Observations on Publishing in 2017

by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Megan Schliesman, and Madeline Tyner
© 2018 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2018)

Diversity and representation are on the minds of many in publishing for youth, and one of the things that stood out for us about 2017 books, especially picture books, was the presence of the brown-skinned child. We noted this last year, but it’s even more obvious in 2017 books. We do not mean books that are specifically and authentically African American, or Asian/Pacific, or American Indian/First Nations, or Latinx. We mean books in which a character has brown skin, is of unspecified race or ethnicity, with no visible culturally specific markers in either the story or the art.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? It’s hard to make a broad statement either way. What we will say is that visibility is critical. So, too, is authenticity. The question of whether books with ethnically ambiguous, brown-skinned characters offer children what scholar Rudine Sims Bishop refers to as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors is one we would love to see studied. In the meantime, when we’re feeling optimistic, we hope that these “brown-skinned” characters are publishing’s short-term response to the need for greater diversity in the books they publish, one that will eventually be replaced by more culturally specific and authentic works by an ever-growing number of diverse authors and illustrators.

CCBC 2017 Statistics on Multicultural Literature

We continue to document the number of books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations that we receive each year. To do this, 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 3,700 books we received at the CCBC in 2017, most from U.S. publishers, here’s the breakdown:

  • 336 books had significant African or African American content/characters
    • 100 of these were by Black authors and/or illustrators
  • 67 books had significant American Indian/First Nations content/characters
    • 34 of these were by American Indian/First Nations authors and/or illustrators
  • 309 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content/ characters
    • 119 of these were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
  • 212 books had significant Latinx content/characters
    • 70 of these were by Latinx authors and/or illustrators

(The numbers will change slightly as we continue to receive a stray title or two. Check our annual statistics page for up-to-date numbers, and more on what and how we count.)

These numbers are solely a reflection of how many books we received and have nothing to do with quality or authenticity of representation, which varies widely. It should also be noted that the number of book creators in each category does not represent that many individuals, as many authors and illustrators were involved in the creation of two or more books. In addition, many book creators of color are writing and/or illustrating books without cultural content reflecting their own backgrounds. Among the 3,700 books we received in 2017, we counted 22 books by Black authors and illustrators; 0 books by American Indian/First Nations authors; 150 books by authors and illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage; and 43 books by Latinx authors and illustrators that did not reflect the cultural origins of those creators.

The unspecified brown-skinned characters we noted across many picture books, and on book jackets, are not included in the numbers of books “about,” although we have tracked these books separately. All book creators we were able to identify are included in the number of books “by.”

We began what we are calling a “deep dive” into picture books in 2016, and continued that work with the 2017 publishing year (excluding picture books that are classified as nonfiction). The deep dive analysis also looks at other dimensions of representation, including gender, religion, (dis)ability, and LGBTQ. The results have made for some stunning—and unsettling—comparisons.

For example, an early-November analysis of the 698 picture books we’d received so far in 2017 from U.S. publishers revealed:

  • A character in a picture book was four times more likely to be a dinosaur than an American Indian child.
  • A character in a picture book was two times more likely to be a rabbit than an Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American child.
  • A female character in a picture book was highly likely to be wearing pink and/or a bow, even if a hippopotamus, an ostrich, or a dinosaur.
  • A child with a disability appeared in only 21 picture books, and only two of those were main characters. Most others appeared in the background.

These are not so much trends in publishing as a revealing look at where we are at today in terms of various aspects of diversity and representation. We will continue to evaluate the data for the 2017 publishing year in the coming weeks. At the same time, we are expanding our analysis in 2018 to include all of the books we receive: picture books, fiction, and nonfiction.

There were many other things we noted throughout the 2017 publishing year. Among them was a lack of substantial-length nonfiction for older children and teens. Time after time we went to the shelves looking for something new for middle and high school–age readers, and time after time were disappointed by how little had come in. Among the standouts we did receive were The 57 Bus, a compelling look at race, gender identity, and juvenile justice; a riveting account of the worst U.S. maritime disaster in Sinking the Sultana; and Vincent and Theo, an extraordinary exploration of the lives of the Van Gogh brothers.

We found many terrific shorter nonfiction books, from the sweeping and engaging Grand Canyon to the unexpectedly dramatic The Secret Life of the Red Fox; the unabashedly political Her Right Foot and Black History in Its Own Words to the artfully appreciative Muddy and The Shape of the World.

Picture books stories like Alfie; All the Way to Havana; Crown; A Different PondThe Fox Wish; A Greyhound, a Groundhog; Owl Bat Bat Owl; Yo Soy Muslim; You Hold Me Up; and many others reminded us there are countless ways to astonish and affirm and move and delight young children.

Four new Anna Hibiscus books marked the return of characters who feel like familiar friends, while the introduction of Jasmine Toguchi feels like making new ones. Both series, aimed at young fiction readers, show that publishing is making an effort to reflect diverse lives, even as we all know the work will never be enough, never be done.

There was a noteworthy number of books (always, it’s comparative to what’s come before) featuring Muslim characters for readers across the age spectrum, including but not limited to those published by the new Salaam Reads imprint from Simon & Schuster. Among them were Amina’s VoiceSaints and Misfits, and The Lines We Cross.

We were pleased to find wonderful books by debut authors among those we recommend, including American Street, A Different Pond, The First Rule of PunkNot Quite Narwhal, Roll, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and others. One authorial debut, The Hate U Give, spent most of 2017 at the top of the New York Times best- seller list.

The Hate U Give and other #OwnVoices works (diverse books created by individuals who are cultural insiders), a number by first-time book creators, is something else we celebrate. Among them were three—yes, three!—excellent novels by the prolific and astonishingly varied Jason Reynolds, a debut author himself not that long ago. We were also thrilled to see Simon Ortiz’s singular, political overview of the history of Native peoples in the United States, The People Shall Continue, reissued in a 40th-anniversary edition by Lee and Low.

The young adult novel The Marrow Thieves, winner of the Kirkus Prize, is a stunning post-apocalyptic story written by a Métis author and published by an independent Canadian publisher. It’s one of a number of books in this edition of Choices from our northern neighbors. We also found our reading enriched by translated books originally published in other countries. Among them were Bronze and Sunflower, Feather, and Walk with Me.

We could go on parsing the 2017 publishing year, and the books in this edition of CCBC Choices, in myriad ways. But the books of 2018 are coming in. By the time you read this, we’ll no doubt have already found noteworthy titles among them.

We’re eager to dig in.