Diversity has decreased in children’s book characters; we discuss the issue with a publisher and illustrator

Last month, WordsRated, a non-commercial research organisation, published a report revealing the lasting impact the Black Lives Matter protests – and the resulting surge of commitment to representation – had on a historically homogenous medium: children’s book illustration. Analysing 1,511 children’s bestsellers published between 2012 and 2021, the report outlined the following: the percentage of Black characters in children’s bestsellers decreased by 23 per cent from 2020 to 2021; there was a 31 per cent decrease in children’s bestsellers written by Black authors from 2020 to 2021; in 2021, there are still 3.5 children’s bestsellers by a white author for every bestseller by a Black author.
The report concluded that, following an uptick in representation in 2020 – when there were more Black characters than white characters in children’s bestsellers for the first time ever – the increase in diversity not only halted, but took a step backwards in 2021. Despite previous year-on-year rises, the momentum around representation diminished as fast as it came.
To discuss how the industry looked from the inside during this “bounce” and resulting “fade”, as the report states, It’s Nice That spoke to children’s book illustrator Onyinye Iwu and Marssaié, creative director of independent London-based publisher Knights Of. “Following the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder there was a buzz in all industries to do better where it comes to racism,” Onyinye tells us. “It was obvious this was a very emotional response and everyone wanted to be seen to be doing something ‘for Black people’, some of it was genuine, some of it was following a band-wagon.” For Onyinye, the “buzz” had translated into real-world opportunities. In the summer of 2020, she found herself going from an unknown illustrator to receiving five unsolicited representation proposals from literary agents, alongside a multitude of work offers.

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