Anyone walking into a bookshop or a library senses it intuitively: there’s still not much diversity to be found on the shelves. Research confirms the impression. Many perspectives are lacking in present-day children’s and young adult literature. But what is the extent of this underrepresentation and how big a problem is it?
In the United States, Professor Sarah Park Dahlen has examined how many different kinds of characters were to be found in English-language children’s books in 2018. Of all the characters, she found that 50% had a white skin colour, and a further 27% were animals or objects. That means that only 23% of children’s book characters in the US are non-white humans. Their origins are Native American (1%), Latin American (5%), Asiatic (7%), or African or African American (10%).
The figures for the United Kingdom are similar. In a study called Reflecting Realities the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that only 10% of all children’s books published in the UK in 2019 included one or more characters from an ethnic minority. Only 5% had one as the protagonist, despite the fact that more than a third of all British school-age children have a minority ethnic background. This does represent a slight improvement on previous years, in which the percentage of characters with such a background was only 7% (2018) or 4% (2017). Although things seem to be moving in the right direction, many young readers still do not see themselves fully reflected in children’s books.
In the Netherlands, Judi Mesman, Ymke de Bruijn and Rosanneke A. G. Emmen carried out research into the bestselling, most frequently borrowed and most celebrated children’s books between 2009 and 2018. Their results do not suggest any underrepresentation of authors or illustrators of colour (between 8% and 10%) when compared to Dutch population figures. The situation is different in regard to characters, however, since only 16% were non-white, whereas the figure is between 19% and 28% for the Dutch population aged five and under. A large majority of the characters in the study were white (84%). This suggests that children of colour in the Netherlands are less likely to come into contact with characters who resemble them, and this can have an impact on their development and their motivation to read. Female characters are also strikingly underrepresented (39%), and women characters of colour played a less prominent role in the stories studied than in real life.
Accessibility concerns not just diversity in books but access to literature. Research carried out by EDRLab shows that people with a reading disability can read no more than 10% of the books produced annually. EDRLab has set itself the task of getting more accessible e-books onto the market. The good news is that the European Commission recently approved the European Accessibility Act, which obliges publishers to ensure that all e-books coming onto the European market after June 2025 must be made accessible to people with disabilities.