The most popular picture books published in 2018 collectively present a white and male-dominated world to children, feature very few BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) characters and have become more biased against girls in the past year, Guardian research reveals.
In-depth analysis of the top 100 bestselling illustrated children’s books of 2018, using data from Nielsen BookScan, has been carried out by the Guardian and Observer for the second year in a row.
It shows that only five bestsellers feature a BAME character in a central role, with three of those being just one character: Lanky Len, the nasty mixed-race burglar in Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks’ series What the Ladybird Heard.
Male characters continue to dominate the most popular picture books: a child is 1.6 times more likely to read one with a male rather than a female lead, and seven times more likely to read a story that has a male villain in it than a female baddie. Male characters outnumbered female characters in more than half the books, while females outnumber males less than a fifth of the time.
A quarter of the books portrayed only white people, while almost 70% of the books with illustrations of BAME characters featured them only in non-speaking roles. Just two of 2018’s bestsellers – You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, and The Girl, the Bear and the Magic Shoes by Donaldson, illustrated by Monks – showed BAME girls in central roles. Only seven books feature BAME characters important enough to the story to be referred to by name.
When bestsellers did include characters who were female or from BAME backgrounds, they were much less likely to speak than white, male characters. Only 11 characters of colour were given speaking parts across all the 100 books and just 79 female characters mentioned in the texts also spoke, compared with 149 male characters. Speaking roles for male characters rose by 19% over the previous year, while one in five bestsellers did not feature any females at all.
Despite this dominance of male characters, not a single bestseller features a BAME male as its central character. The only black boy named in any of the books is Toto, a character in Roald Dahl’s 1978 book The Enormous Crocodile.
In total, more than a fifth of the sample were first published in the last century. All-male classics such as Dear Zoo and Guess How Much I Love You dominated the top 10 for yet another year, while beloved all-white masterpieces such as The Cat in the Hat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea continue outsell modern books.
But newer picture books are increasingly breaking into the top 100: 22 of the bestsellers were published in the previous 12 months, a significant 29% increase on 2017. However, only 41% of characters in the texts were identified as female, while 59% were male – exactly the same proportion as in 2017, when fewer modern books featured in the list.
“It’s really disappointing to see that things are getting worse, rather than better, and that newer books aren’t helping to make our kids’ bookshelves more balanced,” said Jess Day, from the gender equality campaign Let Toys Be Toys. “What we tell very young children has a strong influence – and what they’re seeing in books is a world where male is the default, male voices dominate and BAME characters are rarely at the centre of the story.”
No same-sex families were portrayed in the books and Donaldson’s The Everywhere Bear, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, is the only book which depicts a disabled child. She is white and does not speak or play a key role in the story.
The lack of diversity displayed in the books reflects a lack of diversity among the authors and illustrators themselves: not a single author or illustrator of a bestselling picture book was identified as BAME by the Guardian. Around two-thirds of the bestselling authors (65%) and illustrators (67%) were male.
These numbers reflect earlier research by the BookTrust, which found a severe lack of BAME illustrators of children’s books: more than 94% are currently white, and less than 2% are British people of colour.
“While there is lots of positive work happening to help level the playing field, there is still a long way to go,” said Jill Coleman, director of children’s books at BookTrust, which recently launched a three-year programme to support and subsidise BAME children’s authors and illustrators. “Children need and deserve to see themselves in books, and to have access to a rich and diverse range of voices.”
Emma House, deputy chief executive of the Publishers Association, called the results “highly concerning” and said that publishers had to “recognise their responsibility to reflect society and enrich the lives of all children through books”. While diversity initiatives were looking promising, “it will take time for these changes to permeate bestseller lists”, she said.
In analysis revealed last year, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) found that of the 9,115 children’s books published in 2017, just 1% featured a BAME main character, while 96% depicted no BAME characters at all.
Charlotte Hacking of CLPE said that the perception among publishers that books with diverse casts don’t sell had created the bias towards white characters. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.
Hacking called on publishers to increase the marketing for books with diverse casts so the bestseller list would more accurately reflect the diversity of modern Britain. Around a third of schoolchildren in England are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Department of Education, and 48% are female, according to the ONS.
Kate Pankhurst, author and illustrator of the Fantastically Great Women series of picture books, said that authors and illustrators had a duty to include diverse characters to avoid imparting the message that only certain people have agency and leadership qualities.
“We have to question why that is seen as acceptable, when it isn’t,” she said.