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4 things I didn’t know about representation and children’s publishing (and one lesson about literacy and being alive)

By Pathways

By Moonlie Fong-Whittaker

Despite holding a degree specialising in race and education and having worked closely with BAME issues over the course of my career, I was amazed at how much I learned at the Representing Diversity Professional Development Day at CLPE. As an aspiring children’s illustrator from a Chinese background, I was shocked but not surprised to learn that the chances for BAME authors and illustrators to succeed within children’s publishing were slim. At the same time, I was intrigued by how systematic racism manifested in a unique way in the publishing world.

Here are some of the major lessons that I learned… 

1. Literacy can save lives

The fact that you can read this means that you are better off than most people. 

I was surprised to learn that there is a correlation between literacy level and life expectancy. This boils down to the fact that the ability to read allows access to certain resources that can improve or even save our lives. All the more reason for us to make reading more inviting for young children and not merely an assignment they must do for school!

2. The state of Chinese representation in British books is abysmal

This lesson is personal to my own identity. 

0.1% of characters in children’s books published in 2017 were Chinese. Why is this number so low? 

Globally, Chinese people aren’t an ethnic minority – they are the complete opposite. Of course, one can say that there are more books with Chinese characters all put together in the world. However, as an ethnic minority in the UK, we seldom see ourselves occupying important spaces in this country – whether this is at the workplace, in leadership roles, in government, in children’s books or, for me, even in my own mind. 

The reason I wrote ‘in my own mind’ is because throughout the workshop, I asked myself this question over and over again: why, as someone with a Chinese background, could I not bring myself to draw Chinese characters?  Do I see white people as the norm? I realised that for me, the change has to begin with challenging what I see as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’. 

At the same time, I do not want cookie-cutter and one dimensional  representation. There is a lot of diversity within Chinese people. We have people from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, different language groups, first generation, second generation, adopted children, mixed race – the list goes on. “0.1%” can’t begin to capture the diversity within Chinese demographics in this country.

3. There are a number of gatekeepers

Like any other industry, the publishing sector has its own gatekeepers. They take the form of agents, publishers, retail managers, librarians, teachers and even parents. It is not the child – our main audience –  who makes decisions about what makes it to the shelves. Instead, decisions are made for them by adults. 

This is why we need to persistently remind the publishing industry how important diversity is. I am so grateful to see organisations like CLPE advocating for alternative reader lists. They remind us that there is enough space for everyone on the shelf. If not, we can build more shelves!

4. Having non-white faces merely showing up in books isn’t enough

I don’t want to see people of colour playing someone’s sidekick or one of the characters in the background. No – I want to see cool, funny, smart and brave protagonists who just happens to be people of colour.

Along with this, illustrators need to learn how to draw characters of colour. I was shocked when Farrah told me that she had seen books in which Chinese characters were given yellow skin colour and flat lines for eyes.  This is not good enough for me. I am so fed up with the laziness with which some artists draw Chinese people with chopsticks in their hair, wearing conical rice hats and inexplicably surrounded by dragons. Such representations are reductive and need to change. 

5. Not here to solve racism!

We cannot hold individual artists of colour responsible for ‘solving’ racism.The battle for equality should not be fought solely by illustrators or authors from ethnic minority backgrounds.  Everyone should carry the burden of racial and social injustice. 

Illustrator and mentee Moonlie Fong-Whittaker  loves inventing quirky characters and stories. Her favourite media are watercolour and ink, but she enjoys experimenting with different techniques. 

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