A survey of diversity in children’s books is flawed

7 September 2021
What was claimed

Just 10% of children’s books in the UK in 2019 had at least one character from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background.

Our verdict

This figure comes from flawed research and is not reliable. It’s also important to consider that many books in the survey did not have human characters.

A study revealed just 10% of publications had characters from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

A BBC News article reports that 10% of children’s books in 2019 had characters from ethnic minority backgrounds.

This figure comes from flawed research by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE). Comparing the figure with the 33.5% of primary school children who are from an ethnic minority background, as the BBC article goes on to do, is also misleading, because many books in the survey feature characters who do not have any ethnicity as they are not human.

The research has previously also been reported by the Bookseller, and cited in articles in the Conversation and the TES.

CLPE says that it does the survey because children need to see role models that look like them in their reading books. But while underrepresentation of characters from ethnic minority backgrounds in children’s books may be a serious problem, the headline findings from this research do not reliably tell us about this.

Since this article was first published, the CLPE—which disagrees with our conclusions about its research—has shared more information with us by email, and in a new blog on its report’s methodology. We have updated this fact check throughout to include this additional information.

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What did the researchers do?

In a series of annual reports called Reflecting Realities, the CLPE “invited UK Publishers of Children’s Literature to identify, collate and submit all of their titles that fulfilled the criteria”. This meant all children’s fiction, nonfiction and picture books for 3-11-year-olds that contained “Black, Asian and or Minority Ethnic Characters”, first published in a given year.

For its latest report in 2020, the CLPE received 680 eligible books that had been published in 2019.

In the same year, it said that 6,478 children’s books had been published. On this basis, it said that 10% of children’s books contained ethnic minority characters. (Because 680 is roughly 10% of 6,478.) By studying the books it received, and apparently using the same method, the CLPE also concluded that “5% of children’s books had an ethnic minority main character”.

But these calculations and the ways they are presented by the research are flawed.

What did they do wrong?

In dividing the number of books it received by the total number published to get an overall percentage, the CLPE used two different sets of data to calculate its headline figures. That means for those figures to be accurate, it would need to have received every children’s book with an ethnic minority character published in the relevant year.

While it is possible that this happened, and the CLPE took steps to ensure it got a good response from publishers, it appears possible there may have been some omissions, because some publishers may not have participated.

Since we first published this article, the CLPE has given us much more detail on its methodology. The total number of children’s publishers is hard to pin down - there’s no single definitive list of children’s publishers and the number fluctuates from year to year. The CLPE says it checked the list of publishers it works with against lists from the Publishers Association and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and identified 50 publishers. It told us it heard from 48 publishers—46 of which sent eligible submissions. (Its new blog gives more detail on what it does to ensure it gets a good response.)

Assuming that the CLPE’s list of publishers is comprehensive, it is still possible that some children’s books with ethnic minority characters were missed for the following reasons:

  • Two publishers who were contacted did not respond. The CLPE told us: ”We chased the two we didn’t hear from and we didn’t hear back from them so assume that they had no books to submit.” We don’t know if this assumption was right, or which publishers they were.
  • Self-publishers do not appear to have been contacted. The CLPE told us it welcomes and reviews any titles submitted by self-publishers. However it said: “Our focus is on commercial publishers as they make up the most significant proportion of the industry output and their titles are what form the basis of classroom, library and bookshop bookshelves. The number of self-published children’s titles would not be significant enough to skew the overarching figures.” It may be true that self-published titles make up a small part of children’s publishing, but we have not been able to find good evidence for this. Nor is this question mentioned in the Reflecting Realities report.

For these reasons, the headline figure as it is calculated appears unreliable. Unless all publishers who did not participate only released books with exclusively white or non-human characters, the CLPE’s survey was missing some examples.

Number of books published

The Reflecting Realities report says that the total number of children’s books, which is also used to calculate its headline figures, is “drawn from the Nielsen Book Database, which includes children’s fiction, non-fiction and picture books specifically aimed at 3-11 year olds”.

Counting total numbers of individual books can be tricky, because the same book may be published several times in different editions and variations, such as hardback, paperback and ebook. However, since this article was first published, the CLPE has said that it removes multiple editions from the list that it receives from Nielsen.

The CLPE also collects the total number of children’s books published by publishers participating in its survey. It told us “we ask all publishers who submit to tell us the number of 3-11 books they have published in the year” and said that this is used as a “checkpoint” when using the number from the Nielsen database. However the CLPE has not published this total figure, so we don’t know if or how it may differ from the Nielsen figure.

What about non-human characters?

Many books for young children do not contain human characters at all. Starting with its second report, the CLPE did address this, by asking publishers to report what proportion of their books had non-human main characters (animals or inanimate objects).

In 2019, the CLPE says that 64% of books from participating publishers featured “human main cast characters”. However, it does not adjust its overall percentage to take account of this, or mention it in the research's 'key findings'.  It says: “A focus on animal characters diverts the attention, energies and efforts of stakeholders from addressing the real issue.” It also says that on the basis of its statistics, “a reader from an ethnic minority background is more likely to encounter an animal protagonist than they are to experience a main character that shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage”.

Yet the CLPE research directly contrasts its 5% “main character” figure with the estimated 33.5% of children of primary school age with an ethnic minority background (in January 2019). And the BBC article makes the same comparison using the 10% figure. These are misleading comparisons, because only 64% of the books had human main cast characters, whereas 100% of children are human.

What’s the real picture?

Overall, it is very hard to say to what extent ethnic minority characters may be underrepresented in children’s books, because we don’t reliably know what proportion of children’s books had ethnic minority characters, and in order to make a fair comparison with the proportion of schoolchildren from ethnic minorities, you would also need to account for the fact that many children’s books have no human characters.

As the CLPE collects the total number of children’s books published by participating publishers, it ought to be able to calculate what proportion of its sample contained an ethnic minority character. That might produce a more reliable figure for the true proportion of books with ethnic minority characters, although we can’t say whether participating publishers are a representative sample.

When it first designed Reflecting Realities, the CLPE consulted with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has run a similar survey for many years. The CCBC does report the number of books with ethnic minority characters along with the total number of books from participating publishers, which makes it possible to calculate this percentage.

When we asked the CLPE why it had not followed the CCBC’s methodology, it told us:  “Having visited the CCBC in America, we decided not to replicate their process in the UK survey... The process they use is particular to their context and has been developed over 30 years.”

We have not been able to find any other research about the ethnicity of characters in children's books in the UK, so we don't know whether the CLPE's findings would be borne out by other surveys.

Update 23 September 2021

This article has been updated to include new information received from the CLPE after publication.

Correction 27 September 2021

We have deleted a section about the potential number of children's publishers in the UK, because a figure we quoted was from a source that wasn’t comparable and included some companies which were not publishers, and we have not been able to find more reliable data.

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