Who are the characters in your picture books? #diversebooks

The Guardian recently shared their research on the bias in the UK's bestselling children's picture books. They revealed that the characters featured in these books are mostly white and male and that there is a "growing marginalisation of female and minority ethnic characters."

A note about terminology: In the UK, where The Guardian report originates, they use the term BAME: Black, Asian, and minority ethnic. In Canada we use the term BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.

Of the characters in a central role in all of the 100 books they studied, only five were BAME characters, and three of those instances were the same character over three books in a series. Only seven books featured BAME characters with a name. The gender divide is also quite stark: 59% of characters were male. And only two books showed BAME girls in a central role, while no books showed BAME boys in a central role.

The numbers are similarly dismal in the US. According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), children's books feature more non-human characters, like animals and trucks (27%), than human characters from diverse backgrounds (23%).

Infographic showing the breakdown of diversity stats in children's books based on 2018 American publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Centre, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: 50% White; 27% animals/other; 10% African/African American; 7% Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American; 5% Latinx; 1% American Indians/First Nations.

After reading these results, we wanted to know what the situation was like in the Canadian market.

Canadian demographics

Before we share the breakdown of characters in children's books in Canada, let's take a look at the breakdown of the Canadian population.

More than half of Canadians (citizens and non-citizens alike) identified as female in 2016, according to the latest census from Statistics Canada. As noted in our recent research report, Demand for Diversity, Statistics Canada estimated the “visible minority” population (their term) of Canada to be 22% in 2016, and projects an increase to between 31% and 36% by 2036. In 2014, more than 3% of the Canadian population identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (which were the only sexual identities and orientations asked about in their surveys). According to Statistics Canada, 22% of Canadians over 15 years old had at least one disability

Diverse character representation in picture books sold in Canada

To start our Canadian investigation, we turned to SalesData (the sales-tracking service for the Canadian English-language trade book market) to find the bestselling Juvenile Fiction titles in 2018. We narrowed the results down to the top 100 picture books by removing box sets, collections, non-book products, chapter books, middle grade books, YA books, and duplicate titles.

While we tried to read all 100 books, there were seven titles that we could not easily find. For the 93 books we read, we noted each instance of a character, whether they were human or non-human, and their gender, race, and sexual orientation if any of these were mentioned in the text or made explicit in the illustrations. We also kept an eye out for any mention or illustrated instance of other characteristics that would be considered diverse: disability, neurodiversity, class, etc.

Our study differs from The Guardian's in that we didn't differentiate between main character and secondary characters. We counted each character if they appeared in the text, if they appeared in the illustrations, and if they were central to the story. So, for example, we didn't count all the background people in crowd scenes, but we did count all of Peppa Pig's classmates; we didn't count barnyard animals when they weren't central to the story, but we did count them when they were mentioned in the text or were the characters in the story. 

Our results are not 100% accurate:  In some instances we were unsure of the illustrated characters' races and animals may not all have been gendered correctly (one of us did not know that antlers = male). 

"How is the Canadian population reflected in the bestselling children's picture books of 2018? Well, frankly, not well."

How is the Canadian population reflected in the bestselling children's picture books of 2018?

Now to the part you've been waiting for: How is the Canadian population reflected in the bestselling children's picture books of 2018? Well, frankly, not well. 

Infographic. Stats are repeated in the text of the post.

Of the books we analyzed, fewer than two in 10 characters had diverse backgrounds (16%). Slightly more than half of all characters analyzed were humans (54%) and the remainder (46%) were non-human (animals, robots, vehicles, etc.). 

When we look at the pronouns used and appearances/presentation in the illustrations, almost four in 10 characters (human and non-human alike) were coded male (39%) and about three in 10 characters were coded female (33%). For the remainder, almost three in 10 characters, gender was unspecified or ambiguous (28%). 

Out of all 805 characters analyzed (humans and non-humans combined), almost two in 10 were BIPOC (15%) — the majority in books by Robert Munsch and Andrea Beaty. Since only humans could be BIPOC, we also looked at the percentage of humans who were BIPOC, which was 27.7%. Only a few characters were LGBTQ+ — one gay couple and one lesbian couple, who weren't human — which came out to only 0.5% of all characters. While we were keeping an eye out for any mention of immigrant status, income/class, disability, or neurodiversity we only saw one instance (of income diversity) in the top-selling books (0.1%).

While we didn't factor area-type/geography, family composition, or religion into our analysis, anecdotally, we did notice that a few books did implicitly or explicitly mention rural areas and single-parent families. And about one in 10 books had "Christmas" in the title or Christmas was integral to the story (9%).

Further reading and ideas for further research

We're heartened to see The Guardian in the UK and the CCBC in the US taking on this research. Narratives are important, especially for children, and underrepresentation impacts people of colour. It's important for children of all backgrounds to have windows and mirrors in the books they read instead of damaging stereotypes. For example, black children should see themselves in books about nature. In 2017, Scholastic Canada reported that one in five children and parents look for ethnic and cultural representation, characters with disabilities, and characters who break stereotypes when choosing a book for fun.

We encourage further, and deeper, research into this topic. 

Some questions that occurred to us as we were doing our high-level analysis of the top-selling picture books:

  • Are the demographics of the authors and illustrators mirrored in the characters they create? Are there many instances of #OwnVoices in the top-selling books?

  • How many of the 33% of female characters were mothers? What is the makeup of families depicted?

  • Who had speaking roles and who were background or secondary characters?

  • We saw a few interracial families; how prevalent is that in picture books?

  • We noticed a book with stereotypical/racist elements: The BIPOC character went unnamed when all other characters (even if they were less integral to the story) were named. So although 15% of books had a BIPOC character, what is the context for this representation? Are there sexist or racist elements in the story or illustrations?

  • Where are the stories set? Urban vs. rural? Which countries/regions are represented?

If you're curious about a similar cultural analysis on the gender of characters in adult fiction, check out McGill University's .txtLAB presentation at Tech Forum 2018, Using Data to Reveal Gender Bias in Contemporary Fiction.

We'll leave you with these: The Canadian Children's Book Centre's Social Justice & Diversity Book Bank, a list of diverse books from Canadian authors for you to add to your reading lists; The Brown Bookshelf; and two recommendation threads from Twitter for picture books with characters from diverse backgrounds and Asian fantasy books by Asian authors.