REPRESENTATION Why #RepresentationMatters


Happy New Year! We start the new year by taking a look at what representation means in the children’s writing world, and why it matters. Eva Wong Nava, our Words & Pictures Representation Feature Editor, talks to four diverse kid lit creators to better understand how they see representation.


Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors
, the title of an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop, has become a framework for those working to increase Diversity, Inclusion and Equality (DIE) in their sectors and organisations, especially in the publishing industry. Together the acronym DIE (or EDI, if you prefer to say Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and not die) translates to representation for many of us who come from underrepresented and marginalised communities in the UK.


As we are a nation of acronym lovers, underrepresented and marginalised communities mean people from BAME - Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic - backgrounds. What is BAME to Great Britons is known as BIPOC - Black, Indigenous, People of Color - across the pond in the United States of America. And, what is both BAME and BIPOC is CMIO (Chinese, Malays, Indians and Others) in Singapore, where I was born and lived for many years before emigrating to the UK in the early '90s.


Representation is not only important for those from marginalised backgrounds, it is just as crucial for those who come from the mainstream majority: that is White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant backgrounds. If you’ll bear with me, we have yet another acronym: WASP. This latter one may have gone out of use in recent times as, I believe, it’s been condensed to “White”.

However, it is always good to remember that DIE is more than just racial representation, because the acronym also includes representation of different abilities, non-conventional identities, and non-mainstream cultures. For the time being, it would seem that representation is only concerned with racial representation as the data tell us. So, the publishing industry still has “a way to go yet”, as my American-Scottish brother-in-law would say.


Many of us will recognise this infographic from 2018. It tells us that in America, there are more books with animals in them than people of color (POC). In the UK publishing world, our data comes from the CLPE Reflecting Realities Survey, and the reality on home ground wasn’t too different to that in America in terms of the lack of representation of POC in books. However, the situation has improved since the CLPE started their initiative in 2017.

The latest CLPE Survey tells us that there has been a 30% increase in representation of racially minoritised characters. That is good news, of course. But resting on our laurels can only lead to complacency. We need to continue demanding that our children are reading books that reflect reality, and this reality includes nuanced diversities, excludes monoliths, and represents the globalised world we live in, with people of colour in words and pictures, not animals used to represent people. This is not to say that animals don’t have a place in children’s stories. Let’s try and find a healthy balance between animals and humans in the world of kid lit.


For me as an author from an underrepresented background, representation means being heard and seen in all ways, nuances and details — not just in books, but also in media and the arts. Many of us who identify as coming from minoritised backgrounds have said that, “I grew up reading books that did not have people like me in them.” This is not an exaggerated imagined reality — it’s a real experience. As a child growing up in Southeast Asia reading only in English, that was my reality. I read books filled with witches and wizards, climates of swirling snow storms, Greek and Roman gods and goddesses causing havoc. As you can imagine — all these books had nothing to do with the climate and culture I was living in. But, I devoured them like plates of chow mein and these books prepared me for a career in writing for children. But don’t just hear it from me.

I asked Maisie Chan, Catherine Dellosa, Candy Gourlay, and Antoinette Brooks what representation means to them. I wanted to know why they wrote the books and poems they did and how their stories were received by readers.


"Representation has been something I have been seeking since I was a child. When you see it, you realise what a big deal it is. You feel seen, you feel acknowledged, and you feel less alone. I've become a children's author because of the lack of representation.” 

Those of us following the movement for more diverse representation in the UK children’s writing world would have heard of Maisie Chan. She is the voice that champions East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) creators in the UK. She started the Bubble tea Writers Network where ESEA creatives can connect and support one another. The ESEA community makes up less that 8% of the UK population, and even less when it comes to the creative arts. In terms of representation in UK publishing, ESEA stories are few and far between, but we are growing slowly as a community of writers, authors and illustrators. Now, what about representation in Southeast Asia?


I talked to Catherine Dellosa, who is based in the Philippines. Catherine started as an independently published author before signing with Penguin Random House. Here’s what she told me about her latest YA Romance:


“Believe it or not, I was once told that For The Win was too Filipino to get published internationally. But representation matters more than we know, which is why I wanted to make sure my book was unafraid to flaunt its Filipino flavour. Readers have come up to me to tell me how they could relate so much and so well because it was like reminiscing about their own memories from high school, with the after-class haunts and the sidewalk vendors' food under the heat of the Philippine summer sun. It's exhilarating for readers to read about all the cultural nuances, especially since - as one bookstagrammer put it - For The Win is "unapologetically Filipino" (plus Filipino characters on the cover!)” 

 I admire Catherine’s verve and pride for her culture and homeland. I love that she is unapologetically Filipina. Here in the UK, Candy Gourlay is also unabashedly Filipina in her writing. Her award-winning books, which includes Wild Song (David Fickling Books, 2023), are testimonies to her cultural pride, and to her prowess as a storyteller. My Christmas reading was Tall Story (Tamarind, 2016) and I absolutely loved it! I rollercoastered through this emotion-packed middle-grade book. Here’s what Candy has to say about representation:


“Representation is not just being a presence, it's being a LIFE. Not just the hero's best friend who happens to be Asian, but a character, fully formed, who snarks and complains and hates her hair and falls in love and happens to have a controlling mother and loves bao. Representation is in the emotional detail and not in the look.” 


What of representation in the Afro-Caribbean and Black communities? I spoke to poet and author-illustrator Antoinette Brooks, who has a selection of poems included in SPIN!, a forthcoming anthology of 10 New Voices in Poetry by Joseph Coelho. Antoinette told me that:


“To me, representation is about equality of opportunity so that stories which are important and perhaps previously unheard find their place in the world. Whether that's a celebration of cultural identity, but also on a diverse range of topics and themes that highlight the full talents and storytelling abilities of writers of colour.” 


I agree that representation is about equal opportunities. It is about levelling and diversifying the playing field so that one group is not prioritised, or privileged, over another. Representation is also about possibilities — the chance for underrepresented children to see that all sorts of possibilities are theirs as well, giving marginalised children a glimpse into the future that they can also be part of.


This, my friends, is what representation means to the four creatives I spoke to. At Words & Pictures, we love to hear from our readers and members. Go ahead and use the comments section to tell us what you think of representation and what this means to you. And on the representation front, folks would be interested to read RF Kuang’s interview on writing Yellowface, an adult novel that exposes the publishing industry.


My favourite quote from the book is this by a Korean American character named Candice: “'Do you know what it’s like to pitch a book and be told they already have an Asian writer? That they can’t put out two minority stories in the same season?’"


Lastly, I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Benjamin Zephaniah who left us suddenly last year!

 *Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo; 
all other images courtesy of the authors 

Eva Wong Nava escaped her very mundane children by reading all sorts of books. She believes that stories have the power to change the world because each book is a window to understanding a brand new world. Her favourite tales are still those filled with magic and lore, so she wrote a collection of East Asian Folktales, Myths & Legends which Scholastic UK is releasing on 14 March, 2024. Find Eva on X and Instagram @evawongnava and email her at


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the detail in this great article, & explaining acronyms across the world!


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