When it comes to children’s books, it turns out the US isn’t the only country with a diversity problem.
The UK’s children’s book world has been embroiled in controversy after a Sky News headline mistakenly quoted UK children’s laureate Malorie Blackman as saying children’s books “have too many white faces.” (The headline was later changed.)
While Blackman told the UK’s Guardian she never uttered those words, she did say the country needs more black and minority characters in its children’s books. And her comments have sparked a furious backlash in the UK.
"Books allows you to see the world through the eyes of others," Blackman said. "Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else's shoes for a while…. And fiction is an incredibly important force in shaping children and that's why fiction needs to be diverse."
She added, "but we still have a way to go in this country to diversify books. And that isn't just for books, that's films and TV, too.”
But it was this misquoted statement and headline that readers honed in on: "[Blackman] believes there are too many white faces in books and fears the lack of diversity stops children from reading and pursuing the arts,” the piece, originally entitled “Children’s books ‘have too many white faces,’” misquoted Blackman as saying.
Following that article’s publication in the UK, Blackman received an outpouring of racist comments. Even after Blackman complained that she was misquoted and the headline was changed, she continued to receive what she calls “hatred, threats, and vitriol.”
Though she left Twitter and her 14,000 followers for a short while following the abusive comments, Blackman returned, saying "hell will freeze over before I let racists and haters silence me.”
The debate has spawned a new hashtag in the UK, #WeNeedDiverseBooksUK, echoing a wider social media campaign launched in the US #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
As we reported in an earlier post titled “Lack of diversity in book world continues to stir debate," that hashtag was started in the US after Book Expo America Bookcon announced its panel lineup and critics cried foul that all 30 authors on it were white.
Since she started the UK’s version of that hashtag, Blackman made a call on Twitter for "diversity and inclusion. More books featuring kids/YA with disabilities, LGBT, people of colour, travellers, different cultures, religions pls.”
Blackman, who was made children’s laureate in the UK last year, has authored more than 50 books, including the prize-winning "Noughts and Crosses" series, which imagines a world where dark-skinned Crosses rule over the suppressed white Noughts.
"What I love is when people in Ireland write to me, saying 'Oh, you're talking about Protestants and Catholics'. People in Israel ask me, 'Are you talking about Jewish people and the Palestinians?' I find that so flattering, that people are taking what they need from it and applying it to their own lives,” she told the Guardian.
Still, she thinks UK children’s literature is sorely lacking in diversity – and that hurts readers of all stripes and colors.
“[Y]ou want to escape into fiction as well and read about other people, other cultures, other lives, other planets and so on,” she told Sky News.
The problem will only be solved when publishers, editors, and others in the publishing industry, not just authors, work toward a more diverse body of books.
“I think what we need, especially in publishing, is more commissioning editors, and editors who are people of colour,” she told Sky News. “We need more people working in the publishing industry itself who are people of colour.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.