by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Megan Schliesman and Emily McKnight Townsend
© 2017 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2017)
Everything we do at the CCBC begins and ends with the books themselves. We examine every one of the hundreds of titles that come into the library each year, and subsequently read a number of them. As we do this work, we notice trends about the publishing year.
In 2016, we were struck by how many substantial and significant works of nonfiction for older children and teens about aspects of World War II we received, including Sachiko, We Will Not Be Silent, Irena’s Children, Sabotage, and The Plot to Kill Hitler. We were less surprised, given what’s happening in our country and around the world, and equally pleased to see a number of books about immigrants and refugees, including the informative This Land Is Our Land, the affecting Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds (one of far too few poetry collections in 2016), the pointed yet lovely Refuge, and the chilling Watched, among others.
As part of the CCBC’s ongoing work around diversity in children’s and young adult literature, 2016 marked the start of a new project for us: a diversity analysis of the picture books we receive. As we go to press for this publication, we haven’t quite completed the work of looking at 2016 titles, but, anecdotally, we can say this: in picture books featuring humans (as opposed to animals or inanimate objects) as principle characters, the default is still to whiteness (that is, white characters). Having said that, we can also say that a definite trend is to make some main characters brown-skinned, with no identifiable culture or cultural content to the stories. While this cannot and should not be seen as a substitute for books with cultural content, it is not unwelcome when care is taken to avoid stereotypes in representation.
It was also, thanks in part but not whole to Canadian publishers distributing in the United States, an unusually bountiful year for Native picture books, including My Heart Fills with Happiness, Leah’s Mustache Party, The Owl and the Lemming, Thunder Boy Jr., and We Are Not Alone, among others.
The #OwnVoices movement was one of the most important developments of 2016 for all of us who care about books for children and teens. The hashtag, coined by author and disability advocate Corinne Duyvis (On the Edge of Gone), promotes the importance of books created by cultural insiders to the identity experience they portray. It’s an idea that is both common sense and radical, and one that underscores the importance, too, of publishers seeking out new talent.
And speaking of new talent, among the debuts that excited us this year were Kate Berube (Hannah and Sugar), Katrina Goldsaito (The Sound of Silence ), and Christine Kendall (Riding Chance ).
Young adult literature continues to come in at a pace that leaves us astounded, with mental health and mental illness a theme among many, it seems. But one of the most striking things about a number of the books we read this year was their focus on issues and attitudes affecting girls and women, some of them fiercely courageous: Asking for It, American Girls (another stunning debut, by author Alison Umminger), Burn Baby Burn, Female of the Species, and Rani Patel in Full Effect are among the titles we applaud. Sexual abuse of boys and family violence is the subject of the taut, singular, extraordinary Golden Boys.
With novels featuring gay male protagonists or secondary characters now a welcome norm in young adult literature, we were pleased to see an increase in novels featuring young women who are lesbian or bisexual, including Girl Mans Up, Radical, Unbecoming, and Not Your Sidekick. We were also happy to see outstanding books featuring transgender and gender fluid characters, including When the Moon Was Ours andThe Symptoms of Being Human.
Finally, we were delighted to read a number of young adult books in 2016 by Latinx authors, many of which seamlessly incorporate magical realism, including The Head of the Saint, which was originally published in Brazil and is translated from the Portuguese, A Fierce and Subtle Poison (another noteworthy debut by Samantha Mabry), and the aforementioned When the Moon Was Ours.
CCBC 2016 Statistics on Multicultural Literature
In our continuing work documenting the number of books by and about people of color and First/Native Nations that we receive each year, we examine every book that comes into the library, doing additional research when needed to try to try to determine whether a book, and/or its creator, should be counted in our annual statistics. Of the approximately 3,400 books we received at the CCBC in 2016, most from U.S. publishers, here’s the breakdown:
- 278 books had significant African or African American content
- 71 of these were by Black authors and/or illustrators
- 55 books had American Indian/First Nations themes, topics, or characters
- 21 of these were by American Indian/First Nations authors and/or illustrators
- 237 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 75 of these were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 166 books had significant Latino content
- 58 of these were by Latino authors and/or illustrators
(These numbers will change slightly as we continue to receive the stray title or two. Check here for up-to-date statistics: ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp)
These numbers are solely a reflection of quantity (or lack thereof ) and have nothing to do with quality, which, as with everything we receive, varies widely.
In addition, many book creators of color are writing and/or illustrating books about people or subjects that don’t have obvious cultural content reflecting their backgrounds. Among the 3,400 books we received in 2016, we counted 21 books by Black authors and illustrators; 1 book by an American Indian/First Nations author; 137 books by authors and illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage; and 43 books by Latino authors and illustrators that did not reflect the cultural origins of those creators.
It’s both an exciting and frustrating time for multicultural literature advocates. Some of the excitement is familiar: each and every year there are wonderful new books. Among the many 2016 titles we’re eager to share with librarians and teachers across Wisconsin and beyond are Ghost, Makoons, Outrun the Moon, Playing for the Devil’s Fire, and many others. Some of the excitement is a direct result of social media providing wider visibility to the current era of this advocacy work, giving the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations and their allies in the world of children’s and young adult literature greater reach. The frustration is familiar, however. It’s explained by numbers that haven’t changed drastically in the 32 years we’ve been counting. It’s explained by the fact that the conversations we are having now, about the importance of multicultural literature, about the importance of publishing books by authors and artists of color and First/Native Nations, about the importance of calling out racism in books for youth, still need to take place. And it’s explained by the fact that these conversations have been going on in one form or venue or another for well over 70 years.
The field of children’s and young adult literature has always been a reflection of our society, so the fact that we are still having these conversations is, on the one hand, no surprise. But it’s also a field in which so many of us, from authors and artists to editors and publishers to librarians and teachers, believe in the power of books and reading to change the world.
We are dreamers and we are doers, and we can change the world by showing all children that they are seen, and valued, and respected, book by book.
It always comes back to the books. They are what keep us excited and inspired by the work we do, and every year is new again. On to the books of 2017!