by Kathleen T. Horning, Carling Febry, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman
© 2011 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
(This essay originally appeared in CCBC Choices 2011)
Although there has been quite a buzz about e-books making a significant impact on the marketplace, we haven’t seen much of an impact to date on books for children, particularly when it comes to books for younger children. There doesn’t yet seem to be any technology on the visible horizon that has improved on the technical ingenuity of the 32-page picture book.
That said, it’s surprising that we don’t see more innovation and creativity in the picture books being published a decade into the twenty-first century. Jeannie Baker’s Window comes closest, with its two parallel, wordless stories taking place at the same time in two different hemispheres. And Laura Vaccaro Seeger once again delivers an engaging visual challenge in her cause-and-effect story What If?
Other picture book artists seem to be making a case for the continued existence of traditional books, even as they use post-modern methods to present their arguments. No one does this more blatantly than Lane Smith in his interplay between a bibliophile monkey and a computer-loving jackass in It’s a Book. The characters in Art & Max by David Wiesner deconstruct and then recreate the very illustrations that have brought them to life, and Mo Willems’s latest entry in his “Elephant & Piggie” easy-reader series has the two reaching a new plane of consciousness in We Are in a Book! (Though perhaps an e-sequel is inevitable: We Are in an App! )
Willems also provided an evocative, understated narrative for a more traditional picture book, City Dog, Country Frog, illustrated by Jon J Muth. With its exquisite watercolor illustrations, it was one of the few standouts in an otherwise disappointing year for picture books.
While all of the authors and artists listed above are extremely well-known in the picture book field, it’s encouraging to see that there is still room for newcomers. The Caldecott Medal this year went to Erin E. Stead for her first book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip C. Stead. The gentle story and muted illustrations hearken back to the mid-twentieth century, sometimes called the Golden Age of picture books.
Last year we noted that 2009 was a stellar year for nonfiction, and we hoped that it marked the beginning of a trend toward an increase in the number of stand-alone works of non-fiction that meet high standards for research, documentation, and presentation of information for children and teens. Unfortunately, we did not see the same number of outstanding works of nonfiction for children and teens in 2010, but we did see the same level of quality in many of the year’s offerings.
Houghton Mifflin’s stellar series “Scientists in the Field” continues to live up to the very high standard they set early on with new entries in 2010, including The Hive Detectives by Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz; Project Seahorse by Pamela S. Turner and Scott Tuason; and Kakapo Rescue by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop, which was selected as this year’s Sibert Award winner.
For younger children, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s Ballet for Martha, illustrated by Brian Floca, and Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier’s Dave the Potter both illuminate the lives of two creative artists, showing the sweat and genius behind their work. A famous painting is given voice in Ruthie Knapp’s funny and informative Who Stole Mona Lisa? And Barbara Kerley gives a daughter’s-eye-view of Mark Twain in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), which not only provides insight into Twain as a writer but also as a parent.
For teens, we especially admired four books on four very different subjects. Ann Angel’s biography Janis Joplin won YALSA’s 2011 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction and is likely to win Joplin a new generation of fans, as well. Tanya Lee Stone offers an insightful social history on the fashion doll some people love and others love to hate in The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie. One of the most distinguished writers of nonfiction for young readers, Russell Freedman, gave us a compelling history of World War I in The War to End All Wars. Finally, some of the best science writing we’ve ever seen for teens distinguishes Every Bone Tells a Story, a collaboration between writer Jill Rubalcaba and archaeologist Peter Robertshaw. Like Freedman, they have the rare ability to bring history—or, in this case, prehistory—to life by using the drama inherent in what they are recounting.
In fiction, what stood out above all else in 2010 was the welcome increase in novels for children and teens written by African American authors. These included novels by established writers such as Sharon Draper (Out of My Mind), Walter Dean Myers (Lockdown), and Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer); those who are relatively new to the publishing scene, such as Tonya Bolden (Finding Family), Sundee T. Frazier (The Other Half of My Heart), and G. Neri (Yummy); and writers embarking on their first books for children, such as Jewell Parker Rhodes (The Ninth Ward ), an established writer for adults, Renée Watson (What Momma Left Me), and Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon (Zora and Me). The quality of the writing, and the variety of genres, settings, and characters among these and other books for children by African American authors in 2010 is notable. We hope this is an indicator of the future of publishing and not just a blip in the history of African American fiction for children and teens.
In recent years, we have noted a marked increase in the number of novels published for young adults, particularly in the fantasy genre. Originally this could be attributed to the “Harry Potter effect,” with every publisher understandably wanting to capitalize on the unprecedented success of Rowling’s series. Just as it was waning, along came Twilight to boost the demand and supply once again. We still see a lot of Twilight-tinged star-crossed romances and paranormal fantasies, with the objects of affection morphing from vampires to werewolves to demons to angels to mermaids (albeit—thankfully—not all in one volume).
It was with tremendous relief and appreciation that we read an exceptional romance about star-crossed lovers grounded firmly in reality in 2010. Laura McNeal’s outstanding young adult novel Dark Water will satisfy both the reader who wants a thrilling romance and the reader who wants a smart, believable teen protagonist, one whose decision-making is as clouded by adolescence as it is by love.
Dark Water is one example of many fine works of contemporary realism in 2010. A mainstay of young adult literature from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, it again seems to be making a comeback. Standouts in realistic fiction for 2010 deal with diverse topics. Walter Dean Myers’s Lockdown is set in a juvenile prison, as fourteen-year-old Reese is challenged to stay out of trouble and get back on the right path. Hush by Eishes Chayil looks at the painful silence surrounding sexual abuse in New York’s Chassidic community. A. S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Deitz is another book about silence around a number of issue’s in smart, struggling, hard-working teenage Vera’s life.
Teen fiction with GLBTQ themes seemed to have peaked in 2009, when there were close to 100 books published with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or questioning characters. We saw far fewer books in this category in 2010, but the quality continues to be consistently high. Notable among them was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a laugh-out-loud novel, co-authored by John Green and David Levithan, featuring a gay protagonist and a straight protagonist, both named Will Grayson.
Several novels of 2010 deftly straddle the terrain between realism and something else. None would necessarily be called fantasy; in fact, all are firmly grounded in the lives of their contemporary teen protagonists. But all offer an intriguing detour into improbable territory that is wholly believable in the context of their stories. Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner does all this and more, making the card game of bridge—yes, bridge—fascinating as seventeen-year-old Alton assists his wealthy, blind uncle by turning his cards during bridge games. Neal Shusterman examines dynamics of pain, power, and human nature in Bruiser, about several teens whose lives become enmeshed. And Jennifer Donnelly blurs lines between present and past in Revolution as teenager Andi is haunted by the death of her younger brother and the suffering of the French dauphin centuries ago.
We continue to see a great number of novels set in a dystopic future, including the third and final volume in Patrick Ness’s excellent “Chaos Walking” series, Monsters of Men. Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular “Hunger Games” series also came to a close with her third volume, Mockingjay. But the true stand-out in the realm of dystopia this year was Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, an original and atmospheric novel set in a time when the U.S. coastline is underwater and the teen protagonist ekes out an existence stripping abandoned ships for scrap metal until the day he finds something far more precious aboard a wrecked ship.
Two of the year’s best children’s books were middle-grade novels written by authors who have made a name for themselves writing young adult fiction. Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind deals with a fifth-grade girl with cerebral palsy who is facing changes in her life as she begins fifth grade. Unable to talk, she has difficulty getting her thoughts and feelings across to her classmates. Only those closest to her—and readers of this book—know just how smart and funny she is. Another eleven-year-old, Delphine, is put in charger of her two younger sisters when the three of them are sent across the country from New York to California to spend a month with the mother they’ve never known in Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer.
With their depth, humor, and memorable characters, both Out of My Mind and One Crazy Summer stand out as original, solid middle-grade novels published in 2010. Happily, they were not alone as middle-grade fiction made a notable comeback with a significant number of standout offerings. Among them were Keeper by Kathi Appelt, The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, The Star in the Forest by Laura Resau, Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon, Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, and a number of others. Middle-grade fiction is alive and well and living on the “New Books” shelves of your local library or bookstore.
Counting on Multicultural Literature
Finally, each year in CCBC Choices we include statistics on the number of books by and about people of color that we received at the CCBC the previous year. We continue to do this because it’s important to pay attention to the way books and book publishing reflect—or fail to reflect—the diversity of our nation and the realities of the lives of children and teenagers today.
Of course we are also interested in a qualitative analysis of multicultural literature and have already commented on a handful of the many multicultural titles that stood out to us this year—many of which we recommend in the pages that follow. But the numbers matter, too. Quality literature arises in part from depth in the numbers—the more multicultural books published, the greater the chances there will be outstanding offerings among them. And certainly diversity of experience within any racial or cultural group depends on a wide number and variety of books being published and available to children and teens.
We received approximately 3,400 books at the CCBC in 2010. Of those,
- 156 books had significant African or African American content
- 102 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
- 22 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
- 9 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 64 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
- 60 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 66 books had significant Latino content
- 55 books were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators
(Note: A few of these numbers are slightly changed from the print publication. They have been updated to reflect 2010 books we received after Choices went to print.)
It should be noted that these numbers include both stand-alone trade books and books that are published as part of a formulaic nonfiction series, and that many individual authors and illustrators of color wrote or illustrated more than one book.
We participate in and hear about conversations concerning multicultural literature all the time. Where are the books for beginning and newly independent readers? (Make sure to check out Grace Lin’s Ling & Ting and the wonderful Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke!) Where are picture books featuring contemporary African American children (Hooray for A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams!) Why are we asking the same questions today that were being asked thirty years ago in terms of stagnating numbers?
Looking for answers can sometimes be frustrating. But what is clear from the questions is how important multicultural literature is—not just to children and teenagers, but to adults who are striving to make sure that children and teens have have access to books that offer them affirmation, visibility, and insight into the world in which they live.