For the past 25 years, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, housed within UW-Madison’s School of Education, has tracked diversity in children’s books, and for a number of those years, children’s books by and about people of color has remained flat. But the most recent figures released on Wednesday indicate that diversity is slowly coming to children’s books. The number of publications with significant African or African-American content nearly doubled, from 93 titles in 2013 to 179 in 2014. There was also an increase in the number of books with significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific-American content, which moved from 69 titles in 2013 to 112 in 2014. However, books about American Indians and Latinos remained nearly the same, with American Indians represented in just 34 titles in 2013 and 36 titles in 2014, and Latinos represented in 57 titles in 2013 and 66 in 2014.
The CCBC’s statistics have gotten the attention of publishers. Before the CCBC began collecting the data in 1985, director Kathleen T. Horning said in a release, “People had a sense there weren’t many books out there but they didn’t realize just how bleak it really was until they saw the actual numbers.” Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low, one of the country’s few minority-owned publishing companies, underscores the importance of the report. “Diversity is the missing piece of the puzzle in children’s books and [the CCBC] has had its finger on the pulse of this issue from the very beginning.”
Horning credits We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots movement aimed at addressing diversity in children’s books, with the recent dramatic shift. “They have really kept diversity front and center,” she said, noting the group’s strong social media presence. S.E. Sinkhorn, publicity chair of We Need Diverse Books, said in a release: “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?' "
The recent numbers give Horning a reason to hope that diverse content will continue to thrive within children’s literature. “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 among the increase in recent diverse titles, award attention is catching up as well, with Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Brown Girl Dreaming earning the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover winning the Newbery Medal. Additionally, the Caldecott Medal went to Asian-American illustrator Dan Santat for The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, and even this year’s Printz winner, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, featured a gay male protagonist.
“That’s huge because these awards have an impact on sales,” says Horning. And at the end of the day, Horning says the key to having more diverse books for children is in the hands of consumers. “The books have to sell,” she says. “Publishing is a business. If diverse books sell well, there will be more published. We have to help make that happen by buying the diverse books that are out there. Our kids can’t wait.”