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Children’s picture books still overwhelmingly white, middle-class & heteronormative
Dr Helen Adam and Dr Sally Murphy
The call for the publication and use of diverse books for children is gaining momentum worldwide. Dr Helen Adam (Edith Cowan University) and Dr Sally Murphy (Curtin University) studied award-winning Australian picture books in 2019 and 2020. They argue that we have a long way to go before we realise the importance and potential of diverse books to build a more socially just future for all children.
Children’s images of themselves, the people around them and their place in the world are formed over time from birth. One key way they learn about the world, both explicitly and implicitly, is through the literature shared with them by parents and caregivers. What is portrayed in those books is significant in shaping children’s self-image. If children see themselves and their world reflected, their sense of belonging grows; at the same time, when they see difference, this helps them to learn about a world other than their own.
With the support of a Freilich Project ECR Small Research Grant, we have been investigating the representation of diversity in 96 picture books shortlisted in major children’s book awards in Australia in 2019 and 2020. The results of this review are still to be published, but we can say that, while we found an increase in the overall representation of people from diverse backgrounds and identities compared to previous years, only a small number of books portrayed these groups in authentic ways or were examples of people from diverse backgrounds telling their own stories.
Further, and similar to the work of the Towards Equity project which looked at diverse representation in culture and the arts, we found that people with diverse backgrounds and identities are not proportionately represented in children’s picture books.
For this study, we conducted a book audit through a critical theoretical framework. Implicit in this conceptualisation is a probe into how literacy education including literature “mediate/s messages that children receive about their cultures and roles in society” (Boutte et al., 2008, p. 943). Content analysis and classification of books was undertaken using two instruments based on the work of leaders in the field of multicultural literature and refined during Helen’s doctoral studies.
The overarching finding was that award winning books in Australia overwhelmingly portray white, middle-class, heteronormative viewpoints and ideologies. While the perspectives of diverse groups and identities were overall not negatively represented, they were instead largely absent and thus invisible. In some books, the use of stereotypical and ill-considered images showed a somewhat superficial understanding of the ways in which images can promote authentic representation and inclusion. Such representation can place the civil, cultural, linguistic, and social rights of children at risk through the silencing of diverse perspectives rather than promotion of inclusivity and respect. Children’s rights as citizens are enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and include the importance of recognising, valuing, and respecting a child’s family, culture, language, and values.
Children’s books can extend their knowledge and understandings of themselves, their identity, and those who may differ culturally, socially or historically. They can thus support diversity and inclusion. However, children’s books can also define, exclude, and stereotype, and contribute to misconceptions and prejudice that can carry through into adulthood. Children from majority backgrounds who see themselves and familiar white middle class, heteronormative representations repeatedly can develop a sense of white superiority and normativity.
Our research findings were in keeping with a large body of evidence from around the world, which also shows the majority of children's books published present overwhelmingly white, middle-class heterosexual lifestyles. Evidence from the USA consistently shows only approximately 11% of books published contain ‘significant content, topics, characters and/or themes about African or African American, American Indian, Asian/Pacific American or Latino or Latino/American people’ (cited in Crisp et. al, 2017, p. 1). The CBCC found that this has remained constant for more than twenty years. Data released by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in the UK in 2018 showed that, of the children’s books published in 2017, only 4% featured characters belonging to a minority ethnic background (BAME) and only 1% had a BAME main character (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education [CLPE], 2018). They show a significant increase in BAME representation in the UK but caution there is still long way to go before children from diverse identities and backgrounds have similar experiences with literature to their white counterparts.
In Australia, until now, little research has been done into the publishing statistics of children's books. However, Helen’s studies in a total of nine early learning settings in recent years have shown that books available to young children are largely monocultural and heteronormative, with findings in line with those from the US and UK (Adam 2020; 2021). More recently, Caple and Tian (2021) published a study of the shortlist of the picture book category of the Children's Book Council of Australia awards over the past twenty years, finding that ‘what we do not see are characters that reflect Australian society in their full diversity of ability, sexuality and ethnicity’. Our study has looked at a broader range of books and awards than Caple and Tian and found that this limited presentation seems consistent across children’s picture books.
While there appears to be a gradual increase in representation of diverse cultures, the representation of diverse abilities, genders, and family structures is strikingly absent. These findings have important social justice implications which should be considered by the publishing industry, educators, policy makers, early childhood organisations, and those who provide higher education and training for early childhood educators.