by Megan Schliesman, Merri V. Lindgren, and Kathleen T. Horning
© 2007 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2007)
Note: In the commentary that follows, books not included in the CCBC Choices 2008 recommended list include publisher information after the title.
As in recent years, we estimate that there were approximately 5,000 new books published in 2006 for children and teens. The number of books we actually received at the CCBC was more modest—about 3,000. Most of these came from the large trade publishers in the United States, many of which are separate divisions of a single publishing house. We also received books from publishers that specialize in creating informational books, including many formula series. And a few of the small, independent publishers creating books for children and teenagers also sent us their 2006 titles.
We don’t see all of the trade books published for children and teens each year, but we do see many of them, including hundreds of picture books, beginning readers, novels, poetry, folktales, graphic novels, and books of information. And while we can’t possibly read every book that comes into the CCBC, we make it a point to look at them all and do subsequently read many of them.
Many things strike us throughout the year as we are reading and examining books. This year, for example, we couldn’t help but notice the ever-increasing trim size of picture books, which no longer pack as efficiently as they used to when we are taking books on travels throughout Wisconsin. (No doubt the larger size makes for a more dynamic display in bookstores.) We also saw that our nonfiction shelves were brimming with series and formula books while stand-alone trade titles were few and far between. And we were overflowing in the space we have for fiction between the usual trade novels and the flood of original trade and mass market paperbacks we’ve seen in the past several years.
What follows are slightly more substantive observations based on what we have examined, read, and discussed throughout the year.
Both Louis Sachar (Small Steps) and Cynthia Lord (Rules) made us happily sit up and take notice of their well-rounded portrayals of characters with disabilities and the larger context of those characters’ lives. Then along came Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson, which not only made us sit up and take notice but also radicalized our understanding of disability issues. Johnson made us squirm with discomfort at some moments and laugh out loud at others. All three books, in fact, deftly use humor while creating affecting and memorable portrayals of characters who have—but are not defined by—disabilities. And all three books are about so much more than disability. Along with a handful of books from the past, we hope the publication of these and other titles this year marks a significant turning point in the portrayal of disability in books for youth.
We were also struck by a number of books that artfully invited readers to think more deeply about situations and groups of people often referenced in the news. First-time author Ann Jaramillo’s La Línea depoliticizes the issue of illegal immigration, reminding readers that hope cannot be legislated, and that hope is what draws people over the border into the United States. Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground is about a Palestinian boy living in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Marina Budhos explores what happened to Muslims in the United States in the months following September 11, 2001, in Ask Me No Questions (Atheneum). Her novel is about two Muslim teens from Bangladesh whose family was living illegally in the United States without challenge until after the 9/11 attacks. Katherine Sturtevant’s A True and Faithful Narrative is set in seventeenth-century England but still manages to offer a thought-provoking commentary on contemporary attitudes toward Muslims. And Kathy Henderson’s Lugalbanda is a tale from ancient Sumeria (present-day Iraq) in which a king is admonished for his desire to conquer rather than learn from the kingdom whose riches he desired.
There were a number of wonderful books published for U.S. children and teens that help bring the international world of youth literature into fuller relief for readers here. Jane Vejjajiva’s debut novel, The Happiness of Kati, was originally published in Thailand. The Pull of the Ocean (U.S. edition: Delacorte) is a fresh and compelling reworking of the Tom Thumb story that comes from French author Jean-Claude Mourlevat, while German author Andreas Steinhöfel penned The Elk Dropped In. We are thrilled that these and other translated titles, as well as many books originally published in other English-speaking countries, found their ways into the hands of editors in this country who are committed to expanding the world for U.S. children and teens through literature.
Last year we commented on the relative explosion in the number of books we received about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning teens. This year, we saw those numbers diminish significantly from 2005’s unprecedented high. But we are hopeful that this decline is not reflective of a trend. One book published in 2006, Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, is a heartening example of the openness and honesty of contemporary young adults with regard to sexuality, and we trust that publishers will continue to respond to that openness and honesty with books that speak to diverse GLBTQ experiences.
Bridging the Fiction Gap for Children and Teens
For much of the year we felt as if we were drowning in young adult fiction. As already noted, the cascade of titles included quite a few original paperbacks and mass market paperback series. Many of these are designed and marketed to catch the attention of young adult readers. Their covers often featured ruggedly handsome boys and beautiful girls more suited to a high-fashion runway than high school halls. As the year went on, however, we crawled out from under all of the young adult novels and took note of fiction for younger readers as well.
We were struck most significantly by the unusual number of books at either end of the fiction age ranges—books for the oldest teens and books for the youngest independent readers. At the upper end, we found ourselves contemplating several titles that might easily have been published for adults instead of teens, including The Book Thief and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. American Born Chinese also fits into this category, but the fact that is a graphic novel means it has a built-in audience of adults who are already eager readers of the format.
We are thrilled all of these were published as young adult books and will perhaps find their way more easily into the hands of teen readers. But another young adult book published in 2006, Thomas M. Yeahpau’s X-Indian Chronicles The Book of Mausape (Candlewick Press), challenges us to think more critically about why it seems some books create a bridge between young adult and adult publishing while others stand—at least in our eyes—on the adult side. Yeahpau’s challenging novel has strong language (as does Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), sexual situations (as does King Dork) and a dearth of lightness or hope (as does Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender). It addresses the racism that is so damaging to individuals and society (as does American Born Chinese). It has much in common with many of the finest young adult books of the year, and yet it seems like an adult book to us—a book that demands more experience, understanding, and critical analysis of the of the world than most teen readers bring to literature.
At the other end of the fiction spectrum, the challenge can be in finding books for readers whose skills are beyond easy-to-read books but not yet up for the demands or maturity level of a lengthier novel. Shorter novels that appeal to these readers can also make great read-alouds for children at and below the typical learning-to-read age, and it was an unusually good year for fiction for younger children. We’ve been delighted by Anne Fine’s novels for younger children. This year they included Notso Hotso and The Diary of a Killer Cat (U.S. edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Dick King-Smith, always a stalwart author in this area, produced the unusual and amusing The Catlady. Two short works of historical fiction, Grandfather’s Dance and The Boy Who Saved Cleveland, were also welcome. Emily Jenkins’s first novel, Toys Go Out, is a wonderfully appealing fantasy. And two stories about vibrant contemporary children also caught our attention: Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything and The Year of the Dog.
Dewey Need More Books of Information?
In recent years we’ve noticed something about the nonfiction shelves at the CCBC: many of the books look alike. We have book after book and set after set of formula nonfiction series titles for children and teenagers. It’s an area of publishing that seems to be booming as publishers seek to map output to their understanding of curricular needs. But the number of stand-alone trade nonfiction books, especially for an audience younger than the middle-school grades, seems to be undergoing a significant decline. The wealth of excellent photo-documentaries that we saw a decade ago has been scaled back significantly, we suspect in large part due to declining sales. We miss having more books like Owen and Mzee and Sheila Kinkade’s My Family (Charlesbridge, 2006) and wonder if school and public librarians and teachers do, too.
Luckily, we saw some dynamic books of information for younger children that featured highly effective and engaging illustrations, including Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea, An Island Grows, and Move! Another area of nonfiction that remains strong for younger children—and older ones, too—despite what seems to be an overall decline in the number of trade titles is biography. Picture book profiles such as Satchel Paige: Don’t Look Back, To Go Singing through the World: The Childhood of Pablo Neruda, and Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor were among those we especially admired for younger readers.
We also noticed that several notable nonfiction titles this year were adapted from books originally published for adults into versions suited to younger readers. Chew on This was adapted from the Eric Schlosser’s best-selling adult book Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), Inside Delta Force shares its title with an adult version of the material also written by Eric Haney, and Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt (Putnam, 2006) is a children’s version of the author’s popular adult book Salt: A World History (Walker, 2002).
While the number of trade informational books for younger readers is down, the same cannot be said of poetry, where we found quite a few terrific books for younger elementary-age children, but only a handful that stood out for older children and teens. Among those that did was Belinda Hollyer’s sparkling anthology She’s All That!, and The Raven and Casey at the Bat, two offerings from Kids Can Press’s exciting Visions in Poetry imprint that offers graphic interpretations of classic works.
We also found great strength and diversity in the folklore and traditional literature offerings this year. Although a significant portion of the 2006 folktale arena at first seemed attributable to a single prolific and highly skilled reteller ––Margaret Read MacDonald––as the year went on we found numerous tales and tellers to admire, and the genre as a whole provided a satisfying array of stories from a wide range of regions and cultures. From Panama (Conejito) to Bali (Go to Sleep, Gecko!), ancient Sumeria (Lugalbanda) to the American south (The Six Fools), a host of finely crafted picture books introduce traditional tales to a fresh audience of children.
Brave Bookmakers, Multicultural Literature, and the Bottom Line
There were a number of books published in 2006 that we admired not only for their quality but also for the commitment and initiative of all involved in their creation—from authors to editors to publishers—because they represented a risk in one way or another. Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s latest sex education book, It’s Not the Stork; Elizabeth’s Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground, looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian point of view; and Robert Lipsyte’s Raider’s Night (HarperTeen), which exposes some of the chilling off-the-field violence in high school football, are all examples of books addressing subjects that make some uncomfortable in the context of literature for children or teens. Nancy Wood’s Mr. and Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen and Jack Gantos’s Love Curse of the Rumbaughs reminded us that humor can also be edgy, especially when it’s irreverent.
There have always been editors and publishers willing to take risks. But it seems that now more than ever before they must run a gamut of bottom-line considerations from the business side of publishing. We suspect the potential audience and sales for books are analyzed along with their possible pitfalls, and we commend the decisions to publish books for children and teens that, by their very subject matter, have a greater likelihood of raising some eyebrows.
We suspect the same bottom-line considerations are behind the lack of growth in multicultural publishing in this country. For quite a few years we have been commenting on how few books by and about people of color are published in the United States in relation to the overall number of books produced annually. As the population of the United States continues to not only increase but become more diverse, the output of publishing houses has not been a mirror of society, at least in terms of the numbers.
Multicultural Publishing Statistics in 2006
The CCBC has been tracking the number of books we receive by and about people of color for over a decade (and books by Africans and African Americans for more than twenty years). Of the nearly 3,000 titles we received at the CCBC in 2006, we documented the following with regard to books by and about people of color:
- 153 books had significant African or African American content
- 87 books were by black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators
- 41 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
- 14 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 74 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 72 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 63 books had significant Latino content
- 42 books were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators
It should be noted that these statistics represent only quantity, not quality or authenticity. Additionally, a significant number—well over half—of the books about each broad racial/ethnic grouping are formulaic books offering profiles of various countries around the world.
Instead of simply taking note of the situation, it’s time that we ask why publishing houses are unable to keep pace with the changing demographics of our nation. There are publishers devoted to creating books for children that reflect the diversity of race and ethnicity in our nation. There are editors committed to seeking out new authors and illustrators of color as well as books by those who are already recognized names. But even with these dedicated companies and individuals, the output is not commensurate with the reality of our multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural nation. Why not?
We suspect that the answer is found on the bottom line, amidst concerns that multicultural books won’t sell, or sell as well, as others. It’s hard to say how much of this is influenced by the publishing industry’s ever-closer ties with megabooksellers, who seem to be dangerously entrenched in some aspects of decision-making, and how much of it is tied to sales to libraries and schools, which have no doubt declined in recent years due to budget cutbacks.
As in the past, many of the standouts in multicultural publishing in 2006 were poetry, books of information, and picture books and novels with historical settings. From The Freedom Ship and Carole Boston Rutherford’s Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Jump at the Sun / Hyperion, 2006) to Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, slavery and civil rights continue to be the subject of compelling volumes.
Japanese American incarceration during World War II was the subject of Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Weedflower and Joanne Oppenheim’s Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. American Indian history and contemporary life is woven into Joseph Medicine Crow’s memoir Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond (National Geographic).
The work of artists and writers were the subject of many arresting treatments as well, coming to life in books such as The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, Dizzy, The Magic Horse of Han Gan, and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, compiled by David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad with expressive illustrations by Benny Andrews (Sterling).
Books that engagingly explore history, culture, and the arts are essential and we celebrate the wonderful additions to this body of literature. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves why it’s so hard to find new picture books about children of color that aren’t focused on the past, on famous people, or on issues or challenges connected to their racial or ethnic identities.
Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding, I Lost My Tooth in Africa, Gary Soto’s My Little Car (Putnam), and Can You Hear the Sea by Judy Cumberbatch (Bloomsbury)—stories in which culture and identity are richly apparent but not the point—are the exception rather than the rule in multicultural publishing. So, too, are picture books such as There’s a Flower on the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me and Maxwell’s Mountain, in which artists have chosen to place a child of color at the center of a text that is universal. We find ourselves thinking longingly back to picture books like Angela Johnson’s Do Like Kyla (Orchard, 1990) and wondering why, sixteen years after is publication, there are so few stories—especially for young children—being published about contemporary children of color.
We did see a number of welcome contemporary novels, including books by newcomers such as Coe Booth (Tyrell), Allison Whittenberg (Sweet Thang), and Traci L. Jones, who received the 2007 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for her debut novel Standing Against the Wind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Athabaskan writer John Smelcer’s first novel for youth is The Trap, and picture book author Grace Lin made her fiction debut with The Year of the Dog.
The past, present, and future of our nation is multiracial and multiethnic and grows more diverse with each passing day. The output of trade book publishers is not. This is despite the many dedicated authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers striving to give children and teens terrific literature that reflects who they are and the world in which they live. Children and families of color are certainly not invisible in new literature for youth, but they are not truly visible, either, not in the way that white children and families are. That harms us all, regardless of our race or ethnicity.
The hard truth is that publishing is a business and dedicated individuals can only do so much. Publishing companies will support creative efforts to provide more multicultural titles, to seek out more new talent, to translate more books from other languages, to take more risks with books that defy expectations or reflect our society in all its diversity, when they see that such books can have a positive impact on the bottom line. And we have the power to be that positive impact—librarians, teachers, child care providers, parents—all of us who are dedicated to making sure children and teenagers not only have books but great books in their lives.