by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman
© 2013 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2013)
First it was vampires. Then there were werewolves. This led to zombies, cyborgs, and fallen angels. In the end it was mermaids, rising from the waters to take the last gasp in a publishing craze we are all hoping is really dying out—that of the paranormal romance. It overlapped for a few years with a preponderance of books set in an unhappy, post-apocalyptic / post-pandemic / dystopic future, although it is apparently possible, if not obligatory, to find love among the ruins. New settings, new characters, same old romance.
Contemporary realism, once a mainstay in young adult literature, has been making a welcome return, and among the recurring themes that stood out in 2012 was the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on young adults. Several novels were written from the points of view of teens with a family member who had served in one of these conflicts; in a few cases, teen characters were the soldiers themselves; and Deborah Ellis’s My Name Is Parvana continues to illuminate the life of now teenage Parvana, who lives in Afghanistan and was first introduced at age eleven in The Breadwinner (Groundwood, 2001).
Young activists also took center stage in a number of novels, including The Difference Between You and Me, a book that also represents another welcome direction in publishing: young adult novels featuring LGBTQ characters. We were especially happy to see so many outstanding novels with lesbian main characters, noticeably underrepresented the past couple of years. Among them, A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers stands out for its timely and sensitive portrayal of a questioning teen girl.
We’ve also noticed more young adult novels that feature adult protagonists, from the WWII-era pilot and spy in Code Name Verity to the seventy-five-year-old writer in Dying to Know You to the mostly adult voices driven by desire and longing in The Brides of Rollrock Island. Even though these characters have moved well beyond adolescence, their stories will be of interest to today’s teen readers.
Younger readers of fiction also have plenty to be excited about. Last year we noted that middle grade novels seemed to be gaining ground, and we were gratified to see this continue into 2012. Not only did many established authors, such as Sharon Creech, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Grace Lin, publish books last year, but we were pleased to see there was still room—and publishing support—for dozens of debut novelists, including R. J. Palacio and Wisconsin’s own W. H. Beck.
We continued to see fewer picture books published in 2012 than we did ten or even five years ago, but if the quantity has declined, we certainly—and happily—can’t say the same for the quality. As we approach the 75th anniversary year of the Caldecott Medal, it’s heartening to see that picture books are still going strong and still providing rich aesthetic experiences for young children. We were especially happy to note the number of original board books now being created for babies and toddlers.
One area of decline in picture books we were relieved to note was offerings by celebrity authors. There’s still an occasional volume, but not nearly the numbers we were receiving a few years ago. A different kind of celebrity publishing seems to have taken its place, however, as more and more well-known adult authors make forays into children’s publishing, with an emphasis on novels, and varied success.
In the area of nonfiction, what stood out most to us was the fine array of science books for middle-school students. Houghton Mifflin’s “Scientists in the Field” series has set the bar high for engaging readers with the work of real-life scientists. We are happy to recommend several great new books, including two from that series, which draw readers into the world of scientific investigation and research.
Authors of outstanding nonfiction also lead by example when they document their sources and provide insight, by way of an author’s note, into their research and the choices and decisions they had to make as they turned that research into the work in readers’ hands. We have been paying closer and closer attention to these dimensions of nonfiction works and are pleased to see so many authors and publishers taking the time (and space) to share this information.
The CCBC and Multicultural Literature:
Over Twenty-Five Years and Counting
The CCBC receives most of the new trade books published each year by large trade publishers in the United States, and many by a number of smaller publishers. As we have done for the past twenty-eight years, we continue to document the number of children’s books we receive annually by and about people of color. The news in terms of sheer numbers continues to be discouraging: the total number of books about people of color—regardless of quality, regardless of accuracy or authenticity—was less than eight percent of the total number of titles we received.
Think about that. Think about it terms of what you know about the changing demographics of our nation. Think about it in terms of the children and teens with whom you interact each and every day. They all deserve more.
We received approximately 3,600 books at the CCBC in 2012. Of those,
- 119 books had significant African or African American content
- 68 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
- 22 books had American Indian themes, topics, or characters
- 6 books were by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 76 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 83 books were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 54 books had significant Latino content
- 59 books were by Latino authors and/or illustrators
(Note: as we received books after CCBC Choices 2012 was published, check here for up-to-date statistics: ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp)
These numbers include everything that came into the library with a 2012 publication date, from formulaic series non-fiction books to stand-alone trade titles to paperback originals. Additionally, the number of books by authors and illustrators of color does not represent the number of book creators of color—many individuals wrote or illustrated more than one book.
But there has been good news, too, across those years: Among the multicultural books that do get published, there are always standouts; quite a few of them, in fact. New and established authors and illustrators of color are creating works that are exciting, engaging, and even innovative. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair is an example of all three. This documentary novel is based on the life of the author’s great uncle, Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux. More than sixty years ago he opened his bookstore with the firm belief that books can change lives, and Nelson shows how he created an oasis for readers and writers and activists, and a place for anyone—young or old—to find themselves through literature.
This year—2013—is the CCBC’s fiftieth anniversary. From the library’s earliest days, when it was located on the fourth floor of the Wisconsin State Capitol, to today, it has been a place that is grounded in that same idea that Mr. Michaux believed: books do have the power to change lives. We hope that you will find some life-changing books for the young readers you know among those listed here.