Dawson chimes in on debate over 'white faces' in children's books

UK children’s laureate Malorie Blackman faced racist comments after Sky News misquoted her as saying there were 'too many white faces' in children's literature.  Now young adult author James Dawson has stepped into the fray, saying, "Malorie did not say there are too many white faces in children’s books, but I will.... Put that on Sky News.”

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    James Dawson is the author of books such as 'Hollow Pike.'
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Four weeks ago, UK children’s laureate Malorie Blackman faced “hatred, threats, and vitriol” when a news site misquoted her as saying children’s books “have too many white faces.”

Blackman said she was advocating for more diversity in children’s books and never uttered that phrase. Sky News later corrected the quote and changed the headline.

But now another author has come forward with his own call for diversity in children’s books, and this time he’s deliberately used the phrase – “too many white faces” – that landed Blackman at the center of a firestorm.

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“[W]hy are so many … characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class?” award-winning British young adult author James Dawson said, speaking on Wednesday to the children’s books industry in the UK. “Malorie did not say there are too many white faces in children’s books, but I will. There, I just did. Put that on Sky News.”

UK children’s laureate Blackman caused an uproar in the UK when she called for more diversity in children’s books and Sky News misquoted her as saying “there are too many white faces” in kids’ books today. 

Blackman received an outpouring of racist comments and abuse, prompting her to leave Twitter and her 14,000 followers for a short while.

But she helped start a debate about diversity in children’s books, one that’s been going strong in the US, and now the UK. That debate helped spawn a new hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooksUK, echoing a wider social media campaign launched in the US, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

(The US hashtag was started after Book Expo America Bookcon announced its panel lineup and critics cried foul that all 30 authors on it were white, as we reported in an earlier post, “Lack of diversity in book world continues to stir debate.”)

Thanks to Blackman and her misquote, other authors, like Dawson, have chimed in on the debate.

The bestselling novelist spoke with the UK’s Guardian, saying he was inspired to make the speech and come out publicly supporting Blackman after the outpouring of controversy following Blackman’s interview with Sky News. 

“I was livid,” he said. “It was very clear that we – authors, agents, publishers, librarians and booksellers – have work to do. Not only do all young readers deserve to see themselves in stories but we also have to remind small-minded people that this planet we share is a diverse one.” 

In his speech, he asked publishers to work toward greater diversity in the books they publish as well as in their stable of authors and staff.

“In an ideal world, every title released would reflect a diverse world,” Dawson said. “This doesn’t mean there should be a gay character in every book, but if every character in a title is white, straight, able-bodied, and wealthy, that book is not reflecting the real world. Is this insidiously suggesting an ‘ideal'?"

Dawson explained his perception of diversity, explaining it’s not just about race. He said diversity comprises gender, ethnicity, income, culture, faith, sexuality, and disability. 

He also speculated as to why children’s books are not as diverse as they could be. 

“I wonder if, as authors, we subconsciously leave diversity ‘to someone else’ – particularly writers from those backgrounds,” he said.

He noted that he decided to make a last minute change in his forthcoming novel, “All of the Above,” making his main character, Toria, half-Indian.

The other problem, he said, is marketing, and a quest for sales.

“Marketing is key here, clearly, but what it boils down to is fear that a book won’t reach its biggest possible audience and lose money. To me this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think books about minorities don’t sell, we don’t put them in bookshops where they – big surprise – can’t possibly sell.” 

The former teacher said change will come only when folks at all levels – from publishers and writers to booksellers and librarians – take responsibility.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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