- "Insufficient Degrees of Representation":Examining Racial Diversity and Book Prizes in UK Children's Publishing
Measuring the success of a book is a difficult task. Does success mean high sales figures? A large readership? Review space in national media? The idea of success is inherently intangible; a book can sell over a million copies, yet still be considered "dull and poorly written" by critics, as was the case with E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Dowd). Book prizes seem to offer a solution to this problem as they confer financial and critical acclaim upon one book above all others. However, book prizes raise their own set of problems, namely, who gets to choose which books are consecrated and what external factors influence the consecration process. It is in answering these questions that the issue of representation arises, and in particular the question of whether authors of color1 are fairly represented. The lack of representation of people of color within children's literature has long been acknowledged in the United States—particularly with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, publisher Lee and Low's diversity baseline survey and the annual publishing statistics provided by the Cooperative Children's Book Center School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—but the issue has only recently come to prominence in the United Kingdom. The quote in the title of this article is taken from a 2018 report published by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), which examined the representation of people of color in UK children's books ("Reflecting Realities 2017"). Their follow-up 2019 report established that, of the children's books published in the UK in 2018, only 7 percent featured BAME characters, and 4 percent featured a BAME main character ("Reflecting Realities 2018" 5). When compared with the fact that BAME children make up 33.1 percent of the UK's school population, it is clear that children of color are being underrepresented. [End Page 136]
Melanie Ramdarshan Bold has described the lack of representation as a cycle, which means that if children of color do not see themselves as main characters or authors of books, it becomes less likely that they will grow up to write books of their own, centered around their own stories ("Representation of People of Colour" 13). Furthermore, American scholar Rudine Sims Bishop states that books function both as windows that allow children to see into another world, and as mirrors through which they can understand their lived experience as "part of the larger human experience" (ix–xi). Books are therefore a vital part of children's development and every child deserves to see themselves reflected in the stories they read.
I work as a children's bookseller at Waterstones, and I have seen the impact book prizes can have on encouraging customers to either buy or talk about a particular book, specifically the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (WCBP) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)'s Carnegie Medal (CM). The WCBP is heavily promoted within all Waterstones branches, with shops dedicating either tables or full displays to it for over a month. Booksellers are encouraged to talk about the prize with customers, and the winning book becomes a Book of the Month, with large displays devoted to it. Waterstones does not promote the CM to the same extent as it promotes its own prize, however the winning books are re-issued by the publisher with a gold stamp on the cover and this can help customers identify the Carnegie winners more easily. In my experience, informing customers that a book has won an award makes them more likely to buy it—especially parents overwhelmed by reading lists who can use awards as a way to choose the "higher quality" books. Thus, the exclusion of authors of color from this form of consecration implies that their stories are not important, and this can have a negative impact on children of color. Sims Bishop states that if children do not see themselves reflected in books, they learn an enduring lesson about how they are "devalued in the society of which they are a...