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The Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books hasn’t Improved Nearly Enough

There was a lack of diversity in books when I was younger, but I don’t believe enough has changed as we approach 2020, says Mary Obozua...

  • The Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books hasn’t Improved Nearly Enough

My mum called me recently, sounding as elated as usual. She asked me to put her on loud speaker.

My sister was staying with me for the weekend and our mum, who is a teacher, had been using the holidays to catch up on a delayed spring clean. “Am I on loud speaker?” she asked, chuckling in her soft Nigerian accent.

“Yes,” we chorused back.

Mum joyfully explained that she had found our old school reports from over 20 years ago.

She read extracts from our reports declaring that we’re still the same to this day: my brother stubborn and confident, my sister outspoken and caring, and me always listening to others’ opinions but rarely speaking out – preferring to write down my thoughts.

The reports reflected our career choices in many ways; my brother pursuing work as an actor, my younger sister choosing to train as a teacher.

We had all learned to find our voice from a young age, in different ways.

Not having a television in the house as children, and being encouraged to read and write to pass the time definitely made an impact on our creativity – although it took me until my adult years to realise that expressing my opinions or views didn’t have to be a negative experience.

I kept my emotions inside, never wanting to rock the boat, always wanting to be seen as the easy-going, happy one.

I had my nose in a book and a pen in my hand throughout my childhood. It took a while to find my voice above the pages.

Now, in my role as an author, I use my voice in different ways. My first love of writing continues to be a major part of my life to this day.

One of the joys of writing my children’s book series, Stars of Paradise, is being able to regularly visit primary schools to do readings and book signings.

It is fabulous to see the growing interest in books with diverse characters, with themes including science, innovation, technology and engineering (particularly among the girls) and to answer questions from children.

I get asked how to write a book and get it published, and even how to create a time travel machine!

It’s great to see a growing focus on mindset in schools, too, with posters on the walls declaring encouraging statements such as “failure is an opportunity to grow”, “I am inspired by the success of others’ and ‘feedback is constructive’.

I’m also inspired by how diverse and inclusive schools are today. It almost brought tears to my eyes while I was visiting a school close to where I grew up.

When I went to school near there, it was a very different picture, with little cultural diversity. I mentioned my delight in seeing the many inclusivity initiatives being run by the school while talking to a classroom teaching assistant.

She admitted she was surprised at how different it was just a few years ago, and gazed around the school hall, trying to visualise the diversity struggle that I and many other children had shared.

She shook her head in disbelief and simply said, “Really? Was it really like that?”

There is only a year between me and each of my siblings, so there was just one black child per year in that school – and that quota was filled by me and my family.

I was born in Nigeria but we left when I was two. All I knew growing up was a predominantly British way of life – with the exceptions of massive Nigerian weddings and delicious home-cooked meals!

Although that was our reality growing up, we had amazing teachers who fully supported us. School was fun!

Looking back, I didn’t feel that the colour of my skin was an issue at all. My teacher, who had travelled the world prior to teaching us in Y6, embraced cultural differences and wanted me to do the same.

A young Mo Farah walked into my Y6 class one day and I remember thinking, “Wow, at least I’m not the only one.” I felt ‘normal’.

Before I left to attend senior school, I recalled how different things were once he had joined – obviously not as ‘Sir’ then, just shy and lovely Mo.

It was wonderful then to see him just ‘fit in’; after all, my teacher had really got the hang of making everyone feel valued and welcome.

This memory serves to demonstrate that a national treasure was nurtured in an environment of inclusion in education. A place where Mo, my siblings and I felt accepted and happy.

But we rarely got to see ‘us’ in books. So we just created our own stories. And while there was a lack of diversity in books when I was younger, I don’t believe that much has changed as we approach 2020.

Thankfully we have trending campaigns, such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks in the United States that are starting to have an impact in the UK, but so much more needs to be invested into supporting literature that allows children from various backgrounds feel represented, even if that is about growing up in the East End of London, as opposed to a village in Africa.

So much more could be done to support authors who have a wonderful, diverse cast to tell a story.

My story brings to life a culturally diverse cast with the aim of helping children feel represented.

The wonderful, smiling faces of the children in the first school I visited, as I read the opening pages of my new book, will stay with me forever.

Their questions were eye opening and hearing two children say how happy they felt to see themselves in such a story was priceless.

It’s this feedback that keeps me wanting to carry on until all children can see themselves represented in literature – whatever their cultural background, skin colour or address.

Mary Obozua is the author of Stars of Paradise (£6.99, Hashtag Press).

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