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Why BAME Representation in Children’s Books Matters


Born and raised in the vibrant East End of London and in a Nigerian household, Sarah Asuquo thrives on culture and diversity. Her passion to help young people become the best they can be has led her to volunteer with charities supporting children and a career as an English Teacher. Her writing venture is influenced by her experiences with the children she has encountered and she aims to write books that reflect the multicultural society of today in an accurate, relatable, inspiring and positive manner.

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In November 2017, when looking for children’s books for my niece and nephews, I struggled to find books with characters who were black or from any ethnic minority. This bothered me. This experience then led me to reflect upon the books that I read as a child; so many classics that I highly enjoyed, but did not represent the multicultural environment I grew up in. The first black characters I encountered were in secondary school, ‘Crooks’ in Of Mice and Men, who lived a depressing life of racial abuse, was referred to using derogatory racial language and was ostracised from society, and ‘Cassie’ in Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, who narrates a tale of oppression as an African American and who eventually realises that black people were simply helpless to this persecution. Both characters were uninspiring and hopeless.

I then began to think about the schools that I have worked in. Primary and Secondary schools within inner London that have a large percentage of black and minority students. Yet, the books on their school shelves did not represent them.

These experiences fuelled my desire to write my own children’s book. One that represented the multicultural environment I am accustomed to. One that reflects my experiences accurately and positively. One that inspires and brings hope. A month later, Shine was born.

When I researched further into the representation of ethnic minorities within children’s literature, I found that my experiences were not rare and how much of a problem it was. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education conducted research which was widely reported in the U.K. last summer. They found that in 2017, a mere 4% of children’s books published in the U.K. had a Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority character and only 1% of children’s books had a main character who was Black. These shocking findings caused me to ask:

  • How does this affect children from minority groups? What does this tell them about the value of their experiences, their cultures, and their beliefs?
  • How does this affect children who are not from minority ethnic groups? What does this tell them about their Black, Asian and minority group peers?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but what I strongly believe is that every child deserves to see themselves reflected in the books that they read. All cultures and all races should be valued and celebrated. By failing to do so, we are sending out the message, that not everyone matters.

It is vital that all children read books that celebrate all races. This is how we develop equality, this is how we teach inclusion, and this is how we show that everyone is valued.

Once I decided to write my own children’s book, it was important that the story would inspire and empower children in an engaging, understandable and most importantly, a relatable manner. Shinedeals with themes including bulling, self-confidence and forgiveness in a way that’s not demoralising but instead empowering and uplifting. Many of us have experienced a period of feeling inadequate or wishing we could change an aspect of ourselves at some point in our lives. Shine aims to equip children with the self-confidence they need if they ever experience situations that can lower their self-esteem.

The BAME book industry is growing, but it needs continued to support to grow further. I hope that, in the very near future, our libraries, our bookshelves and our school books will reflect all. And when I say ‘all’, I am not just referring to race, but to disability, learning needs and all groups of people. I hope that every child will be able to read books that represent themselves.

When I first saw my nephews and my niece’s response to the book, what they learned from the story, and most importantly, how they were able to see characters who looked like themselves as well as characters who looked like their friends of different backgrounds, that meant everything to me. I achieved what I initially aimed to do. So, irrespective of what the future may entail for Shine, I have no regrets and I am filled with pride.

You can buy Shine here

Sarah Asuquo author Shine

 


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