The issue around diversity in children’s fiction has been going on for a long time – and it’s far from solved. Why? When we know the arguments and know about the problem, why isn’t more progress being made?
Proper representation in a novel is tough. After all, you can get it horribly wrong – how many empty, 2-dimensional female characters can we find tagging along in novels? How many people have cringed at the token black character? It’s always the writer’s responsibility to try hard to paint an accurate portrait. “Write what you know” isn’t always good advice. If what you know is limited, self-centred, then go out there and learn. Writing a novel is a good way to broaden your mind.
So on the one hand it needs to be done, but on the other hand the people who have the power to do it will struggle to do it right. Which brings me to the core issue: the authors themselves. The percentage of minority-background characters in stories has gone up, but not the number of minority-background authors. It’s not enough to be present in stories, not if the stories are then taken away from the communities they belong to, being told by someone else (who might be doing so with the best possible intent). A first important step would be to give these writers the means to tell their own tales.
But even encouraging British minorities to speak up is only the first step. According to the Guardian, translation is less than 2% of the English book market. And if you’re writing in English, then you’re probably very much influenced by the culture of an English-speaking country. You’ve had to move away from your words, your language, and force yourself to use another person’s tongue to talk to them. Maybe English can’t properly express your experience, because it’s not the language of your experience. What then? We need to make the effort of reaching out to other cultures, and not force other people to come to us.
The whole publishing industry must strive to broaden representation in its books – and the people buying them need to make a conscious effort to favour those books.