Diversity vs Tokenism: Why children's books need more than "token characters"

We asked Bali Rai, author of the Green Patrol series from Reading Planet Astro, about his thoughts on diversity in children's reading books, and why children need more than token characters when learning to read. 

I’ve spent more than two decades arguing for greater diversity in UK Children’s Publishing. “Banging on about issues” as an industry big wig once told a close friend of mine. Recently, things seem to have improved. There are more authors from diverse backgrounds, and a greater array of diverse voices within books.

However, there is still an issue with tokenism. Characters thrown in simply to raise the quota of diverse voices. A gay friend here, a black teacher there. It’s all very purposeful, and often done for the best reasons, but it’s still just a sticking plaster. A way for those privileged enough to be automatically given agency to show that they care. I don’t wish to be flippant, or to decry some of the very lovely and talented writers who’ve done this, but it’s not enough and never will be. We need diverse voices as a matter of course, not simply because they’re on-trend.

What’s the difference? Well, tokenism doesn’t allow for well-rounded, authentic voices which is the opposite of what we need. And tokenism often leads to one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all portrayals, where the skin colour of the characters is different, but the underlying template human remains the same (more on this later.) It’s not about truly allowing agency to those whose voices have been left unheard for far too long. It’s a nod to diversity, not actual diversity.

Real diversity is about bringing unheard voices into the mainstream, as a matter of course. It’s about making non-white and other missing voices the protagonists, and not just the sidekicks. It’s about allowing room for the myriad of lifestyles and cultural frameworks that exist within Britain’s least represented communities. Where the hijab or the topknot are not the issues, but merely signifiers of the protagonists’ faiths. Where black people don’t all speak the same way. That story with the talking dog? The human protagonist is a gay brown boy. The latest fantasy epic? The central protagonists are British Somalis who were born elsewhere.

That’s why Green Patrol includes so many diverse voices. Not because of the “issues” inherent in their lives. Simply because they can be the protagonists. And why not? Non-white kids can be heroes too. And kids from Brazil, Senegal, Canada, England and China are not so different to one another. We have more in common than that which divides us, as human beings. The Green Patrol Series from Reading Planet Astro.

True, I don’t delve into cultural differences with Green Patrol, but that’s because cultural differences don’t matter in this series. It’s about what they can do to help stop ecological destruction – their skill set, not their skin tone. It’s just a regular, good old fashioned adventure series, with diverse characters. And we need more of them. Whatever, whenever, however. It drives me to distraction that whilst white characters can be anything, and white writers can write about anything, we writers from more diverse backgrounds are still tied to the issues that make us the marginalised to begin with.

So, let me return to identikit humans with snap on covers that can be chopped and changed to suit the needs of greater diversity. I said twenty years ago (and have done since) that greater diversity itself, without greater equality, will be an issue too. You can publish as many diverse voices as you like, but if all you do is replace middle class white voices with their more diverse counterparts, the cultural, social and moral framework within which protagonists exist, will remain the same. And that’s a problem, too.

Not everyone shares those frameworks so beloved of the middle classes. Not everyone carefully follows every rule. My own hero, Sue Townsend, was forced to steal food to feed her hungry children. My neighbour broke lockdown rules to earn enough money to keep his family going. Was this wrong Not in my opinion. I would do the same thing.

Would mainstream literature allow for a narrative where theft or rule breaking is simply accepted, without moral lessons being learned, or where the protagonist eventually realises they were wrong? I doubt it very much. Diversity is not just about race and gender, and sexuality etc… It’s about social class, and poverty, and disaffected lives. It’s about representing something more than idealised middle-class lifestyles and choices.

Diversity is also nothing without financial equity. Again, publish all the diverse voices you want, but if you don’t give them marketing, promotional and advertising support, it won’t make any difference. And that’s a major ongoing issue. I still see white writers getting more support, more kudos, and more promotion than their diverse counterparts. There is more diversity, true. But there is still no equality. Throwing new diverse writers into an already crowded market without the necessary backing is also a form of tokenism. That needs to change.

Finally, diverse characters matter because when children learn to read, they develop not only reading skills but also empathy. Children need to engage with diverse voices and lives through story. It’s essential. They must be allowed to meet “the other” and to realise that there is no such thing. Children of more diverse backgrounds also need to see themselves as characters – protagonists – so that they feel part of literary culture too. How do we develop a culture of reading for all when so many voices remain unheard, or marginalised at best?

If children are habitually exposed to the same kinds of voices, of the same race, and with the same social/cultural and moral frameworks, they will only develop empathy for that group of human beings, The “other” will remain so. And that is a recipe for inequality and the perpetuation of prevailing prejudice, privilege and entitlement. Our children deserve better – no matter what their background

At Rising Stars, we aim to bring diverse characters to life through Reading Planet, so that all children from all backgrounds can see themselves as a character and be allowed to meet 'the other'. In doing this we hope that schools will join in the 'conversation' and help their pupils to develop both their reading skills and empathy. 

Check out the Reading Planet Astro range and discover colourful graphic novels, gripping adventure series, magazine-style non-fiction that have been written by award-winning authors such as Tony Bradman and Bali Rai. From deadly dinosaurs and spooky schools, there’s a series for every reader to enjoy!

About blog author

Bali Rai is a well-established, award winning and hugely popular voice within the young adult fiction market. His particularly successful title Rani and Sukh became a set-text for GCSE English. His novel Killing Honour won the North East Teen Book Award, and was described as 'utterly compelling' by The Bookseller. He lives in Leicester with his family. Read more about the author here.




Reading, Reading and Ebooks, reading scheme, Rising Stars Reading Planet

Added to your basket: