Observations on Publishing in 2014

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

© 2015 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2015)

It was a year of changes at the CCBC. After forty-three years in our small, triangular space on the fourth floor of Helen C. White Hall, we said goodbye, and moved across campus to a larger space on the fourth floor of the Teacher Education Building. And after almost twenty years, we said goodbye to our listserv, CCBC-Net, a once-vibrant online discussion of children’s and young adult literature, which had fallen dormant in the past few years as people found other ways to communicate via social media.  The CCBC librarians will continue to host a discussion about trends and topics in books for children and teens, but we’ll now be doing it on our blog, CCBlogC, and we hope you’ll join us there.

One thing that hasn’t changed is our enthusiasm for the great new books that arrive daily at the CCBC, no matter what the address.  As we receive boxes and boxes of newly published books each year, we are able to make observations about them. There are a lot of picture books about ninjas these days, for example, and fewer young adult books about vampires.  There just aren’t many science books and fewer longer trade nonfiction in general in spite of the emphasis in the schools on STEAM and Common Core.

The reading the CCBC librarians do every day (most of it after work, rather than at work) leads to deeper observations. We were pleasantly surprised to read some overtly feminist young adult novels this year, such as Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by the ever-provocative A. S. King and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, a stunning debut by Isabel Quintero.  After years of paranormal romance practically defining young adult literature, this heralds a welcome change. We like our teen girl protagonists with heads on their shoulders, both on the cover and inside the book itself.

Many young adult books seemed to be inspired by the headlines, even though most would have been works in progress long before 2014. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon offers a variety of points of view and insights into the shooting death of an African American teen walking home from a convenience store. G. Neri’s Knockout Games deals with a group of teens who randomly victimize strangers and capture the attacks on film. In nonfiction, Patient Zero by Marilee Peters traces the history of epidemiology, a subject that is very timely in the wake of the most recent outbreak of the Ebola epidemic.  Paul Fleischman’s Eyes Wide Open takes on the headlines directly by presenting young readers with the tools for critical thinking that will help them assess information about environmental issues.

We noted a number of young adult memoirs written by young adults themselves, including Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill (Simon & Schuster), Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw (Roaring Brook Press), and Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince (Knopf).  While each one offers rare insight into the lives of extraordinary adolescents, there is something to be said for the sort of perspective that comes with age; these memoirs would have been more successful had the teens waited a few years before looking back on their lives. On the other hand, two adolescent memoirs stood out as exceptional: Some Assembly Required by transgender teen Arin Andrews with Joshua Lyon, and I Am Malala by the young Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, collaborating with author for young adults Patricia McCormick. Both were selected for CCBC Choices 2015.

We also recommend a book written by thirteen-year-old Jazz Jennings in collaboration with Jessica Herthel. I Am Jazz is the first trade picture book from the perspective of a very young transgender child who has always known who she is. This is a subject we are thrilled to be seeing in books for youth. We can happily recommend the first middle-grade novel with a trans protagonist, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonski, as well as the superb nonfiction book by Susan Kuklin, Beyond Magenta, which documents the lives of six older teens who identify as trans.

The best news of 2014 from our perspective is that middle-grade fiction is back in a big way. We were happy to see great novels for young readers from established writers such as Coe Booth (Kinda Like Brothers), Christopher Paul Curtis (The Madman of Piney Woods), Sonya Hartnett (Children of the King), Jennifer L. Holm (The Fourteenth Goldfish ), Cynthia Kadohata (Half a World Away), Ann M. Martin (Rain Reign ), and Naomi Shihab Nye (The Turtle of Oman), among others. But we were just as happy to find fine novels by newcomers, including Skila Brown (Caminar ), Crystal Chan (Bird ), Robin Herrera (Hope Is a Ferris Wheel ), and Mariko Nagai (Dust of Eden ).

We would be remiss if we did not mention the contributions of two small presses, Enchanted Lion and Gecko. Both of them are committed to publishing translated books for children, enabling readers in this country to  delight in books such as Benny Lindenlauf’s Nine Open Arms, translated from the Dutch, and Rose Lagercrantz’s My Heart Is Laughing, translated from the Swedish.

We also heartily recommend Cece Bell’s story of her own childhood, El Deafo, a memoir written as a graphic novel for middle-grade readers. Bell writes candidly — and humorously — about what it was like to grow up deaf, as well as the challenges of finding a true friend.

As in years past, we continue to see wonderfully creative and beautifully produced picture books. We were struck by the number of books that represent the perfect melding of text and pictures, including this year’s Charlotte Zolotow Award winner, Sparky!, written by Jenny Offill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans. Although we honored the book for its outstanding writing, the remarkable restraint the author used in her story, with not a word wasted, allowed space for the illustrator to add his own droll details.   Other examples of this sort of perfect harmony that we recommend include Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School, a first book by Adam Auerbach, and Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton.


CCBC 2014 Statistics on Multicultural Literature

In February 2014 the CCBC’s statistics for multicultural literature were quoted in a pair of editorials written by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, leading to dozens of inquiries from the press, academic researchers, teachers, and others concerned about the lack of diversity in books for children and teens, as reflected in the statistics for 2013.

The 2014 numbers reveal mixed news: more books by and about Blacks and Asian Pacifics (with “more” being a relative term); the numbers for American Indians and Latinos largely the same. This is far from alright.

We received approximately 3,500 books at the CCBC in 2014. Here’s the breakdown of books by and about people of color among those we received:

  • 179 books had significant African or African American content
  • 69 of these were by Black authors and/or illustrators
  • 36 books had American Indian themes, topics, or characters
  • 15 of these were by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
  • 112 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
  • 48 of these were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
  • 66 books had significant Latino content
  • 36 of these were by Latino authors and/or illustrators

(Note: as we received books after CCBC Choices 2014 was published, check here for up-to-date statistics: ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp)

In addition, many book creators of color are writing and/or illustrating books about people or subjects that don’t have anything to do with their own specific cultural or ethnic background.  Among the 3,500 books we received in 2014, we counted 15 books by Black authors and illustrators; 2 books by American Indian authors and illustrators; 80 books by authors and illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage; and 23 books by Latino authors and illustrators that did not reflect the cultural origins of those creators.

The CCBC’s statistics are only quantitative, and don’t reveal anything about the quality of the books we counted.  But we were thrilled with the number of outstanding longer works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors, including Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, an exceptionally fine book by any standards. Crossover by Kwame Alexander is an extraordinary sports novel in verse written from two points of view. And Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist is a comedic novel with a dizzying array of schemes and plot twists. This trio alone demonstrates the range of literary forms and subject matter we welcome in multicultural literature.  We hope to see this sort of diversity extended to picture books and nonfiction in the years to come.

But we were pleased to see so many multicultural books by authors of color making their debuts, including Teresa E. Harris (The Perfect Place ), Crystal Chan (Bird ), Kathryn Russell-Brown (Little Melba and Her Big Trombone ), and Isabel Quintero (Gabi, A Girl in Pieces ), to name just a few.

This year marked the launch of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, a grassroots organization of authors and illustrators concerned about the dismal state of diversity in children’s books. The attention they have brought to this issue has been phenomenal, and we hope that we will be able to see the results of their efforts by the latter part of this decade. Our statistics reveal that the number of diverse books have been on a plateau for far too long, and something has to change if children’s books are going to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Yes, We Need Diverse Books, but Diverse Books also Need Us — to buy them, to read them, and to share them with all children, who deserve to see a reflection of the real world in which we live.