Asian children need to see heroes like themselves in books too, says author


by LAUREN CODLING

AN ASIAN author has praised efforts to raise awareness of a lack of diversity in children’s literature as it was revealed recently that fewer than two per cent of writers for young people are from an ethnic minority background.

Zanib Mian is author of Planet Omar, a children’s book which follows the titular character on a variety of adventures.

Mian, whose books have featured on BBC’s Cbeebies Bedtime Stories, said it was important to her that Omar gave readers an insight into the “real Muslim” community.

Research last week showed that fewer than two per cent of children’s authors and illustrators between 2007 and 2017 were British people of colour, compared to 13 per cent of the population.

Author Zanib Mian hoped her readers would see an “honest reflection” of Muslim families

Mian, who is of Pakistani origin and raised in London, said she was acutely aware of a lack of diversity within children’s literature, and hoped that readers would see an honest reflection of ethnic communities in her work.

“Many people who don’t personally know any Muslim families may have a distorted, stereotypical idea of us, which has been perpetuated by right-wing media and tabloids,” she told Eastern Eye. “That’s the idea they have of what a Muslim is, but I hope Planet Omar will open a window into the lives of Muslims like me.”

However, efforts are being made to challenge the lack of diversity within the industry. Arts Council England announced earlier this month that it would be partnering with Sheffield Hallam University to explore why there were too few ethnically diverse characters in children’s books, and what could be done to encourage change.

And, last October, a pop-up box shop, #ReadTheOnePercent, was opened in London. Run by publishers Aimée Felone and David Stevens, the bookshop features only books with ethnic minority protagonists.

The move came in response to a report which found that of more than 9,000 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, just one per cent had a main character from an ethnic background.

In March, it was announced the store would be opening a permanent branch in Brixton, south London.

Of more than 9,000 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only one per cent had a protagonist from an ethnic background

Revealing that she pursued a career as a writer to overcome the dearth of diverse children’s literature, Mian applauded these initiatives, saying everyone should feel they are represented in literature.

Talking about what drives her own efforts to raise awareness, Mian admitted it was her “love for humanity”.

“I’m always in awe of the diversity around me. It’s beautiful and I think everyone should find themselves in a book and learn about others through them,” she said.

Having loved writing as a child, Mian said she would fill notebooks full of poems and stories. However, she concentrated on science in secondary school, and her attention slipped from writing.

It wasn’t until she had her own children that Mian said she began to realise that diverse characters were missing from “ordinary, fun books”. It drove her to leave her job and pursue a career as an author.

The mother-of-two said her sons were an inspiration for her work. When they were young, Mian would read books to them that she had loved as a child, including stories by Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss.

Admitting she felt a lack of diverse representation in children’s literature instilled a belief that “people like (her) did not write books, nor feature in them”, Mian said it was important that children had protagonists they could identify with.

Planet Omar

It made them believe they were important and they could be the hero in books too, she explained.

“It reassures a child that they are understood in the environment that they live in,” she added.

“I’ve seen children bursting with confidence and contentment on seeing a book with someone like them in their classroom.

“Children realise that people enjoy hearing their stories, which leads to a greater interest in creative writing and perhaps even future authors.”

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik, is available now.