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. The true percentage is unknown, but likely to be higher.

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). It is also misleading, because many characters in children’s books have no 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.

The true figure is probably higher than 10%, but we don’t know how much higher.

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 says that “5% of children’s books had an ethnic minority main character”.

But these calculations are flawed. Their conclusions are misleading and almost certainly not accurate, for many reasons.

What did they do wrong?

By dividing the number of books it received by the total number published to get an overall percentage, the CLPE has assumed that it received every children’s book with an ethnic minority character published each year.

This is highly unlikely, because some publishers may not have participated, others may not have submitted every eligible book and it appears that self-publishers were not contacted at all. (We’ve asked the CLPE about this, but they have not responded.)

The CLPE does not say how many publishers it contacted, or how many submitted books for 2019, but we know that it received 929 book submissions from 46 publishers in 2018, and fewer submissions in total in 2019 (although it’s possible that more publishers sent fewer books between them).

It isn’t clear exactly how many publishers of children’s books exist in the UK, but 64 are listed by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. This suggests that many publishers did not submit any books to Reflecting Realities.

So unless the missing publishers only released books with exclusively white characters, the CLPE’s survey was missing some examples, and perhaps many.

Number of books published

The CLPE may also have overestimated the number of children’s books being published.

The Reflecting Realities report says: “The figures for total output of children’s books are drawn from the Nielsen Book Database, which includes children’s fiction, non-fiction and picture books specifically aimed at 3-11 year olds.”

Individual books are difficult to count, because the same book may be published several times in different editions and variations, such as hardback, paperback and ebook. Editions are easier to count, however, because they each have a unique International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

If the CLPE has counted the number of relevant ISBNs rather than the number of individual books then it may include new editions of old books as well as duplicate editions of the same book. This would overestimate the number of books published and make the percentage with ethnic minority characters look smaller than it is.

We’ve asked the CLPE whether it counted books or ISBNs, but at the time of writing, it has not responded.

What about Mrs Tiggywinkle?

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 because it says: “A focus on animal characters diverts the attention, energies and efforts of stakeholders from addressing the real issue.”

Yet the CLPE also compares its 5% “main character” figure to 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 false comparisons, because only 64% of the books had human main cast characters, whereas 100% of children are human.

What’s the real number?

Overall, it is very hard to say what percentage of children’s books contain an ethnic minority character, because we don’t reliably know how many different children’s books with human characters were published, nor how many contained ethnic minority characters.

The CLPE’s figure of 10% represents the lowest value possible for 2019, but the true number is almost certainly higher.

The CLPE does collect the total number of children’s books published by its participating publishers, which would allow it to say what proportion of its sample contained an ethnic minority character.

This might be a better guide to the true proportion of books as a whole, although participating publishers might not be a representative sample, and we’d have to assume each one included every eligible book.

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

The CLPE does not publish this information. We have asked whether they would share it with us, but at the time of writing they have not replied.

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