Thoughts on Publishing in 2009

by Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman

© 2010 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2010)

Note: In the commentary that follows, books not included in the CCBC Choices 2010 recommended list include publisher information after the title.

Books published for children and teens have always been a reflection of the times in which they were published, as writers and illustrators are influenced by current events and concerns. This was no exception during the 2009 publishing year. We continued to see many books for children and teens that deal with environmental issues, for example, including Don’t Throw That Away! A Lift-the-Flap Book about Recycling and Reusing (Little Green Books), which is itself made from recycled materials—and it’s a lucky thing, too, since the liftable flaps are so flimsy that the book will inevitably end up in the recycling bin after just a few circulations.

In the United States, the increasingly polarized political arena has given rise to mean-spirited picture books published by partisan presses on both sides in recent years, with such uninspired titles as Why Mommy Is a Democrat (Jeremy Zilber, 2006) and Help! Mom! There Are Liberals under My Bed (Kids Ahead, 2005). This same atmosphere led mainstream publishing for the first time ever to publish picture book biographies about the three major presidential candidates in 2008.

No matter what one’s political leanings, there’s no denying that the election of Barack Obama was a historic event, and one that certainly had an impact on books published in 2009. The formula nonfiction biographies that are standard fare for new presidents were published in record time in 2009, including one revised edition of an Obama biography that came out the same week as the inauguration. In addition, we saw biographies of Michelle Obama, and even several picture books inspired by the Obama family’s search for a perfect dog.

What was really different in 2009, however, was the number of more artistic, thoughtful, even poetic books that came out about Obama. Jonah Winter’s Barack (Katherine Tegen / HarperCollins) looks at the life of our 44th president as a journey of discovery, seeking answers to questions about his identity and purpose in life. Deborah Hopkinson’s companion volume, Michelle (Katherine Tegen / HarperCollins) does the same for the First Lady. Both are illustrated by A. G. Ford. Michelle Cook’s Our Children Can SoarA Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change connects Obama’s presidency to the accomplishments of those who came before him, and those who will come after.

The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ever-present in the lives of children and teens, and this is reflected in the fiction of 2009. Several novels featured protagonists with a close family member who was either serving or who had just served in the military. Among these are Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd (Random House), Joseph Bruchac’s Night Wings (HarperCollins), Carl Hiassen’s Scat (Knopf), and Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion. Patricia McCormick’s Purple Heart is about an active-duty solider in Iraq, while Paul Griffin’s The Orange Houses (Dial) features a main character who is a veteran of the war.



Fantastic Fiction

In previous editions of CCBC Choices, we’ve noted how the remarkable success of the Harry Potter series has inspired a new golden age of fiction for children and young adults, especially when it comes to thick, multi-volume fantasy series. Just as this trend was beginning to wane, it was given a boost, at least in young adult fiction, by the Twilight phenomenon, as wizards and witches gave way to vampires and werewolves. Even books that didn’t feature paranormal protagonists were designed to look like Twilight, with romantic jacket art in black and red. Twilight even cast its long shadow on the ever-popular chick lit subgenre, with titles such as Once Dead, Twice Shy (HarperCollins) and You’ve Got Blackmail (Putnam), and the pervasive pink book jackets now being edged in black. While we’re hearing from our colleagues in schools and libraries that the paranormal theme is on its way out, at least in the hearts of teen readers, we still have shelves burgeoning with Twilight-wannabes, as we wait for the Next Big Thing. (Word on the street: readers are back to wanting angst.)

These and other young adult books seem to be what publishers continue to emphasize in fiction publishing, and our shelves were bulging with new titles for teens this past year, including many paperback originals. Conversely, we are still waiting to see an increase in the number of good, solid middle-grade novels. The good news is the quality of the fiction that is being produced for this audience. The 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, was an early stand-out in the fiction of 2009. And with its exceptional book design, Grace Lin’s historical fantasy Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was as much a pleasure to look at and hold as it was to read.

Two aspects of fiction publishing are especially worth noting this year. The first is a small increase in the number of books featuring strong, fully developed characteristics with disabilities, such as Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World and Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Anything But Typical. Both books have protagonists with autism, and they allow readers to see the world through their eyes.

The second welcome trend is an increase in the number of novels with gay, lesbian, or transgender characters. In the past two years this number has more than doubled, and with the increase comes a greater variety of type, from the biting social satire of Timothy Carter’s Evil? to the romantic re-visioning of the Cinderella fairy tale in Malinda Lo’s Ash. We were especially pleased to see The Boy in the Dress, David Walliams’s comical, Roald Dahl-esque middle-grade novel about a prepubescent boy who may or may not be transgender, but who clearly likes to dress as a girl.



Noteworthy Nonfiction

After a few years where we saw a discouraging drop in the number of outstanding books of information, we were pleased to see a definite rebound in 2009, and many of the year’s most outstanding books were nonfiction. The fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing inspired more than a dozen books on the topic, including Brian Floca’s lyrically written and beautifully illustrated Moonshot. And while it was not about the moon landing itself, Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts, an account of thirteen women striving to be astronauts in the early 1960s, provided a welcome feminist perspective on the space program during years when, it turns out, being anything other than male and white were insurmountable barriers to reaching the moon.

Many of the year’s most remarkable books of information show exceptional writing and illustration, as well as an amazing amount of primary research. Chief among them is Kerry Madden’s biography of Harper Lee, part of Viking’s “Up Close” series. Although her subject is notoriously private, Madden manages to give young readers a great deal of insight into Lee’s life, her work, and her influence, through the painstaking research she did on three trips to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The resulting biography is not only exemplary but is also an enormous contribution to the field. And it’s hard to beat Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith for its deft blend of research and storytelling as the author draws on many primary-source documents in her skillful and entertaining portrait of two strong-willed individuals and their devoted relationship.



Growing Gaps

While nonfiction has increased in both number and quality this year, and aspects of fiction publishing continue to burgeon, the same cannot be said of picture books, where the numbers and overall quality continued to decline. That’s not to say there weren’t outstanding picture books—there always are. But with the embarrassment of riches we saw in the quality of fiction and nonfiction this past year, picture books paled by comparison. Nowhere was this more apparent than the dwindling number of picture-book folktales—once a mainstay in the field of children’s literature—which seemed almost nonexistent in 2009.

We had also hoped that the Association for Library Service to Children’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award—for books for beginning readers—would lead to more original publishing of books in the easy reading format. But the most remarkable thing about easy readers in 2009 was how few there actually were.

Multicultural Mandate

For years we have been documenting the number of books we receive annually at the CCBC by and about people of color. We do this 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 portray multicultural experiences, so that literature for children and young adults will collectively represent our diversity. And we do it because authentic multicultural literature is an essential part of every library and classroom.

We also to do it to underscore the importance of buying books about people of color. Today, mega-bookstores yield so much power that they can influence what the cover of a book will look like based on what they think will sell. No doubt this informed a reputable publishing company’s decision in 2009 to show a white girl on the cover of a book with an African American protagonist, as was originally done with Justine Larbalestier’s aptly named Liar, before outrage among bloggers, critics, writers, and others helped change the publisher’s thinking. The assumption that any multicultural book is less likely to sell is a dangerous one, and we need to affirm the value of multicultural books by proving that assumption wrong. Until we do, we will continue to see these dismal numbers stagnate—something else worthy of outrage.

We received approximately 3,000 books at the CCBC in 2009. Of those,

  • 157 books had significant African or African American content
  • 83 books were by Black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators
  • 33 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
  • 12 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
  • 80 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
  • 67 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
  • 61 books had significant Latino content
  • 60 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 some individuals created two or more books.

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. Even so, we are pleased to see publishers taking risks and investing in first and second novels by authors of color such as Nick Burd (The Vast Fields of Ordinary, published by Dial), Tanita S. Davis (Mare’s War), David Hernandez (No More Us for You), Malinda Lo (Ash), Kekla Magoon (The Rock and the River), Neesha Meminger (Shine, Coconut Moon, published by Margaret K. McElderry), Cindy Pon (The Silver Phoenix, published by Greenwillow / HarperCollins), and others.

As we begin our reading for 2010, we look forward to new books by these authors and many others, whether their names are new to us or familiar. We are eager to read them, discuss them, and share our enthusiasm for favorites with you—librarians, teachers, students, readers, writers, and others who enable us to say with confidence that books and reading are very much alive as we begin the second decade of the twenty-first century.