Diversity and representation in children's literature
Publishers, researchers and parents agree. Children's books are stuck in the past, writes Michell Mpike. What are the consequences for children who are not represented in the world of fiction?
This text was first published in Actualise Utopia: From dreams to reality. An anthology about racial barriers in the structure of the Nordic arts field, by editor Ninos Josef and project coordinator Kemê Pellicer. Published by Arts Council Norway as part of the project An inclusive cultural sector in the Nordics.
Written by Michell Mpike.
Diversity and positive representation in Nordic children's literature
The sociology of emotions meets the sociology of power
Seeing yourself represented in the fictional world is an acknowledgment of your existence1 and being excluded is a message that you are invisible, not seen or acknowledged as part of a particular society or the world. With reference to the concepts of symbolic annihilation and belonging, this piece discusses diversity and positive representation in Nordic children's literature, largely referencing the state of Norwegian children's literature. Where diversity and positive representation in literature and other media are concerned, the focus is rightly on minorities and groups who are marginalised both in society and often also in books and television and magazines. In recent years, the spotlight has been focused more intently on the lack of diversity and/or positive representation in children's literature. Even in countries with a rich tradition of children's literature, such as Norway, it can be difficult to find books which minority ethnic, religious and other marginalised identities can identify with. Children from dominant social groups have always had and continue to have the privilege of complex and positive representation in media and the arts, while children from minority and marginalised groups have had little to no reflections of themselves and their realities.
As things stand, Nordic children's literature communicates that it is children and families of the majority population who are valued, exist and belong in Nordic society.
As a sector of cultural transmission, the publishing world has a responsibility to use the power that it holds to communicate a different message and to play a role in social cohesion and ensuring that children's rights are fulfilled.
Diversity in literature refers to the recognition and inclusion of people and characters with various human traits, intersecting social and economic locations and identities, and who exist within or come from different contexts. That is, to tell and illustrate stories that reflect the depth and breadth of human diversity. Being included in the fictional world, whether it be in literature, on stage or on television, signifies social existence; and absence means symbolic annihilation.2 Symbolic annihilation, as a concept, was first introduced in 1972 by George Gerbner, a professor of communications. The concept refers to the lack of representation or absence of certain groups in the media. The ‘media' includes all the tools of mass communication and entertainment, such as broadcasting, publishing and the internet. When the media systematically exclude, minimise, or condemn particular groups that are not valued in society, they (further) disenfranchise them by not reflecting them.3 As a tool for cultural transmission, the media therefore send a symbolic message to viewers or readers about the value of the people who make up the excluded group(s) or perpetuate the undervaluing of that group by society.4 Symbolic annihilation also says something about who belongs and has a valid stake in a given society.
Nira Yuval-Davis5, an author and professor on migration, refugees and belonging; and Marco Antonsich6, a senior academic of human geography, agree that at its core, belonging is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home' and safe. To them, we can belong to multiple objects of attachment (people, groups, neighbourhoods, countries) at the same time, in different concrete and abstract ways. Claiming to belong to a place or group can be a means of self-identification and it can enable others to identify you as belonging to a particular object of attachment, in fixed, contested or changing ways. However, even in its most stable form, belonging is always a dynamic process and is constructed and reconstructed through the social hierarchy and everyday practices as well as interactions.7 For Yuval-Davis8, belonging specifically pertains to our social location and our individual and collective identities and attachments. Social location refers to categories such as ethnic group, gender, class, profession or nation, and identity refers to the narratives, the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and who we are not. In some historical contexts, the stories about who people are, have been imposed on them. However, not all of the stories are about belonging to particular groups; they can be about body image, professional aspirations or physical and intellectual prowess. Belonging is also about how these social locations and identities are valued or judged. Specific attitudes and ideologies inform who is valued, how we judge ourselves and others, how we identify others and where categorical boundaries are drawn. This can lead to inclusion or exclusion, with greater or fewer opportunities to cross those boundaries depending on one's social location and personal or imposed identity. It is in this realm of attitudes and ideologies that value and judge others' right to belong and where the sociology of emotions (emotional attachment and feeling at home in a place or a group) meets the sociology of power (discourses and decisions about who can belong and why)9, that belonging meets the politics of belonging. The boundaries that are created through the political projects of belonging are sometimes physical but always symbolic, and divide the people of the world into ‘us' and ‘them'. Nordic and not Nordic.
Diversity and positive representation in Norwegian children's literature
As of January 2019, the number of people living in Norway stands at over 5.3 million, and much of the future population growth will most likely be due to net immigration.10 According to the Norwegian statistics office, 17 percent of the population is made up of people who are immigrants (persons born outside of Norway, to two foreign-born parents and four foreign-born grandparents)11 and Norwegians born to immigrant parents (people born in Norway, to two foreign-born parents and four foreign- born grandparents). Just under one in five children under the age of 18 is an immigrant or is Norwegian-born with immigrant parents.12 In Oslo, one in every three residents is of an immigrant background and a quarter of all people with an immigrant background in Norway, live in Oslo. If neighbouring Akershus County is included, the number rises to nearly 40 percent.13 These numbers include all immigration backgrounds, including from the Nordics, Europe and other Western countries. However, people of Polish background make up the largest group of people with an immigrant background and half of all people with an immigrant background are of African, Asian and South American descent.14 That said, Norwegians born to only one immigrant parent and Norwegians born to two Norwegian-born parents, and four foreign grandparents are not included in the statistics of people with an immigrant background. The absolute number of people with some kind of immigrant background may therefore be higher. Simply put, including the country's national minorities15, Norway is a country with a diversity of ethnicities and cultures.
Despite this, one is unlikely to find this reality mirrored in the books and literature available to children in Norway and in the Norwegian languages. With a few exceptions, what you will probably find in Norwegian children's books is a picture of what Norway used to look like - an almost monoethnic, monocultural country, where the majority group made up 96% of the population16 - a snapshot of a time past.
Only about one in twenty books has a main character with a clear multicultural background.17
The books available to children and families also contain scant representations of diverse family structures; make little reference to non-heternormative ways of being, fail to show depictions of minority religions and rarely feature children and adults living with disabilities. Rudine Sims Bishop, an author and Emeritus Professor of Education who taught on children's literature, talks about books as mirrors and books as windows. She describes how books can act as a reflection of ourselves and our identities and experiences (mirrors); as well as a ‘window' into the identities and experiences of others.18 Whether it be in books, on television or on theatre stages, children from dominant social groups have always had the privilege of the arts and media acting as mirrors of their complex realities, while children of minority and marginalised social locations and identities have been offered little to no opportunity to experience media and the arts as mirrors of themselves. And often when there are people who look like them in books, on screen or on stage, they are mostly greeted with a single story of what people like them are or are supposed to be. And that single story is often negative or told through the eyes of the dominant group – who often characterise marginalised people as the problematic and irrational other.19 How people are included and presented in the stories that we tell is therefore also important. Including people should be accompanied by considerations of the complexity of their personal identities, their social locations and the complexities of the contexts that they are placed in or are said to come from. For example, if a character who reflects the reality of a certain person is being continuously portrayed to behave only in certain ways (often negative stereotypes), this can lead one to wonder if that is the only way that one is seen in society. Or one may wonder if that is the only expectation that society has of one. This is what we call positive representation – inclusion that actively avoids single stories and perpetuating negative stereotypes of certain people and groups.
For minority and marginalised children, seeing themselves positively reflected in the arts, literature and other media can make them feel personally validated and can paint a picture of who they could become, as well as provide role models and inspiration.
Positive representation also supports positive identity formation. How a child constructs their identity, which stories they tell themselves and others about who they are, is linked to larger societal dynamics and to the processes of social inclusion and exclusion.20 Additionally, positive images of their families, backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and languages help children to develop pride in who they are and affirm that they are of equal value, importance and status as other children, families and groups. Apart from the power of what can be found within the pages of a book or on a theatre stage, being represented in the media or in the arts can give a child the feeling that they too can one day create stories and contribute to the richness of the cultural landscape. This also tells the child that they have a voice, that they can use it and that they will be listened to. Ragnfrid Trohaug, a publishing manager for children's and youth literature, rightly states that for social development, diversity and inclusion in children's books is important because Norway has to give all children and young people, regardless of background, the belief that they have a voice that can be heard and used, and that Norway's modern democracy, depends on this.21 Over and above these aspects, children learn better from books that have characters to which they can relate.
Children are aware of ethnic, gender, class, language and physical differences from about three years of age.22
As adults, we are not blind to the differences between us and neither are children. There is nothing inherently wrong with us or children noticing that we are all different, this is part of their natural process of development. They do, however, also adopt positive and negative, spoken and unspoken messages, about the value placed on certain differences. They have their learned negative and positive views reinforced by attitudes they experience primarily through relationships with adults and the broader community – including through the media. Children then use these learned attitudes as a factor of power, to determine, for example, who may join in with games and who may not.23 While we must be careful that when we talk about ‘windows' it does not come to mean creating books with minority children, depicting parts of their complex realities, so that majority children can look in on and gaze at for their own benefit; it is true that for children who are in the majority population, diversity in the books that they read reminds them that although people are different, they all share a common humanity, equal value and equal status. That children can go out into the world with positive ideas and images of diversity and difference, and of themselves, will only serve them, and the people they meet, well in the long run.
In Norway, diversity in books can act as a subtle reminder and assertion that Norwegians comes in different colours, shapes, sizes, abilities and backgrounds, and that all are equally valued and equally Norwegian.
In 2011, a researcher of children's literature, Åse Marie Ommundsen, concluded that Norwegian authors have not portrayed a cosmopolitan outlook and openness to otherness because the cosmopolitan view is represented in big cities, and Oslo is the only big and truly multicultural city in Norway.24 She stated that Norwegians are typically concerned with roots and feel bound to places; and where one comes from closely relates to one's identity. She found that this tendency was reflected in children's literature, where reflections of rural life are dominant, whereas city life or life in Oslo rarely features in the stories. Eight years later, Oslo's population has almost doubled, one third of people in Oslo are of an immigrant background, 82 percent of the Norwegian population is said to live in an urban settlement and the five biggest urban settlements are home to over a third of the population.25 Yet one still struggles to find representations of the diversity of urban Norwegian life, of the diversity of the Nordics and the diversity of the world. The personal and national identity of the majority population might still be shaped by the view of Norway and Norwegians as a nation of solely white farmers and fishermen, living in rural corners, where no one would believe anyone could live. That said, this would mean that Norwegian writers are still depicting a past that they themselves can no longer fully relate to or experience personally. Ida Jackson, a Norwegian author, believes that being in the majority, white writers take whiteness as neutral but the portrayal of minority characters as a drastic choice 26, and also that some writers may be afraid to come across as politically correct whilst failing to acknowledge that excluding minority children from their books is a political choice in itself.
Even if Norway was a monoethnic country, or if Oslo was the only city in Norway that can be considered to be truly diverse, the books available do not offer a window to the globalised world, never mind the realities of diversity and diverse experiences within the country. A monoethnic and monocultural Norway would not be blind to or unaffected by global media and culture. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines and social media bring diverse people and cultures into Norway, with some aspects being woven into Norwegian contemporary culture. I say this while recognising that the fight for diverse and positive representation in literature and other media for minority groups is a global one and that Norwegians are not necessarily engaging with diverse enough and/or positive representations of the people of the world, which may subsequently have an impact on the continued marginalisation of minority groups in the media. Nonetheless, international media bring diversity into Norwegian homes. Norwegian children and families also travel to various parts of the world. Despite this interaction with the global village, Norwegian children's books do not act as a window to the world that Norwegian children and adults interact with on a daily basis in direct and indirect ways. Nor do they display interactions between Norway and the world, Norwegian people and culture, and people and cultures from various parts of the world.
It is translated and foreign language literature that has played a leading role in centring children of minority background and showing encounters between diverse ethnicities and cultures.
Norway's public libraries have access to literature in about 70 languages, including literature for children, through the country's Multilingual Library27. The Multilingual Library, which is housed in the National Library, is devoted to acquiring books in languages from around the world, to provide literature to Norway's multilingual and multicultural population. The books acquired by the library are then made available for lending to the public via local libraries. The library can only be visited online because the collection and staff are spread out across the National Library's different locations. In Sweden, up until recently, the International Library in Stockholm has had children's and other books available in over 100 languages, which families could borrow from other parts of Sweden through their local library. Unfortunately, the library's current operations have been halted. The collection will be relocated to a smaller library, and not all of the books will be moved to the new location. The majority of the 120,000 books in its stack will move to a different location and some of the books will be either recycled, donated or destroyed due to lack of circulation28. This potentially pushes foreign language literature from the centre back into the margins and presents one less opportunity for minority families in Sweden to access positive representations of their children. The Arts Council Norway now funds the purchase of translated children's literature29, which should encourage publishers to acquire the publishing rights to children's literature with diverse characters, to serve the needs of minority children and reflect the Norwegian population. In the same way that the Norwegian translation of the Swedish book, Alfons Åberg by Gunilla Bergström broke down the taboo on writing about war in Norwegian children's books30, translated and foreign language literature can clear the way for more white Norwegian authors to include minority children or cultures from outside of Norway in their books, without fear of being seen as politically correct but rather as simply writing about and illustrating the world and Norway as it is.
While all active Norwegian writers and illustrators should come to the fore and actively diversify their work with positive representations, Norwegian publishers and public institutions need to do more to create the space and provide resources for minority artists to create the stories that authors belonging to the majority population may be unwilling or uncomfortable to write and illustrate. The Norwegian Children's Book Institute is already leading the way in this regard. The institute recruits candidates with a background from South America, Asia, Africa or the Middle East to their author education programme. Since 2007, two of the places on the programme have been reserved for such candidates, whose tuition fees are funded by a scholarship31.
Symbolic annihilation, the politics of belonging and Nordic children's literature
Authors and publishers should be free to write and publish what they wish. However, as things stand, Norwegian and Nordic children's literature does not reflect society (as it should) and is an example of the symbolic annihilation of children, families and people of minority and other marginalised backgrounds, including people living with disabilities and those whose lives do not conform to a heternormative narrative. When minority children are absent, this communicates to both minority and majority children, that minority children are invisible or non-existent in society, that they do not belong and that they do not hold any value. When minority children are represented using negative, singular and stereotypical images and stories, this locks them into a particular image, with little opportunity to be seen or show themselves as something else. Over and above this, children of all kinds see no reflection of the reality or possibility of encounters and interactions between people from various social locations, with differing personal identities and from different contexts.
While Sweden has historically done better at representing children from minority cultures and backgrounds32, and recent debates on ethnicity in children's books and other media have made Swedish authors and illustrators more aware of the issue, the problem still persists. Additionally, characters in Swedish children's books still largely conform to a heteronormative mould and are usually able-bodied33. In Denmark, most children's books are about children and families with a majority background. When children of minority ethnicities are featured (particularly with black or brown skin), the representation is often singular and negative, riddled with negative stereotypes34. Where children's books and other media are concerned, it would be valuable to work towards the inclusion of minority children and children from other marginalised backgrounds, so as to communicate that they too are valued and belong in Nordic society, irrespective of nationality, citizenship, ethnicity or cultural background. This would communicate a message that stands in contrast to that proclaimed by nationalist political projects about who has the right to belong in Nordic societies. Nationalist perceptions of belonging are based on the belief that people, states and homelands are inherently and permanently connected, belonging to a place or territory because you were there first35.
To help inform their policies and practices and to create literature that communicates belonging to all children, the publishing world could draw from the principles of cosmopolitan political projects of belonging, which turn to human rights discourses to claim belonging and therefore entitlement for individual and collective rights36. For example, if it were to turn to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child37 to inform its policies and practices, the publishing world would find that the Convention asks states to "encourage the production and dissemination of children's books," and also explicitly mentions that the state should encourage media "to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child...", as well as "ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral wellbeing and physical and mental health". Drawing on the rights afforded to all children in the Convention, the publishing and media world at large could make an active decision to ensure that all children in the Nordics have access to books of social and cultural benefit, as well as books that promote their social wellbeing and mental health, by creating material that has diverse and positive representations of all children.
Pride in oneself and one's background, positive identity development, social acceptance and being recognised and valued by others all contribute to social wellbeing and good mental health.
In Sweden, Olika Forlag, a publishing company devoted to diversifying children's literature in Sweden, was founded by Marie Tomicic in 200638. The company was founded because Marie noticed the need for greater diversity in children's books, "for books that mirror the real world rather than the picture of the world held by the majority". At the time, Marie found that every book she read was about children living with two, heterosexual parents. However, that was not the reality for her child, who alternated between both parents' homes, and she worried how this would hurt her child. States are also responsible for using their resources to promote and encourage the development of such materials, to the fulfilment of the rights of children in the Nordics.
Children also have the right to "be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, and universal brotherhood", and the right to be "...brought up in... the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity". Both minority and majority children therefore have a right to grow up in a society that promotes friendship among all people, a sense of fraternity and acceptance of differences. Children's literature has an important role to play in this regard. The media and other mechanisms of cultural transmission have a responsibility to use the power that they hold to help fulfil this right for all children living in the Nordics, irrespective of their citizenship, ethnic background or personal identity, or that of their families. As things stand, the literary world harms the possibility of all children attaining this right, by communicating that it is children and families of the majority population who are valued, exist and belong in Nordic society, while undervaluing and/or perpetuating the undervaluing, marginalisation and othering of children and families from minority and other marginalised groups. Whatever learned prejudices that children pick up from the world around them can be countered by active choices from different sectors of society, including the media and the literary world. Not only is it important for children as they grow up, it is also important because the children of today will be the custodians of society tomorrow. Raising children in an environment that fosters and communicates the ideals of universal friendship, brotherhood and tolerance among all people, creates a better chance that they too will raise future Nordic children in the same environment and therefore fulfil their rights too. Dignity is defined as the state or quality or being worthy of honour or respect (from self or others) and a sense of pride in oneself39.
Positive representation in the media and in books gives minority children the message that they are valued and respected, and gives majority children the message that other children are valued and worthy of respect.
As stated before, being positively represented in cultural media can also give minority and other marginalised children pride in who they and their families are. Cosmopolitan perceptions of belonging are also driven by solidarity with marginalised and oppressed groups40. If the writing and publishing community makes an active choice to produce books that contain diverse and positive representation, it would be a show of solidarity to minority and marginalised communities, and an indication that they are aware of the problem and are invested in protecting minority children from the harm caused by the status quo.
In transforming their policies and practices, I would suggest that those who hold the power of cultural transmission draw on the ‘ethics of care' feminist political project of belonging. The feminist ethics of care addresses the ways people should relate and belong to each other rather than who should be included and excluded and on what grounds41. At one point or another, all of us will be dependent on care from other people, and some of the most vulnerable people in society, the children, are especially in need of care and solidarity. Part of this is to ensure that all children have their need for belonging and affirmation met, despite their social locations or personal identities or those of their families. Unfortunately, emotions such as care and compassion are not enough and cannot be effective to meet the needs of all children, if they are not coupled with power42. Knowing that we will all need to be cared for at one point in our lives, and that caring for another is an important part of social solidarity, the publishing world as a tool for cultural transmission has the power to embed care in its work, effect positive change and also encourage others to care for and value the needs of minority and marginalised children.
The lack of diversity, inclusion and positive representation in Norwegian and Nordic children's literature is acknowledged by publishers and researchers alike43, and is echoed by parents who struggle to find depictions of themselves and their children in the books available to them. This has significant personal and societal impacts, on both minority and majority children.
Minority children lack mirrors of themselves in the books that they read and majority children have no window into the lives of their friends, neighbours, schoolmates and peers.
Additionally, all children have one less example upon which to model positive inter-group interactions. When children read books featuring diverse groups of peers or people doing things together, it has a lasting positive impact on their play and interaction with members of other groups44. While public institutions have taken some minor steps to improve access to translated literature and literature in foreign languages, these steps still relegate literature including minority children to the margins. Furthermore, private institutions are not doing enough, as evidence from the past ten years shows.
In the same way as the Norwegian Children's Book Institute, institutions that are involved with training authors in general, and children's book authors specifically, can actively recruit and reserve funded space for people of minority background. Such an initiative could, for example, be funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers to ensure region-wide implementation. However, they should not stop there. They should act as a feeder to private publishing companies by establishing formal partnerships through which publishers can either commission stories from the newly graduated minority authors or accept original manuscripts. Public institutions that fund the dissemination of culture and literature should find ways to incentivise the inclusion of minority characters in children's books and also make an explicit effort to fund the purchase of translated children's books that feature diversity.
Including minority and marginalised children and stories that reflect their reality adds to the rich tapestry of literature and the options available to everyone. Including marginalised people does not take away from literature, it adds value. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the harm that is caused by the symbolic annihilation of marginalised children by the publishing world.
While we cannot tell people what to write, public institutions need to find ways to encourage the publishing world and the media world at large to include minorities.
In portraying groups, we need to ask ourselves, how has the group been represented (positive, negative, neutral) and how would this kind of representation make them feel? Simply put, authors and illustrators will need to steer clear of stereotypical representations, which are often negative, and can harm the self-image of that group or perpetuate negative views of certain groups by others. The consequent message of such diverse and positive representation would be that children from minority and other marginalised backgrounds do exist in, belong in and are valued by the Nordic society. I also suggest that writers, illustrators, publishers and others who hold power in the production and dissemination of literature and culture adopt an outlook and practices that reflect a cosmopolitan view of belonging, informed by the feminist ethics of care, as part of reimaging who belongs in Norwegian children's books and Norwegian society.
About the author
Michell Sibongiseni Mpike (1990) is a South African researcher and social entrepreneur, based in Oslo, Norway. She holds an MA degree in Education Policies for Global Development and her undergraduate studies focused on Social development and Public policy. In 2018, Michell founded Inklusive Books, a publishing house focused on diversifying the stories available to European children, starting in Norway.
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