A third of UK children do not see themselves reflected in books, finds survey

Alison Flood
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

A third of children in the UK do not see themselves in the books they read, according to a survey of almost 60,000 children and young people by the National Literacy Trust.

The responses from 58,346 children and young people aged nine to 18 were gathered between January and mid-March, in what the NLT is calling the first large-scale exploration of diversity in children’s books that focuses on children’s own experiences.

The research found that 33% of children did not see themselves in what they read, with the proportion increasing to 40% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds, and to 46% of children from black ethnic backgrounds. Just 31% of children from white backgrounds struggled to find books where characters looked like them.

Related: Children's books eight times as likely to feature animal main characters as BAME people

The resulting report, Seeing Yourself in What You Read, follows recent research from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, which found that the proportion of British children’s books featuring a black, Asian or minority ethnic main character had increased to 5% in 2019, from just 1% in 2017.

“The struggle to find characters who look similar, or share similar characteristics or circumstances, can impact a child’s engagement with reading and its lifelong benefits,” said the NLT. “Just one book a child really connects with can spark a love of reading which can change their life story and help them to succeed in school and in life.”

According to the new research, a child’s socioeconomic circumstances affect their ability to see themselves in books, with 37.3% of children receiving free school meals saying they did not recognise themselves in what they read, compared with 31.9% who do not receive them. Two-fifths of children surveyed said they would like to read more books with characters similar to them.

The report also noted that 44.3% of non-binary children and young people said they found it difficult to see themselves in literature, compared with 32.7% of boys and 32.5% of girls. “This could be a particular issue for those struggling with their gender identity or suffering discrimination or bullying,” said the NLT.

Following a national Christmas card design competition, the charity is launching a fundraising appeal, selling 12 Christmas card designs by children for £7. The overall winning design, judged by illustrator Dapo Adeola, was drawn by 10-year-old Nuala from High Wycombe.

NLT chief executive Jonathan Douglas said the funds raised would allow the charity to “increase access to books that will help children feel seen through our programmatic and local work. We know just one book can change someone’s life story. There is a beautiful, positive link between literacy and lifelong circumstances.”

Authors and illustrators including Adeola, Cressida Cowell and Sophie Dahl have shared the books that first made them feel seen, or taught them something about representation, to launch the campaign. Adeola chose So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; Cowell selected Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke, illustrated by Natalie Byrne; and Dahl picked Zombierella: Fairy Tales Gone Bad by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas.