I See White People

by Kathleen T. Horning

There has been a lively discussion going on over at Read Roger, prompted by Lee & Low asking why the number of multicultural books has stagnated for the past 18 years. Roger remarked:

Semi-facetious response: While the blog states the disparity between the non-white population in this country (37% of the whole) and the percentage of children’s books with “multicultural content” (hovering around 10% over the last eighteen years), I want to know what percentage of children’s books are in the first place about people (as opposed to talking rabbits or outer space, for example). Things may look worse than they are.

Since the CCBC is the source of the multicultural statistics that have been widely quoted since USA Today first used them in a  feature article back in 1989, I decided to respond to Roger will some hard data. I took a look at the children’s and young adult trade books we have received so far in 2013 here at the CCBC. I  counted the total number of books we have received, noting how many were about people, and how many were about nonhuman characters. I also counted how many were about white people and how many were about people of color. I was generous in my assessment: if a cover with a crowd of kids showed two or more kids of color, I counted it as multicultural. Similarly, if a cover showed two people and one was a person of color, I counted it as multicultural. I was struck by how many middle-grade fiction books show three kids on the cover, a la Harry Potter, all of them white.

books on display
A sampling of 2013 books from the CCBC’s Current Collection

So here’s how the stats break down so far this year:

To date we have received 1509 books from U.S. publishers. Of these, 1183 (or 78.3 %) are about human beings. I know it seems like there are lots and lots of bears, mice and bunnies standing in for people in books, and there are, but these stand ins occur mainly in picture books, which represent just 23.5% of the books we have received so far in 2013. I went through all the picture books published in 2013 that we have received so far as review copies. Of the 355 picture books in our current collection, 164 had non-human characters (mostly dinosaurs and cute furry critters but we also have picture book protagonists who are cars, crayons, monsters, lollipops and smurfs).

I counted 191 picture books with human characters, which is a little over half (53.8 %) of the total number of this year’s picture books in our collection. Of these 191 titles, 28 (or 14.6%) feature a child of color as the protagonist. In the overall total number of picture books, adding together human and nonhuman characters, children of color make up just 7.8% of the total number of picture book protagonists.

Nonfiction is another genre that includes a lot of books about animals, outer space, etc. We have received 472 nonfiction titles so far this year, which makes up 31.27% of the total number of books. Just 130 of these books (or 27.5%) are about nonhuman subjects. People of color fare a little bit better in nonfiction than they do in picture books: of the 342 books about people, 60 are about people of color, which amounts to 17.5% of the total number of nonfiction books.

The really dismal numbers come with fiction, both middle grade and young adult. Anyone who is up on trends in children’s and young adult book publishing knows that fiction (a/k/a chapter books and novels) make up the bulk of what is currently being published. Our stats so far for 2013 bear this out. We have received 682 works of fiction to date this year, which makes up 45.19% of our total. Just 32 of them are about non-human protagonists (Most of these were animals; I only counted paranormals if there was no interaction with mortals in the story.)  That means 95.3% of all fiction titles are about human beings. Of the 650 books about human beings, 614 feature white characters, and just 36 feature people of color as main characters. That amounts to just 5.27% of the total.

So to get back to Roger’s semi-facetious response, here is the big picture. Of the 1509 books published in 2013 that we have received so far, 1183 (or 78.3%) are about human beings. If we subtract the 326 books about nonhuman characters from the overall total and just figure the percentages of books about people of color among the books with human characters only, we still get a fairly dismal number: of the 1183 books published so far in 2013 about human beings, 124 of those books feature people of color. That’s 10.48%. We’re only half way through the publishing year and the fall season is usually the heaviest, but it still looks like we are on track for yet another year of stagnation.