I want my Children to see Themselves
By Parent Inclusion Ambassador Sarah Mehrali
In our house, we love a good book. They're on the shelves, neatly arranged under the sofa, scattered across the floor in the bedrooms and they even adorn the kitchen. Almost two years ago, I picked up a copy of Nadiya's Bake Me a Story: Fifteen Stories and Recipes for Children by TV chef Nadiya Hussain. Ordinarily, my boys (aged 5 and 8) begin by assessing the front cover and then have a good rummage through before starting to read. On this occasion, however, they were transfixed by the image of Nadiya with her three children. All their names were labelled: Dawud, Maryam and Musa. "Their names are... just like ours!" said seven year old Hamza. We went on to enjoy her beautiful tales and browse through the recipes, but I've noticed that when left alone with that book, they always turn to that particular page, staring and smiling.
In July this year, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, funded by Arts Council England published the results of a study entitled ‘Reflecting realities’which looked at how many books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters. The findings were picked up by the BBC, who published an article highlighting the need for BAME characters to be ‘more central’ in children’s books. The survey found that when BAME characters are present in books, 56% involved "contemporary realism" issues such as war, refugees and racism, compared to just 0.6% being classed as a comedy. The research supports my own feeling that a plethora of wonderful books are available for little ones to help them understand the major global themes of our time (e.g. Welcome to Our World, Malala’s Magic Pencil and The Boy at the Back of the Class) but there is a paucity of literature wherein characters just happen to be from a BAME background and it is not their defining characteristic.
We need more books where children like my own, who are growing up in a world where intolerance and demarcation is growing, can identify with characters and feel normal and included in wider narratives. Without this, how will such children feel part of mainstream culture and see the importance of their personal contributions to society and literature as they enter adulthood?
As a child, I encountered very few books that featured characters that looked liked me. Sometimes I popped up in a well-known classic loosely as an Indian, exotic and odd and most definitely on the sidelines. I read the glorious The Secret Garden books by C.S. Lewis and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Adventures. I became lost in these magical worlds but learnt that people of colour don’t go on adventures. Today, the landscape has changed but the issues remain the same. As a second generation British Asian Muslim, I have a heightened awareness of my identity - something that wasn’t a big issue as a child. I have my own children now. They are too young to understand the complex nature of global politics but have begun to ask questions about why Muslims are regularly featured on the front of newspapers, why women who ‘look’ Islamic are talked about a lot and even why some people who use Arabic in public are being pulled up for it. I want my boys to see themselves in a positive light when they pick up a book, encouraging them to want to be a part of wider conversations as they grow up. I don’t want them to feel decades later, that they too, don’t go on adventures.
Change is happening. For example, Hamza and I relished Bilal’s Brilliant Bee by Michael Rosen about a boy (who happens to be Asian) and his antics at school - both funny and inclusive without a focus on difference. My hope is that by raising awareness of the issue, we can set off a chain reaction where children of colour can be superheroes, where strange sounding names become accepted and where children like mine can pick up a book and view it as a looking glass, ready to leap in.