Observations on Publishing in 2020

CCBC Choices 2021 cover…and Other Reflections on the Year

by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Megan Schliesman, and Madeline Tyner
© 2021 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2021.)

The 2021 edition of CCBC Choices is a bit different than ones that have come before. First and foremost, it is not being offered as a physical print publication due to complexities related to the ongoing pandemic. The Friends of the CCBC have been unable to hold the book sales that fund the Choices print publication, and the CCBC is not able to do the in-person workshops on which so much of the distribution of the physical booklet depends. We are hoping and planning for a return to a physical booklet next year.

This obvious change in format belies other changes behind the scenes throughout 2020 as we, like all of you, had to figure out new ways of doing things. We had no access to the CCBC’s shipments of books from mid-March until July, when the librarians were finally allowed into the building on the UW-Madison campus in which the CCBC is located. Our limited, rotating schedule has become more regular since the start of the UW-Madison fall semester, but we still are conducting much of our work remotely.

Luckily, CCBC librarian Madeline Tyner served on the 2021 ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee and CCBC librarian Merri Lindgren is chairing the 2021-2022 Charlotte Zolotow Award Committee. Both Madeline and Merri were receiving books at home in spring and early summer, and this, along with the stacks of books director Kathleen Horning and librarian Megan Schliesman grabbed on the last day we were on site in mid-March—when it was clear the UW-Madison campus would be closing—carried us through to when we could finally start returning to the library. We developed an almost comically complicated spreadsheet as a means to share books with one another—because Choices is a list of consensus—and arranged meetings and drop-offs that sometimes felt like furtive exchanges of contraband.

Our limited return to the library in mid to late summer into fall coincided with many publisher shipments that had been suspended starting up again. Still, not all publishers from which we typically receive books were able to reliably ship them to us in 2020. We understand the challenges of doing so, even as we also appreciate every book we did receive. We are hopeful 2021 will bring a return to consistency in many things for all of us, including shipments from publishers, on which so much of what we do at the CCBC depends.

As we write this in February, 2021, we are continuing to catalog some stragglers among the 2020 books we received and document their content and creators for our diversity data. And while we haven’t seen as many books as we might in another year, almost 3,000 books published in 2020 have passed through our hands. Our observations are based on a year in which it feels like we got many small glimpses rather than a big picture as we typically do. In part, this has to do with the context of place, and the reality of missing connections. In the late 1990s, when the CCBC was first establishing a virtual presence with its original website and the CCBC-Net listserv, Michael Streibel, then an Associate Dean in the UW-Madison School of Education and professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, talked about the importance of the CCBC’s virtual presence being anchored by the physical place—a space where the books and people and ideas come together.  Even as we reinvigorated our online presence with the launching of a new and greatly improved website in 2020, we deeply missed being together in that physical space, surrounded by books and journals, engaging in spontaneous conversations with one another and with visitors to the library that could be as illuminating as meetings with a purpose.  And we miss seeing all the people we usually get to see outside the CCBC when we do outreach visits.

The most welcome thing we noticed in 2020 was the number of outstanding books that speak to the many-faceted lives and experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), from those that are directly and intentionally affirming (e.g., Black Is a Rainbow Color, Brown Baby Lullaby, I Am Every Good Thing) to those that affirm through the simple yet profound importance of authentic visibility (e.g., Bedtime Bonnet, Evelyn Del Ray Is Moving Away, Me & Mama, The Most Beautiful Thing, The Range Eternal). We were also thrilled to see so many terrific first books by BIPOC authors, with these debuts crossing genres from contemporary realism to memoir to fantasy (e.g., Displacement, Elatsoe, Everything Sad Is Untrue, Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, Legendborn, When Life Gives You Mangos). We also noted the growing number of books that expressly acknowledge awareness of race and the impact of racism on the lives of children and teens, whether it’s a major theme or revealing moment of the story (e.g., Black Brother, Black Brother; The Henna Wars; Not Your All-American Girl, A Place at the Table), and including books addressing what is happening to Latinx immigrant children at our country’s southern border (Land of the Cranes, Santiago’s Road Home). And in a year in which children and teens were witness to, and sometimes participants in, protests and marches, we were glad to see picture books expressly about activism and resistance (Sometimes People March, Stand Up, We Are Water Protectors).

We also want to acknowledge the culmination of a groundbreaking story cycle with the publication of Mildred D. Taylor’s All the Days Past, All the Days to Come in 2020, which brings her Logan Family saga that began with publication of Song of the Trees in 1975 to a close.  Taylor is the recipient of the 2021 Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

Taylor’s second Logan family book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, won the Newbery Medal in 1977, only the second book by a Black author to win the Newbery (following Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins the Great in 1975).  By contrast, the 2021 Newbery winner (When You Trap a Tiger), Printz winner (Everything Sad Is Untrue), and Caldecott winner are all by BIPOC creators. Tlingit artist Michaela Goade is the first Indigenous artist to win the Caldecott award, for We Are Water Protectors, which was written by Ojibwe author Carole Lindstrom.

All told, there are 257 books recommended in this edition of CCBC Choices—our perspective on excellence in 2020 publishing for children and teens. In addition to those already cited, you will find among them books reflecting many intersectional aspects of identity within and beyond race and ethnicity. You’ll find funny books, scary stories, and insightful works of information. There are books that offer a fresh take on a common theme, and books that offer perspectives and experiences we’ve never read before. And in one exception to this list’s focus on books published in 2020, LeUyen Pham’s Outside, Inside, which came out in January 2021, offers a timely and reassuring look at the pandemic through which children and families are living.

As always, we did not work from a metric or rubric; rather we chose each book based on our individual reading and collective analysis and response. When we had differing opinions we talked about them to arrive at a consensus. We thought about—and discussed—representation and authenticity, organization and documentation, quality of the writing and/or illustrations and credibility of a plot. When we had questions we couldn’t answer we did additional research.

Without a doubt the process is subjective. And without a doubt, there are other outstanding books that were published in 2020 that aren’t on this list. Some of them we likely didn’t receive; others one or more of us liked, but we didn’t all agree they belonged in CCBC Choices. 

Finally, in addition to reflecting on the books we’ve read, we find ourselves reflecting on the work we do, especially when it comes to our efforts around diversity in publishing, from documenting the content of books for numerical analysis to highlighting some of the many outstanding diverse books published each year. BIPOC authors, illustrators, critics, scholars, editors, and others in the children’s and young adult book world have noted for years that it’s critical to understand the importance of representation in books for children and teens as part of the larger discussion of racism in our country. It’s why not just the numbers matter but content does as well. What is inside books can be a means to affirm and to defy the “othering” of children and teens that takes place in so many other contexts of our society. At the same time, what is inside a book can also reinforce racism and stereotypes that aren’t just damaging in theory but damaging in fact.

We’ve believed all of this for years, but the racism on full display with unapologetic brashness in our country in 2020 reinforced all of this for us, four white librarians. We feel the tension between learning and doing, listening and responding. We feel the tension in knowing it’s important to promote the perspectives and work of our BIPOC colleagues while also knowing that doing this work is the responsibility of white people, too. We feel the tension in talking about collection development needing to be intentional in its matter-of-factness and critical in its approach when it comes to evaluating and selecting diverse books and other materials. But we also know these tensions are part of being a professional in our field, and part of the framework in which we are committed to carrying out our work as CCBC librarians.