Exclusive numbers gathered by the Toronto Star for the second year in a row show that, while the voices represented in children’s books published in this country are still overwhelmingly white, other voices are gaining incrementally.
Overall, publishers reported that, in 2019, 419 books with a Canadian author or illustrator were published in Canada, featuring 525 main characters.
Of those books, 37.5 per cent feature main characters who are white, a decrease of 8.2 per cent over 2018, while 29.3 per cent have main characters who are Black, Indigenous, East Asian or South Asian, an increase of 4.9 per cent over the previous year.
“I’m not surprised by what could be described as incremental change between the … surveys,” says Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers. “Publishers typically work a couple of years in advance (sometimes more) and I expect we’ll see more change over time.”
The Star first took a snapshot of diversity in Canadian children’s book publishing last year, looking at the 2018 publishing year, with a Canadian book identified as being published in Canada and having a Canadian author or illustrator.
At the time, in a variety of interviews and conversations, a common message was being heard: that people of colour didn’t see themselves represented in the kids books published here. There was no official Canadian measurement of those books, but there was one in the U.S.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Centre in Wisconsin began tracking in 1985 how many books were published in the U.S. and, of those, how many were by Black authors and illustrators. Over time, they expanded to include First Nations, Asian/Pacific creators and others, developing a body of data.
“These numbers are important because they help create a framework from which we can work toward greater accountability in the children’s literature publishing industry,” says Rabia Khokhar, a teacher/librarian with the Toronto District School Board. “The numbers are a form of documentation and help us recognize where we are and where we need to continue striving to move toward.”
Last year, 76 per cent of publishers who were sent the survey replied; this year the response rate was still high at about 70 per cent. Those who didn’t respond were generally small publishers, some of whom may not have published any children’s books in 2019.
In the survey, we asked: How many Canadian-authored and/or illustrated children’s books did they publish in 2019 in three categories: Picture Books (ages zero to 8), Middle Grade Books (ages eight to 12) and Young Adult Books (ages 13 and older).
We then asked them to break down for each of those categories how many featured main characters who identified as one of the following: Black; Indigenous; East Asian; South Asian; white; other ethnicity; or animals (no ethnicity). We kept to main characters because if there is a white main character with non-white characters in only minor roles, the white person is still the dominant character.
Separately, we asked, for each category, how many were LGBTQ characters, visibly disabled characters and invisibly disabled (mental illness, learning disabilities).
Overall, white characters still make up the bulk of main characters with 197 of 525, or 37.5 per cent of all main characters, being white. That is, however, a drop from last year of 8.2 per cent.
Also overall, 154 books, or 29.3 per cent, contained main characters who were Black, Indigenous, South Asian or East Asian. That represented an increase over last year of 4.9 per cent, helped by a rise in middle-grade books with a 7.5 per cent increase. Young adult books actually recorded a decrease of 3.6 per cent year over year.
Break the numbers down into specific ethnicities and some groups are better represented than others.
According to Statistics Canada, 7,674,580 people, or just more than 22 per cent of those who filled out the 2016 census, identify as a visible minority out of a total population of 34,460,065. Of those, 1,198,545 or 3.5 per cent identify as Black; 1,924,635 or 5.6 per cent as South Asian; 1,858,690 or 5.4 per cent as East Asian; and 2,692,715 or eight per cent as another visible minority. Those who identified as Aboriginal made up just under five per cent of the population at 1,673,785.
Almost 78 per cent of the population, or 26,785,485 people, identify as not a visible minority. And 22 per cent of the population is identified as disabled.
So, in picture books this year, 11.5 per cent of main characters were Black, compared to 3.5 per cent of the population. By the time we get to middle-grade books, that number shrinks to 9.2 per cent and just five per cent for YA books. Indigenous characters featured well in picture books at 7.7 per cent, but in middle-grade books accounted for only 2.8 per cent of main characters.
The number of books featuring a main character who is visibly or invisibly disabled marked a positive change: 39 out of the 525 characters fell into those categories, while last year 28 characters did. Overall, that marks an increase of 2.7 per cent for visibly disabled characters, while invisibly disabled characters fell marginally year over year.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer, author of “Falling For Myself” and a disability activist, says she’s glad to see there’s been some improvement. She does think that there’s a special onus on publishers, especially with the pandemic “erasing disabled and senior voices” to “reclaim those voices and make sure they don’t disappear.” She also notes that “it’s critically important that some of these disabled characters and authors aren’t white … 23 per cent of every racialized community is disabled.”
Finally, we asked in a separate question how many of the writers/illustrators were persons of colour. Publishers reported that 75 of the authors and 53 of the illustrators were people of colour, while six of the authors and one of the illustrators had a visible or invisible disability. Some of those writers and illustrators might have worked on multiple books. A few publishers noted that they did not want to say whether someone was invisibly disabled if they hadn’t self-identified that way, so didn’t include them.
Our ultimate goal should be to move toward authentic and dynamic diverse representation both in the books as well as those writing them
“One of the challenges of getting diverse books published in Canada is the idea of ‘gatekeeping,’” Kokhar said. “We have to consider who is deciding which story is ‘of value’ and ‘worth’ publishing and sharing widely. There is power in having the privilege to choose or reject a story as well as creating and giving space to someone to share it.”
In a year when Black Lives Matter and social activism have been front and centre in the media, the publishing community has been forcefully nudged to address the issue.
“Along with response to the pandemic, anti-racism and equity initiatives have been a focus for ACP this year,” Edwards said. “Many companies are looking at issues like editorial bias and more equitable staff recruitment, with the goal of ensuring that the books they publish, and the people who produce them, reflect Canada’s diversity.”
Penguin Random House, for example, recently appointed Sue Kuruvilla to head its Random House Canada imprint. Kuruvilla has deep roots in marketing and is also a founding member of Canadian Black Standard, “a network and advocacy platform addressing systemic barriers to employment advancement and the inclusion of Black Canadian women in marketing.”
Kristin Cochrane, the publishing house’s CEO, said in a statement that she wanted to hire someone “who would bring us all a fresh perspective, someone who could find new ways to approach publishing on a book-by-book level and for the list as a whole.”
Jael Richardson, author and founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity, notes, as did Edwards, that it takes time for initiatives to end up in actual product.
“We have to count, we have to start asking these questions, but I don’t think any publisher should be congratulating themselves on what they’re doing at this point because, even if they’re doing good work, the important thing is going to be doing it over the long haul.”
In the U.K., the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has undertaken a similar survey and is now on its third year.
Its latest survey reports that “the number of children’s books published in the UK over the last three years (2017-19) featuring characters from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background has increased to 10% in 2019, rising from 4% in 2017, 7% in 2018 to 10% in 2019.”
The organization also pointed out that the characters remain “significantly under-represented in comparison to the UK primary school population where 33.5% of children are from a minority ethnic background.”
In terms of authors and illustrators of colour published in the UK, those have “grown to 8% … rising from less than 6% in 2017.”
The results of the Star’s first diversity survey were presented in February at the Treasure Mountain symposium of teacher/librarians in Toronto. While the survey measures whether authors or illustrators were of colour, LGBTQ or disabled, there is not a measure of whether the stories themselves were about them — as opposed to simply featuring characters that appeared diverse.
It was a concern Richardson raised when we spoke with her. “I’m concerned because one of the things I’m seeing a lot is colour washing where they’re colouring characters differently, but they’re not actually economically investing in the authors who could be writing more in-depth experiences, fiction and non-fiction.”
After seeing the survey presented, Toni Duval, a middle school teacher/librarian at the Peel District School Board and a volunteer at FOLD Kids, says that she asked herself the question, “What do I know deeply about the books on my shelves?”
So she started to take her own survey. “I thought, if I start to look at what’s on the shelves, and who are the authors, then I’m gonna get an idea of who is missing.”
She initially wanted her students to be involved because they could then tell her what was missing. COVID-19 didn’t allow that to happen. So, instead, she decided to bite off something smaller, and on her own during July.
She went back year by year, seeing which authors and what titles were on her shelves. “I sorted everything by publishing year,” she says. “And the further away I went from the present, the whiter my collection was. It was so blatant.”
Part of that is down to the books available for libraries to purchase, as well as distribution: getting them onto the shelves of libraries and into the hands of students. She also began cross-referencing, asking herself was an Asian writer writing about an Asian character?
Other librarians, she says, are interested in her work. “It’s getting people thinking about who’s on the shelves.” And increasing the diversity they represent so students see that their voices have value, too.
Duval questions the choices students are being given. “Not just giving a Black author to a Black student … but who else is reading those books? With the students I teach, I want them to understand so many lived experiences that they just feel like the world is represented to them and they don’t have this narrow view.”
Publishing the books is only one step in the process. Getting diverse books in the hands of all kids is the next step.
“There’s so many voices that, hopefully, will get a chance to be published,” said Duval. “And maybe those are going to be kids that I’m teaching that feel, ‘Yeah, I could tell my story.’”