by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Tessa Michaelson, and Megan Schliesman
© 2008 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2008)
Note: In the commentary that follows, books not included in the CCBC Choices 2008 recommended list include publisher information after the title.
As we look at the shelves and consider what we read over the past year, one of the most noticeable trends of the 2007 publishing year is the remarkable increase in the amount of fiction being published, particularly young adult fiction.
In the past we’ve noted what we’ve come to call “The Harry Potter Effect” —that is, a proliferation of fantasy novels being published in series of hefty volumes. It seems that every publisher is trying to find the next big thing or the next J. K. Rowling. But the increased interest in substantial fantasy on the part of publishers (and, we assume, readers) is not necessarily a bad thing.
In addition to the Harry Potter imitators, we’re also seeing a wealth of young adult books that break new ground or raise provocative issues. Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande (Knopf) deals with the teaching of evolutionary theory in a public school; The Silenced by Jim DeVita addresses political oppression and freedom of speech. Neal Shusterman’s Unwind imagines a future where abortion is illegal but parents have the option to “unwind” their children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, to make their bodies available for organ harvesting.
We also continue to see books that break down long-held taboos in terms of sex and sexuality. In Dangerously Alice (Atheneum), the twenty-second volume of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s popular series, Alice, now sixteen, is exploring her sexual desire and thinking about sexual activity with her boyfriend, a high school senior. Harmless by Dana Reinhardt (Wendy Lamb Books) follows the impact that a web of lies concocted by three fourteen-year-old girls to cover up their attendance at a party with older teenage boys—a party in which one of them gets involved in a sexual encounter she isn’t ready for—has on their lives and the lives of others. In Story of a Girl, the first novel by dazzling new talent Sara Zarr, readers see the inner turmoil of a sixteen-year-old girl who is perceived as a slut by both her high school peers and her father. And Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy looks at the impact and aftermath of a teacher’s seduction of a middle school student.
Out in Numbers
Over the past few years there has been a welcome increase in young adult novels dealing with gay and lesbian themes and topics, and 2007 proved to be the best year yet, not only in terms of quantity but in terms of quality as well. We were pleased to see several newcomers pen their first novels for young adults with LGBTQ themes. Among these are published adult authors writing for the first time for teenagers, including Peter Cameron (Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You) and James St. James (Freak Show). First-time novelists M. Sindy Felin (Touching Snow) and Perry Moore (Hero) both got off to a great start with their original, finely crafted stories.
Established authors Julie Peters (grl2grl) and Ellen Wittlinger (Parrotfish) expanded the genre by offering a variety of LGBTQ characters, including transgender teens. And Nancy Garden, a pioneer in the field, published a collection of short stories (Hear Me Out) that shows the changes that have occurred in the lives of gay and lesbian teens over the past six decades. This year also marked the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Annie on My Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was so groundbreaking when it came out—the first gay/lesbian love story with a happy ending. We have come a very long way, indeed, since John Donovan published I’ll Get There: It Better Be Worth the Trip (Harper & Row), the first gay novel for teens, in 1969.
In addition to Annie on My Mind, 2007 was an anniversary year for another landmark young adult novel. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, now a classic, came out in a fortieth-anniversary edition. Both of these books were important precursors of things to come.
Retro Themes and Recast Classics
In contrast to the groundbreaking young adult fiction, we saw a number of books published this year that seemed to be reflections of adult nostalgia. The surprising sales success of the Dangerous Book for Boys (HarperCollins) led to several imitators: The Boys Book: How To Be Best at Everything (Scholastic), For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever (Feiwel & Friends), The Curious Boys’ Book of Adventure (Razorbill), and gender-equity editions that include The Daring Book for Girls (HarperCollins) and The Girls Book: How To Be Best at Everything (Scholastic). All of these volumes would be at home—at least visually—on the shelves of the CCBC Historical Collection, next to their nineteenth-century counterparts, The Boy Craftsman and the American Girl’s Handy Book.
We also noted a dozen or so 2007 books that dealt with manners and etiquette, another type of book that was more prevalent in earlier centuries. These ranged from the earnest (The Golden Rule published by Abrams) to the hilarious (Do Unto Otters published by Henry Holt), from books for toddlers (Emily’s Magic Words: Please, Thank You, and More published by HarperCollins) to books for teenagers (Teen Manners: From Malls to Meals to Messaging and Beyond published by HarperTeen). We’re not quite sure what accounts for the sudden onslaught of etiquette books. It will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable improvement in the behavior of the general population in the coming years.
There were also a number of modern editions of classic stories, some showing playful approaches to the subject, such as a recasting of Aesop’s Fables in a contemporary classroom with The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming. Greek myths are also being reimagined for a new generation in creative and humorous ways in such novels as The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan, which continues his entertaining “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series; Iris, Messenger by Sarah Deming; and Dussie by Nancy Springer (Walker). Christopher Myers’ Jabberwocky (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion) interprets Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem as a modern-day basketball game taking place in an urban neighborhood.
Publishers have returned this year to the well of adult best sellers, drawing children’s editions from them with books such as Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan (HarperCollins), Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Beatles, Beatlemania and the Music that Changed the World by Bob Spitz (Little Brown), Woe Is I Jr. by Patricia T. O’Connor (Putnam), and an adaptation of Al Gore’s A New Generation into An Inconvenient Truth, a book for teens that bears the same name as the well-known movie on global warming that highlights Gore’s work.
These works of nonfiction are of particular interest since we continue to see a drastic decrease in original trade nonfiction. We seem to be returning to that time in the mid-1980s when publishers were telling us that nonfiction was all but dead, since there was no market for it. For this reason, we cannot take for granted the outstanding nonfiction that we did see, including Muckrakers by Ann Bausum, Frida by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Tracking Trash by Loree Griffin Burns, Who Was First? by Russell Freedman, and The Many Rides of Paul Revere by James Cross Giblin. It’s up to librarians, teachers, and parents to show publishers that nonfiction is of vital interest to them, as well as to children and teens.
The Pictures Tell (Part of) the Story
Another trend of the past few years that continued in 2007 was the expansion of graphic novel publishing. Many trade publishers have launched their own graphic novel imprints, while traditional graphic novel publishers expanded their marketing and publishing to better meet the needs of libraries and schools. This has led to some exciting new developments, such as DC Comics’ new Minx imprint, which specializes in graphic novels aimed at girls.
Authors of traditional novels are also venturing into writing graphic novels. Jennifer Holm continued her “Babymouse” series and Cecil Castellucci published her first graphic novel, Plain Janes. And pictures aren’t just for graphic novels any more. We’re seeing a renaissance of illustrated novels for both children and young adults in books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the first young adult novel by adult author Sherman Alexie, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale.
Perhaps most noteworthy was The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a 533-page novel, about one-third of which is told through wordless illustrations. So integral are the illustrations that the book was awarded the 2008 Caldecott Medal, making it the first novel to have ever been honored in this way. But with a novel winning the Caldecott Medal, we worry that we will continue to see the demise of picture books as a unique art form.
Along with the increase in the number of novels, we have also seen a steady drop in the number of picture books published, which was particularly noticeable in 2007. Fortunately, we haven’t seen a drop in the quality of picture books. Among those most notable for their venturesome creativity are First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Thank You Bear by Greg Foley, Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett, Who’s Hiding by Satoru Onishi, and Pictures from Our Vacation by Lynne Rae Perkins. We also continue to see picture books that defy traditional ideas of who picture books are for, with titles such as The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, and Woolvs in the Sitee by Margaret Wild. The latter is a post-apocalyptic story that uses nonstandard spelling to depict a chilling future.
Seeking Diverse Reflections of the World in Which We Live
Every year at the CCBC, we document the number of books we receive that are by and about people of color, which is how we define the term “multicultural literature.”
We do this because represented in these numbers are two critical concepts that can have a huge impact on the relationship of children and teens to books and reading: choice and visibility. In our ever-more-diverse nation, we need books that provide all children the opportunity to see themselves and the world in which they live reflected. And we need a variety of books so that a single title or handful of titles is not viewed as representing “the” experience of any single culture or race.Diversity does not just exist across racial and cultural groups, but within them as well, and this can only be honored when there are many choices, and a constant influx of new perspectives.
During 2007, we documented the following among the 3,000 or so titles we received at the CCBC:
- 150 books had significant African or African American content
- 77 books were by black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators
- 44 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
- 6 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 68 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 56 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 59 books had significant Latino content
- 42 books were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators
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.
The statistics, of course, tell only one part of the story. Throughout the year, it wasn’t the numbers but individual books that made a profound impact on us— compelling, vivid works that represent some of the finest creative output of authors and artists in 2007: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine, Frida by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Birmingham, 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford, M.L.K.: Journey of a King by Tonya Bolden, Henry’s Freedom Box illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and the vivid reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky by Christopher Myers (Jump at the Sun / Hyperion).
These and other books don’t tell the whole story when it comes to our multicultural nation and world, but each one is a remarkable contribution to children’s and young adult literature, and to the story of who we are as a nation.
While we don’t document books by and about individuals from the Middle East in our annual statistics, we do pay attention to these as they come in, and we are happy to report, at least anecdotally, that we are seeing more books reflecting the diverse experience of individuals from a number of cultures and countries in that part of the world. Two of the most extraordinary we read this year were Ibtisam Barakat’s Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, and Paula Jolin’s In the Name of God (Roaring Brook Press), a daring, thought-provoking look at a young woman in Syria whose sympathies become more and more closely tied to radical Islam.
Fresh Voices, New Experiences
While the statistics tell only one part of the story of multicultural literature, they are an important part, because choice and visibility, as well as diversity, are tied to numbers that have, in large part, remained static for years.
In fact, one of the things that struck us profoundly this year was the fact that publishing reflecting the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning youth has, in just a few years, grown exponentially, and in that growth we are seeing more new voices and greater diversity of experience than we see within any single component of multicultural literature.
We aren’t suggesting this is a competition. We are suggesting that publishers need to show as much enthusiasm and commitment for seeking out new voices and reflecting diverse experiences in multicultural literature as we are seeing in LGBTQ books.
Of course there are always new voices of color emerging on the publishing scene, joining the talented, ever-changing chorus that includes the incomparable voices of individuals such as Ashley Bryan, Jacqueline Woodson, Christopher Paul Curtis, Joseph Bruchac, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers, Patricia C. McKissack, and others. But the need to actively seek out new authors and artists, and new expressions of the multicultural experience, cannot be overstated.
We want to see the vibrant landscape of multicultural literature expand with the same enthusiasm that we saw in decades past, and that means publishing houses need to support editors who champion the work of new authors and artists of color along with the established names in the field. It also means librarians, teachers, parents, and others must purchase the outstanding works of new talent along with the names they know, so that those in publishing houses who look at the bottom line can see that multicultural literature can and does matter to consumers.
This year we relished the debut of M. Sindy Felin, and celebrated Sherman Alexie’s first young adult novel. Among the other first-time authors and artists whose works we welcomed Carla Messinger, who coauthored When the Shadbush Blooms, and Taeeun Yoo, artist of the wordless marvel The Little Red Fish. Greg Foley created a picture book that speaks to a universal experience of childhood in Thank You Bear, while Kelly A. Tinkham’s first picture book, Hair for Mama, deftly weaves cultural identity into a story about a child dealing with his mother’s illness. Sundee T. Frazier’s novel Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It (Delacorte Press) is a spirited look at an upbeat boy whose fascination with rocks unearths knowledge of a rift that occurred when his biracial parents first married.
Both Tinkham and Frazier’s books are welcome portraits of contemporary children of color—something we’d like to see more of in publishing for youth. Last year we commented on the fact that there are too few books that acknowledge the present as well as the past when it comes to multicultural literature. We were happy to see more books this year featuring contemporary children and families of color, from picture books such as A Box Full of Kittens, Dragon Dancing, Jazz Baby, The Wakame Gatherers, My Dadima Wears a Sari, and the newly illustrated edition of A Father Like That to novels such as The Year of the Rat, Peiling and the Chicken–Fried Christmas, The Way, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Home of the Brave. Patricia C. McKissack’s Scraps of Time series, including this year’s A Song for Harlem, frames a historical story with the curious questions of two contemporary African American children.
As always, we are amazed at what authors and illustrators—of every culture and color—are capable of. The 2007 publishing year brought books and ideas, visions and voices that have deepened our own understanding of experience and possibility, and we have no doubt the books we find so extraordinary will do the same for young readers. It is this belief that has us looking back on every year with such immense appreciation, and looking forward to the coming year with such anticipation. Bring on the books of 2008!