Good Diverse Books News, But There's More to Do

by Caitlin White

Every year since back in 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has researched and released statistics on diversity in children's and young adult literature. Here's the good news: The CCBC says the number of diverse children's books available has increased from 2013 to 2014. But as always, we need our grain of salt because there still aren't really a whole lot of diverse books available, if you're speaking relatively.

To get their stats, the CCBC counts every book for the age range — including picture books, novels, and nonfiction — that the library receives in any given year. The overall number is estimated at 5,000. In that number, the CCBC estimates they looked at 3,500 of those books. (Also remember that a library isn't going to get lots "toy" books or mass market titles, so the overall number is skewed slightly lower.) In 2013 (this time out of 3,200) there were 68 books published by authors of African or African-American descent and 93 books published about people of African or African-American descent; 18 by American Indians; 34 about; 90 by Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, 69 about; and 48 by Latinos, 57 about. However, in 2014, (out of 3,500) 84 were by Africans or African-Americans,174 about; 18 by American Indians, 36 about; 90 by Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, 112 about; and 59 by Latinos, 66 about.

Essentially: Books published that featured characters of African or African-American descent nearly doubled, and marks are up pretty much across the board, though books about American Indians and Latinos didn't really move the needle much. So yes, the numbers are up and that's wonderful, but still, we're talking about around 100-200 or fewer titles in each category. Out of 3,500. That's not enough.

The director of the CCBC, Kathleen T. Horning, remarked on the statistics her organization found:

Even though the data we collect indicates children’s literature in this country continues to represent a mostly white world, we see signs that things are changing. In 2014, for example, we saw a marked increase in the number of novels for children and teens by African-American authors.

And digging deeper into the CCBC stats, these numbers may not even be as high as they seem. Because when a book is "about" a person of a certain descent, say American Indian, that character doesn't have to be the main character. According to the CCBC:

We count a book as "about" if the main character/subject is a person of color, or if we are able to determine based on examining a book that a person of color features significantly in the narrative. So a novel in which the main character is white will be included if we are able to determine a secondary character of color is important in the story. We do not count a book if the principle character is white and there are a range of secondary characters, including characters of color, but none of the characters of color seem to play a significant role. This is, of course, somewhat subjective; we talk about the books that we can't easily discern. We do not want to misrepresent a book as having multicultural content; likewise, we make every effort not to miss those that do.

The CCBC cites the importance of children's book awards for shining the spotlight on deserving work created by and about people of color. Winning big awards generally means an uptick in sales and interest, which helps to raise awareness on underrepresented narratives. I mean, Jacqueline Woodson's magnificent Brown Girl Dreaming is so covered in awards that you can barely see the cover at this point.

Mexico-born Yuyi Morales won this year's Pura Belpré Award for Viva Frida, and the same book was a Caldecott Honor Book. Japanese-Canadian cousins Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki also earned a Caldecott Honor as well as a Printz Honor for their graphic novel This One Summer. Kwame Alexander won the coveted Newbery Medal for his book The Crossover. And of course, the African-American-specific Coretta Scott King Book Awards and Latino/Latina-specific Pura Belpré Awards are both given out annually, too.

The We Need Diverse Books grassroots campaign makes it its mission to promote diverse stories for young people. About the CCBC stats, S.E. Sinkhorn, publicity chair of We Need Diverse Books, said:

The data published by CCBC have illustrated the notably minimal growth of diversity in children's publishing over the last few decades, which is especially pertinent as the population of children of color in the U.S. continues to climb. It asks the question for us, ‘Why are the already small numbers staying almost exactly the same?

Clearly still have a long way to go in getting books by and about people of color published, making sure they are available at libraries and bookstores for purchase, and then recognizing those of exceptional merit. We are the people to effect this kind of change and push these numbers higher. If you read a book you love, share it, let people know.