Observations on Publishing in 2011

by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman

© 2012 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2012)

During 2011, we saw more changes in how books were being published rather than what was being published. Audiobooks for children and teens are flourishing, and are often released simultaneously with print editions of titles; likewise, publishers are moving into simultaneous release of print and e-book formats of titles for older children and teens, including e-galleys for reviewers’ preview copies.

With the ever-growing globalization of publishing, this year we saw many publishers in the United States distributing English-language books from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom in their original form—with prices listed on the covers of some in pounds and pence rather than dollars and cents—rather than bringing out separate American print editions. Even book promotion is changing, or rather, continuing to evolve as a variety of social media is being used to promote books directly to young readers, as well as to librarians, teachers, and parents.

In terms of content and form, books published in 2011 looked much like the books from 2010, with young adult novels featuring paranormal love interests or antagonists and futuristic dystopian novels occupying much of our current shelf space. Everyone who is scrambling to publish the “next big thing” seems instead to be publishing the last big thing.

Amidst all the sameness, we are always happy to see publishers taking risks, whether it’s on first-time authors, such as 2011 National Book Award winner Thanhha Lai; on hot-button nonfiction topics like evolution, as in Laurence Pringle’s Billions of Years, Amazing Changes; or on GLBTQ-inclusive books for all ages. We also were pleased to see so much literary middle-grade fiction in 2011. And to see picture books. Period.
The demise of the picture book has been discussed much of late in person, online, and in print. Once the staple of every publisher’s list, it seems there are fewer and fewer published each year. We don’t see the same level of risk-taking in them that we see in young adult novels, and that’s a shame considering the number of truly ingenious artists and authors in the field. What we do see are plenty of adult-oriented, sentimental picture books that are best described as safely mediocre; and plenty of silly stories that may get a laugh but don’t hold up to literary scrutiny. Yes, the quality of the writing matters. So, too, does the quality of the art.

The good news is that every year we continue to see some great picture books published, and 2011 was no exception, as the 2012 Charlotte Zolotow Award books and other titles you’ll find in Choices demonstrate. We would just like to see more of them, and know that there is no lack of talent among authors and artists—those already known, and those waiting to be discovered.



Meaningful Multicultural Literature

We continue to pay close attention to books by and about people of color, and were surprised to note how many multicultural picture books published in 2011 were written by celebrity authors—and we don’t mean authors who achieved “celebrity” for their writing. We mean individuals who achieved fame in other fields. If you are a person of color who wants to get a picture book published, it apparently helps to already be famous for something else. (It can also help to be related to someone famous, whether it’s Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jackie Robinson.) Five of the twenty-one 2011 picture books by African American authors we received, for example, were written by people from the sports world or entertainment industry: Taye Diggs, Tony Dungy, Spike Lee, Justin Tuck, and Dionne Warwick. Just imagine how many celebrity titles there would be if we saw a similar proportion among books by white authors.

We know publishing is a business, and we know celebrity books may sell. And they certainly are not without merit on a case by case basis. But we also know the talent pool for authors and artists of color is rich and deep. We hope publishers’ commitment to multicultural literature remains first and foremost one that nurtures and supports the careers of writers and illustrators seeking opportunities to create outstanding books for children and teens.

Each year in CCBC Choices we include statistics on the number of books by and about people of color that we received at the CCBC the previous year. We continue to do this because it’s important to pay attention to the way books and book publishing reflect—or fail to reflect—the diversity of our nation and the realities of the lives of children and teenagers today.

We received approximately 3,400 books at the CCBC in 2011. Of those,

  • 123 books had significant African or African American content
  • 79 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
    • 28 books had American Indian themes, topics, or characters
    • 12 books were by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
    • 91 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
    • 76 books were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
    • 58 books had significant Latino content
    • 52 books were by Latino authors and/or illustrators

These numbers include both stand-alone trade books and books that are published as part of a formulaic nonfiction series, and many individual authors and illustrators of color wrote or illustrated more than one book.
The number of books by people of color has plateaued for the past decade or so with one exception: books by Asian Pacific American authors. We were pleased to see first novels from Cara Chow, Wendy Wang-Long Shang, and the afore-mentioned Thanhha Lai, as well as new novels from Jenny Han, Uma Krishnaswami, Grace Lin, Malinda Lo, Lenore Look, Padma Venkatraman, Lisa Yee, and Laurence Yep, among others. These writers not only represent diverse ethnicities in their backgrounds but also diverse literary forms in works that are helping to enrich all of contemporary literature for children and teens.



Timely, Timeless Books for All

Books are a reflection of the time in which they are published. We saw evidence of that in more than one 2011 novel that showed families struggling to make ends meet. Angry Young Man by Chris Lynch, Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon, and Bluefish by Pat Schmatz are all examples of works that showed economic strife as part of the reality of their characters’ lives without it being a central focus of their stories. Children and teens facing an uncertain future can still find their realities—or their escapes from reality— in picture books, novels, and nonfiction.

The times in which books are published can also give greater meaning to the timeless topics they address. Social justice, for example, can be looked at through a variety of lenses, from the personal to the political, contemporary to historical. One of the outstanding works of non-fiction in 2011 was Albert Marrin’s Flesh & Blood So Cheap, about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the union organizing and labor law changes that resulted from it. “Which side are you on?” asks the pro-union song written by Florence Reece in 1931 that was re-envisioned as a picture book eighty years later by George Ella Lyon and Christopher Cardinale and published by Cinco Puntos in 2011. Who could have predicted when these books were being created just how timely they would prove to be in 2011, offering historical insight into issues children and teens could watch playing out on the national news, and in their local communities.

Which side are you on? For us here at the CCBC, the answer is easy: We’re on the side of good books for all children and teens.