Children do not see themselves represented in the books they read

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Fundraising campaign: One of the National Literacy Trust's 12 shortlisted Christmas card designs was from Isabella, 6, from Creswick School in Welwyn Garden City

A third of children do not see themselves represented in the books they read, struggling to find characters who look similar or share similar characteristics or circumstances.

The findings come in a report from the National Literacy Trust (Best et al, 2020) based on responses from more than 58,000 young people aged nine to 18 from 315 UK schools.

The results reveal that 33 per cent of the respondents said that they did not “see themselves” in what they read. This rises to 37 per cent for children living in poverty, 40 per cent for those from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 46 per cent for young people from Black backgrounds. The issue is of more concern to younger pupils, aged nine to 11, the research notes.

Gender identity is also an area with poor representation in children’s literature, the report adds. It states: “This could be a particular issue for those struggling with their gender identity or suffering discrimination or bullying.”

The report raises concerns that this lack of representation is affecting children’s engagement with reading.

It adds: “Commentators on this topic have noted that for some, books act as mirrors to affirm a reader’s own identity, while for others, books can act as maps that help readers to seek their place in the world.”

It quotes recent research from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education which found that only 10 per cent of children’s books contained characters from an ethnic minority, only half of which were a main character. Currently, around 33 per cent of the UK school population is from an ethnic minority background.

The report concludes: “We worry that kids who are struggling with issues of racism, gender identification, violence, physical abuse, verbal abuse, or religious persecution may not have access to books that can provide images of other kids who are in similar circumstances to their own. In other words, those students who are most vulnerable have the least chance of reading books that could be helpful in dealing with difficult issues that are present in their lives (Leyland, Lewison & Harste, 2013).”

Alongside the research, the NLT has worked with 12 well-known authors to publish a list of the books they first saw themselves in, really connected with or would have loved to have read as a child. The list includes:

  • Bali Rai, author of Mohinder’s War, selected the book Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan (for children aged 6 to 10).
  • Kevin Tsang, co-author of Dragon Mountain, selected Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (for children aged 10-plus).
  • Dean atta, author of The Black Flamingo, selected Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  • (10-plus).
  • Ross Welford, author of The Kid Who Came From Space, selected Walkabout by James Vance Marshall (10-plus).

The also research coincides with a fundraising appeal to help improve children’s access to books that better represent them and their communities and circumstances. The NLT is asking for £7 personal donations to help fund this work.

Elsewhere, the NLT has unveiled the 12 winners of its Christmas card design competition. Designs were submitted by young people from across the country.

Artistic flair: The winning Christmas card design was from Nuala, 10, from Hughenden Primary School in High Wycombe. Her card and 11 other shortlisted entries are now available to purchase with proceeds going to the National Literacy Trust

The winning design, by Nuala, 10, from High Wycombe, was selected by illustrator Dapo Adeola. A further 11 entries were shortlisted in the finals. All 12 cards are now available to buy with proceeds supporting the NLT’s work.


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