by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Tessa Michaelson, and Megan Schliesman
© 2009 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2009)
Note: In the commentary that follows, books not included in the CCBC Choices 2009 recommended list include publisher information after the title.
The publishing world has not been immune to the economic challenges and change we’ve seen around the country and around the globe over the past twelve months. The number of large trade houses has been consolidated once again as companies acquired other companies. Sometimes a publisher is able to retain its editorial vision in these transitions. Sometimes that vision, and the house itself, is subsumed. This matters because while the economics of publishing, like the economics of everything else, demand fiscal success, talented authors and artists need talented editors and visionary publishers who can see beyond the bottom line. They need publishing houses that can imagine the future, and are committed to seeking out new talent, nurturing developing writers and editors, and supporting voices that reflect the world in which children and teens are growing up and coming of age.
We continued to see plenty of books in 2008 that reflect an interest in bottom-line publishing, from a plethora of paperback series tie-ins to TV shows and movies to a fair number of celebrity-penned (or ghost-penned) titles. Publishers also continued to ride the fantasy wave, although we wonder how much longer it will last. For now, our fiction shelves still groan under the weight of heavy tomes of magic and wonder. While we found few of them truly noteworthy, what is worth noting is publishers’ willingness to give new writers in this genre—above any other—a chance. Not everyone writes a first book that is outstanding, or even great, and we commend the practice of helping writers develop their talents, something harder and harder for editors to do in this bottom-line world. But we do wish a greater balance could be struck so that the nurturing of new and emerging talent didn’t have to be overwhelmingly (but far from solely) genre-driven.
First-Rate Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Of course, some of the new fantasy we saw was terrific, from Kean Soo’s sweetly funny graphic novel Jellaby to Kristin Cashore’s breathtaking young adult novel Graceling. We look forward to seeing more from Elizabeth C. Bunce, who deftly wove fantasy into a historical setting in A Curse Dark as Gold (Scholastic). And Ingrid Law had a remarkably fresh start with her novel Savvy (Dial).
We were also more than charmed by fantasy offerings from several veteran fiction authors, most notably Nancy Werlin’s Impossible, an outstanding young adult read. But perhaps nothing astonished us more this year than the chilling futures imagined in a pair of exceptional young adult science fiction offerings: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Both of these books begin trilogies that we can’t wait to see continue, and both imagine futures in which one or more aspects of life in our world today have been taken to an extreme. We consider each of them among the finest young adult novels of the year.
Cory Doctorow sticks closer to the present day, and closer to recent reality, with his first young adult novel, the insightful Little Brother, which isn’t as much science fiction as cautionary tale about what happens when our government uses fear tactics to convince everyday citizens that their safety is jeopardized by the U.S. Constitution—civil rights be damned. And in The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson looks at a not-so-far-away time when the possibilities of science lead one teen to an identity crisis with moral and ethical implications.
Top-Notch YA Lit
We were happy to see an upsurge in works of fiction for children in 2008. Perhaps most notable among them, for its lyricism and its incredible, original storytelling, is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath. Appelt, heretofore an author of picture books, branched into fiction with this remarkable work. But it was the quality of the young adult literature published in 2008 that truly left us awestruck.
Beyond fine fantasy and science fiction titles, there was notable historical fiction, especially M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. He left us amazed at the virtuoso accomplishment of his two-volume work. Like M. T. Anderson in Octavian, Laurie Halse Anderson looks at the tension between slavery and the ideals of liberty and justice at the time of our nation’s founding in Chains (Simon & Schuster). Joseph Bruchac’s March Toward the Thunder offers a distinct Native perspective on one summer of the Civil War, while Anne Fine takes a somber and sobering look at life in Stalinist Russia in The Road of Bones (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). And in Sunrise Over Fallujah, Walter Dean Myers looks at the very recent past with a novel set in Iraq just at the start of the war in 2003.
Wonderful contemporary fiction for teens ranged from the hilarious to the haunting. High humor distinguishes Good Enough by Paula Yoo, even as it addresses a teen’s very real need to break free from her parents’ expectations. Likewise, Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film about the Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman delivers laughs along with a satisfying story about friendship. John Green’s Paper Towns (Dutton) has serious overtones with the disappearance of a teenage girl, but it also has plenty of humor, including one of the funniest scenes penned in a long while when the girl’s friends embark on a post-graduation road trip in the hopes of tracking her down.
Among the more solemn offerings this year were two books about children and sexual predators: Norma Fox Mazer’s Missing Girl (HarperCollins) and Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, which challenges readers to think more deeply about our discomfort with confronting harsh truths. Sex as a substitute for love, and the manipulation that so easily accompanies it, is portrayed in Coe Booth’s complex Kendra (Push), which is honest about physical pleasure and the confusion of one sexually active teen. Barry Lyga looks at our culture’s facile appropriation of the idea of heroism in Hero Type (Houghton Mifflin). Issues in other parts of the world take center stage in books such as Allan Stratton’s Chanda’s Wars, set in a fictional African country but looking at the very real human rights issue of child soldiers, and Anne Laurel Carter’s The Shepherd’s Granddaughter , about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Of course, not everything published for young adults wowed us. As in recent years, “chick lit” continued to be one of the market-driven segments of young adult publishing, with shopping as hook if not theme and frothy or fancy or high-fashion cover-appeal on many books. The content of these range from lightweight to surprisingly literary, reminding us to hold close the old adage about books and their covers. (Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s satisfying and funny fantasy Princess Ben comes to mind as an example of one of the finer reads.)
There was easily ten times the number of books about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) characters published this year than there were just a decade ago. Happily, the sheer quantity led to variety in terms of type and theme. The books range from the serious, such as Suicide Notes (HarperTeen) and Absolute Brightness (Laura Geringer/HarperCollins), to the whimsical, as in My Most Excellent Year (Dial). There were sports stories, such as Jeff Rud’s Crossover (Orca) and Bill Konigsberg’s Out of the Pocket; short stories (David Levithan’s How They Met, and Other Stories), and even formula series fiction. Examples of the latter include Paul Ruditis’s Entrances and Exits (Simon Pulse), the fourth volume in the “Drama!” series that features a gay protagonist; and Belinda’s Obsession (Lobster Press), the latest entry in Patricia G. Penny’s romance series, “Not Just Proms & Parties,” that deals with a budding romance between two lesbian teens.
We were pleased to see more ethnic diversity than ever before in GLBTQ books, with offerings such as After Tupac & D Foster and M+O 4evr (both African American); Love & Lies and Down to the Bone (both Cuban American), and Skim, a graphic novel about a biracial (Asian/white) teen. While still only a handful of titles, it seems like a deluge in an era when there are so few multicultural GLBTQ books for teens. Also heartening is the fact that of the five novels listed above, three are first novels by authors of color.
While the number of books about bisexual and transgender youth continues to be small, we did note the first protagonist who could be classified as a questioning teen. In Debbie Harry Sings in French (Henry Holt) by Megan Brothers, seventeen-year-old Johnny thinks he’s probably straight but he’s not sure why he enjoys dressing like a woman. Over the course of this short novel, he explores who he is and why he feels more comfortable in the gay community than he does in his high school. Lauren McLaughlin also explores the concept of gender in her first novel, Cycler (Random House), about a teenage girl who, once a month when she should be menstruating, turns into a boy.
The vast majority of GLBTQ books published in the United States for young readers fall into the category of young adult fiction. But this year there were a few notable examples of other types of writing. Linas Alsenas’s groundbreaking work of nonfiction, Gay America, provides older children and teens with a welcome history that places today’s fight for gay civil rights in historical context. Two books for very young readers are also worth noting: 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (Seven Stories Press), the first U.S. picture book about a transgender child, and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah Brannen (Putnam), a picture book about a gay wedding featuring a cast of guinea pigs. It would be hard to imagine a sweeter, more innocuous book on the subject; still, it’s destined to be the target of book challenges as long as gay marriage remains a hot-button topic. But for gay and lesbian families who are looking for more representation in picture books, it’s heartening to see an expansion of choices, albeit small.
Everything’s Ducky in Picture Books
We’ve already noted the continued presence of plenty of new books marketed with teenage girls in mind. But chick lit moved beyond the province of young adult fiction in 2008 with a preponderance of picture books featuring poultry. The chicks we found in picture books ranged from a gaggle of geese (Look Out, Suzy Goose),to dozens of ducks in titles such as Duck; Hannah Duck; What’s Up, Duck?; Santa Duck (Putnam), Clever Duck (Roaring Brook); and others. And then there were the layers and fryers: Hen Hears Gossip, The Chicken of the Family (one of the funniest picture books we read), Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken (HarperCollins), The Cow That Laid an Egg (the chickens play a pivotal role), Big Chickens Fly the Coop (Dutton), and many more.
On another plucky note, we continued to see a rise in original board books for babies and toddlers. There was a period in the 1990s when it seemed almost every board book we saw was an abridged (both text and art) edition of a lengthier picture book. While some books translate wonderfully to the board book format, many don’t. We were thrilled to see more new books created and published especially with the youngest audience in mind, including No No Yes Yes and Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli, Baby! Baby! by Vicky Ceelen, Haiku Baby by Betsy Snyder, and others.
A welcome cousin of the board book is the picture book with sturdy cardboard pages that can hold up well to the pulling of eager young hands. They also allow for more creative bookmaking, with fold-out or lift-the-flap features. Several outstanding examples in 2008 included Dance with Me ; My Dog, My Cat, My Mama, and Me! ; and Round Like a Ball !
Another thing that had us crowing in 2008 was a number of fine picture books set in other parts of the world, including James Rumford’s Silent Music (Iraq), Margi Preus’s The Peace Bell (Japan), and a pair that emphasize family storytelling: How Mama Brought the Spring (Bellarus) by Fran Manushkin and The Butter Man (Morocco) by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou. Katie Smith Milway’s One Hen (Kids Can) is a fictional story set in Ghana that introduces children to the concept of microfinance. And Uri Shulevitz delivers the world in the singular How I Learned Geography, based on his own childhood experience living as a refugee in Turkestan after fleeing Warsaw at the start of World War II.
These picture books set in other countries, along with novels such as The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, Chanda’s Wars, Climbing the Stairs, The Girl Who Saw Lions (Roaring Brook Press) and others can give readers here in this country essential glimpses of places inhabited by their peers around the globe. This idea is extended even further with books in translation. U.S. publishers who put resources and effort into acquiring and translating books originally published in other countries are not just offering readers here in the United States insight into the wider world, but also giving them the opportunity to read the very same stories as children in those nations. Manolito Four-Eyes is a part of a popular fiction series in Spain. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (U.S. edition: Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic) comes to readers here from Japan. The picture books A Day with Dad (Sweden), and Garmann’s Summer (Norway) show how common concerns of children transcend the specifics of language and place, as do the novels Piggy and Rits, both originally published in the Netherlands. Translated books also can illuminate distinct situations around the world, often revealing that it’s not just children but nations that share common concerns, as evidenced in Crazy Diamond, about refugees living in Germany.
The international sensibility of literature published in the United States is also enhanced by books that offer U.S. readers ways of understanding global issues and concerns. Deborah Ellis’s short story collection Lunch with Lenin looks at teens around the world whose lives are impacted by drugs, while she interviews children in the United States and Canada who have one or more parents serving in the military in Afghanistan or Iraq in Off to War (Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press). The inspiring We Are All Born Free features work from a global array of artists, each of who illustrates on of the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Life Stories and Other Nonfiction
An abundant area of nonfiction publishing in 2008 was picture book biographies. These essential works offer children glimpses into notable lives. A pair of books on Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, one from Jeanette Winter (Wangari’s Trees of Peace) and the other from Claire A. Nivola (Planting the Trees of Kenya) complement each other in their approaches. Barbara Kerley’s What to Do about Alice? (Scholastic) looks at the childhood and early adulthood of Alice Roosevelt, spirited daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Two jazz giants are featured in books by Robert Andrew Parker—introducing children to the life and work of Art Tatum in Piano Starts Here—and Carole Boston Weatherford, imagining the sounds of John Coltrane’s childhood in Before John Was a Jazz Giant. Even the famed racehorse Seabiscuit is a worthy subject, in Meghan McCarthy’s Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse.
Even as we noticed a boon in the biographies, we saw the number of new and outstanding folktales and books of poetry decline, along with the overall number of stand-alone trade nonfiction titles in general. Still, we delighted in folktale discoveries such as Alice McGill’s Way Up and Over Everything, about enslaved Africans flying to freedom, and Sean Taylor’s The Great Snake, a beautiful collection of stories from the Amazon River. And poetry collections, while spare in number, were rich in content, with volumes such as Marilyn Nelson’s The Freedom Business and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Honeybee among the highlights.
There were some incredible books of history as well. From Ain’t Nothing But a Man, about a historian’s search for the real John Henry, to Gay America, chronicling social change and the newest civil rights movement, important perspectives on the past occupy our new nonfiction shelves alongside insightful books about modern times, including Susan Kuklin’s singular No Choirboy, offering the voices of young prisoners who were sentenced to death row as teens.
Publishers were also tuned into 2008 as a presidential election year. In fact, looking at some of what they published makes one wonder if they didn’t have a crystal ball. Both John McCain and Barack Obama were subjects of picture book biographies: My Dad, John McCain by Megan McCain (Aladdin) and Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes (Simon & Schuster). Perhaps biographies of other potential presidential frontrunners were in the works but never saw the publication light of day. It’s clear, however, that a number of books about Abraham Lincoln and his presidency were being written long before anyone knew the new, forty-fourth president would be compared to, and have a symbolic connection with, the sixteenth. Among them are Candace Fleming’s extraordinarily insightful The Lincolns and Nikki Giovanni’s Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (Henry Holt).
There were also several novels that seemed eerily prescient, including one about a presidential daughter who is also a child of color (First Daughter by Mitali Perkins, published by Dutton) and one about the daughter of a female presidential candidate (As If Being Twelve and Three Quarters Isn’t Bad Enough! My Mother Is Running for President by Donna Gephart, published by Delacorte).
Multicultural Writing (and Illustrating, Too!)
For years we have been documenting the number of books we receive annually at the CCBC by and about people of color. We don’t do this out of habit, or as a meaningless exercise, we do it to add quantitative evidence to what is empirically obvious: in numbers, books published for children and young adults don’t reflect the world youth inhabit and the lives they live. We do it in the hopes that these still-alarming statistics, which do not speak to who we are as a nation, will raise awareness of the continued need to seek out and publish books that accurately and authentically portray multicultural experiences, so that literature for children and young adults will collectively represent our diversity.
We received approximately 3,000 books at the CCBC in 2008. Of those,
- 172 books had significant African or African American content
- 83 books were by Black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators
- 40 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
- 9 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 98 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 77 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 79 books had significant Latino content
- 48 books were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators
These statistics represent only quantity, not quality or authenticity. 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. Additionally, the number of books created by authors and illustrators of color does not represent the actual number of individual book creators, as many created two or more books.
But the statistics also represent some outstanding works for children and teens across genres and formats, from picture books and fiction to poetry, folktales, biography, and other works of nonfiction. Of these, many stand out—singular stories speaking of singular experience that also often illuminate culture and cultural experience.
Louise Erdrich continued her chronicle of nineteenth-century American Indian experience in The Porcupine Year, which picks up the story of the Ojibwe girl Omakayas, last seen in The Game of Silence (HarperCollins, 2005). Now forced to leave their home, Omakayas’s family is on the move in a story based in part on Erdrich’s own family history. Joseph Bruchac, the most prolific Native author for children and teens, was inspired by family history to research and write what became March Toward the Thunder, about an Abenaki boy serving in the Union army during the Civil War. Nicola Campbell’s picture book Shin-chi’s Canoe looks at Native boarding schools through the a story of a boy enduring his first year away from home.
Both An Na and Paula Yoo examine perspectives on being a Korean American teen with wit and tenderness. In The Fold, Na looks at the impact of living in skin that does not conform to traditional (Western) standards of beauty, while Yoo examines parental expectations for first-generation children to succeed in America. Cynthia Kadohata traverses intriguing ground on the subject of family in the novel Outside Beauty (Simon & Schuster). Jaime Adoff looks at a bircacial (Black/white) boy making startling discoveries about his personal family history in the context of his struggle with depression in The Death of Jayson Porter (Jump at the Sun / Hyperion). And Francisco Jiménez chronicles his move away from family, to college and the future, in Reaching Out, which continues his memoirs in novel form. We were pleased to see Jiménez’s book was one of a number of Latino novels, which included Matt de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy (Delacorte), Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s He Forgot to Say Goodbye (Simon & Schuster), Down to the Bone, Love & Lies, and others.
We were also pleased to see a number of promising authors and artists of color either creating their first trade books for children and teens or continuing their young careers in 2008. Among the new and emerging voices and visions we appreciated were Nicola I. Campbell (Shin-chi’s Canoe), Ina Cumpiano (Quinito, Day and Night), Mayra Lazara Dole (Down to the Bone), Zetta Elliott and Shandra Strickland (Bird ), Tonya Cheri Hegamin (M+O 4evr), Naomi Hirahara (1001 Cranes), Suzy Lee (Wave), Moying Li (Snow Falling in Spring), Sherri L. Smith (Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, published by Delacorte), Allison Whittenberg (Life Is Fine, published by Delacorte), and Gwendolyn Zepeda (Growing Up with Tamales).
But we were again disappointed by how few new picture books showed contemporary children of color. We were happy to see Bird, Grandfather’s Story Cloth, Growing Up with Tamales, Monsoon Afternoon, My Two Grannies, Rain Play, and Wave, among others, but this area of publishing continues to languish, and when it comes to new books showing contemporary Native children, the numbers are abysmal. In fact, the only 2008 picture book featuring a contemporary American Indian child that we documented here at the CCBC was Niwechihaw=I Help, a bilingual (Cree/English) book published by Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press. The Littlest Sled Dog (Orca) features a dog rather than a child or children but does offer a glimpse of a contemporary Inuit village. And The Drum Calls Softly (Red Deer Press) is a bilingual (Cree/English) picture book in the voice of a child who might be contemporary or from the past, although the stunning illustrations by Native artist Jim Poitras (Cree, Salteaux, and Métis) have a historical sensibility.
We know that there are editors and publishers who care deeply about ensuring a continual output of wonderful new books that reflect the lives of children and teenagers today, but we also know that their passion for publishing multicultural literature cannot always carry the day in meetings with bottom-line number crunchers wanting to know whether such books will sell. We hope that librarians, teachers, caregivers, parents, and others will use their purchasing power to help committed editors and publishers make a convincing argument.
Our time to survey the books of the 2008 publishing year has ended, and the 2009 books have already started to arrive here at the CCBC. As we look at the shelves of brand new books waiting to be cataloged, we find ourselves getting excited all over again We know that the coming twelve months will bring us extraordinary literary discoveries and amazing reading experiences. We look forward to sharing them with you.