Representation in Children’s Literature: A Conversation with Sharna Jackson

Children’s literature is something that is often viewed as less important than adult literature, but what many of us seem to forget is the fact that the adults of today were the children of yesterday, and the children of today, are the adults of tomorrow. Literandra

Representation in Children’s Literature

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n a 2019 report, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold (UCL) stated that ‘the British children’s book sector is thriving; more children’s books are sold in the UK than ever before. However, the cohort of people that create these books does not reflect the makeup of the UK, where an array of lives, cultures, identities and stories have overlapped for many years.’ 

It is no secret that the publishing industry, much like most other industries in the UK (and indeed the world over), is not necessarily reflective of the actual makeup of the society it is supposed to serve. Even though, according to the report by Melanie Ramdarshan, there have been some positive improvements in the publishing sector when it comes to churning out more representative publications, there remains work to be done – both in terms of the issue of inclusivity and representation in publishing, and with regards the kinds of stories and images that are present in  publications by and about Black people in particular.

Sharna Jackson, author of the ‘High Rise Mystery’ series

We recently had the chance to talk to Sharna Jackson, the author of the children’s book called ‘Mic Drop’, about representation and inclusivity in children’s literature.

‘Mic Drop’ is a part of the ‘High Rise Mystery’ series, in which two young, Black detectives try to solve crime on their estate.

Apart from being a writer of children’s literature, Sharna is also the artistic director of Site Gallery, a contemporary art space in Sheffield. Her journey into publishing her book series was unusual. Instead of having to deal with rejection, Sharna explained that:  ‘I was directly approached by Knights Of, the publisher. David and Aimee knew me from working on kids content for over a decade, so they mooted the possibility of working on a book. I was so flattered, you wouldn’t believe it. So I pitched three ideas, and they liked the last one, the one that eventually became High Rise Mystery. I loved researching, working up the characters, thinking of the world the girls lived in, The Tri – that was so great.’

‘Books severely lack black protagonists (and publishing lacks black talent) so stories that focus on race and discrimination are important, and are sadly always pertinent.’Sharna Jackson

Before writing and publishing her children’s book series, she wrote ‘two art activity books for Tate Publishing, an audio guide for LeVar Burton for The Broad in LA and worked on TV shows and apps for children.’ So while she did not write novels before, her work has always been about children, specifically about getting children from disengaged and disadvantaged backgrounds interested in arts and culture.

When we asked Sharna how important she thinks it is to see Black characters outside of the often-prevalent narratives of discrimination or racism, she stated that ‘books severely lack Black protagonists (and publishing lacks Black talent) so stories that focus on race and discrimination are important, and are sadly always pertinent. However, books about issues are not the only types of books I want to see and experience characters in. It’s so important to see Black characters having experiences and interests that are adjacent to their race. To see them as whole people. I’m in no way suggesting any books are replaced with mine – I simply want there to be more room on the shelf for an array of representation’, because ‘visibility leads to empathy’ and ‘proper, rounded representation gives Black children the chance to see themselves doing fun, smart and clever things, boosting their confidence, letting them dare to dream of all the things they could be in the future.’

It’s so important to see black characters having experiences and interests that are adjacent to their race. To see them as whole people.Sharna Jackson

The success of Sharna’s debut novel ‘High Rise Mystery’, which was shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, shows that there is indeed a demand for children’s books and stories that are more reflective of the make-up of our society. Books with Black protagonists help Black children see themselves on the page, and this communicates to them that their stories matter too, at the same time, as is Sharna’s hope, they are supposed to foster empathy from other children towards them. Hopefully, publishers will start to take notice of the demand (and need) for more diversity in children’s books, and realise that the inclusion of one, does not automatically mean the exclusion of another. There is enough space for everyone.

[…] the inclusion of one, does not automatically mean the exclusion of another. There is enough space for everyone.