Updated: Jun 11
By Bethany Hobbs.
From the very beginning of our time on earth, we are constantly absorbing our surroundings. During our early years, it is this very process that forms our understanding of love, friendship, language, empathy and many other behaviours that shape who we are today. Whilst much of this is obtained from the people around us, our early literary experiences also play a vital role in this development. The books we read as children create worlds and characters that demonstrate to us who and what we can aspire to be, how we should be behaving and what we can expect from the world.
In a recent study*, only 5% of children’s books in the UK have a “black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonist”. While 38% of children's books feature animals or inanimate objects as leading characters!
Julian the Mermaid
Written & illustrated by Jessica Love
Candlewick Press, 2018
Images by Bethany Hobbs
Julian the Mermaid is a story of a boy who wants to transform into a mermaid and participate in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The book follows his journey in creating a beautiful costume and sees his grandmother’s acceptance and unconditional love of his self-expression. Perhaps for boys like Julian, feeling represented can ignite a sense of reassurance, providing confidence to progress in life.
With exposure to storytelling, children show a greater understanding and connection with characters who are representative of themselves. To read the thoughts and actions of a character just like them strengthens the child’s inspiration, empowerment and sense of belonging. The importance of opportunities for children of all ethnicities and cultures to recognise themselves in literary characters is undeniable. However, it is also greatly beneficial for children to read about the experiences of characters not so similar to them.
The Garden of Hope
Written by Isabel Otter; illustrated by Katie Rewse
Caterpillar Books, 2018
Images by Bethany Hobbs
In the wake of her mum's death, a young girl called Maya transforms their now overgrown garden into The Garden of Hope. Turning to it when she misses her mum – or she feels sad, or worried – Maya turns the neglected garden into a place of beauty. Not only do we follow the beautiful changes the garden undergoes, but we also see Maya find purpose, voice and courage.
Reading diverse and inclusive books during childhood unquestionably helps nourish an understanding of empathy, which studies** show is something that can only be developed before the age of two and thereafter “children start to show genuine empathy, understanding how other people feel even when they don't feel the same way themselves”. If we lack the opportunity to develop this skill, we can limit our ability to connect with one another. This can result in living a “blinkered” life, caring, loving, and understanding only the experiences in our sphere.
The ability to look outwards away from ourselves and our immediate community can strengthen our connection to society as a whole. This recognises any attacks based on racial or cultural discrimination as attacks on society as a whole. If we understand as best as possible other people’s communities, when they come under attack, it becomes less of a question of “should we”, but a natural instinct in which there is no question, no hesitation, just action.
Martin Niemöller says it best:
“First they came for the socialist, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Image: Bethany Hobbs, 03.XII.1924 von Dienen Eltern, 2017
*Flood, A., 2021. 'Children's books eight times as likely to feature animal main characters as BAME people'. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/11/childrens-books-eight-times-as-likely-to-feature-animal-main-characters-than-bame-people?CMP=share_btn_tw> [Accessed 2 March 2021].
**Parents ed., 2021. 'Toddler Empathy'. [online] Available at: <https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/behavioral/toddler-empathy/#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20around%202,actually%20try%20to%20soothe%20it.> [Accessed 24 February 2021].