Campaigners have hailed a “seismic shift” in US children’s publishing after statistics showed that the number of kids’ books featuring African-American characters has more than doubled over the last 10 years, and the number featuring Asians more than tripled.
Figures from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that the number of children’s books featuring African or African-American characters rose from 172 out of a total of 3,000 received by the CCBC in 2008, to 401 out of a total of 3,617 in 2018. The number of books by African or African American authors also increased, from 83 in 2008 to 202 in 2018.
A substantial increase was also recorded for children’s books received by CCBC that were by and about Asians or Asian Americans (98 featured Asians in 2008, compared with 308 in 2018, and 77 Asian authors were published in the US in 2008, compared with 339 in 2018), and Latinx (79 books featuring Latinx characters were published in 2008, compared with 247 in 2018). The number of books featuring American Indians and First Nations characters also rose, although not as dramatically, from 40 in 2008 to 52 in 2018, with authors up from nine to 36.
According to Nicole Johnson, executive director at the campaign group We Need Diverse Books, the increased numbers “bring hope and opportunity”.
“More than a trend, we believe this is a seismic shift in children’s publishing and affirmation of the diverse experiences of all children and families in the United States,” said Johnson. “The data tells us that there is an increased chance for a child to walk into a local bookstore or library and find titles that reflect the racial and cultural diversity of this country.”
Johnson attributed the growth in diverse representation to the launch of imprints looking to raise the profile of diverse voices in children’s literature, as well as to independent publishers championing diverse voices such as Lee& Low Books and Cinco Puntos Press. She also cited raised awareness among bookshops, educators and librarians, and the strong performance of books by authors of colour on the New York Times bestseller lists. Social media was also helping keep the #weneeddiversebooks message alive, she continued, with “children’s authors and kidlit influencers taking to social media to keep the focus on why representation matters”.
CCBC director Kathleen Horning struck a more cautious note. “If I’m being optimistic, I’d say yes, we are seeing genuine change,” she said. The shift could be traced to 2014, she added, when articles in the New York Times from Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers sparked a national discussion. We Need Diverse Books was founded in the same year, and Horning agreed that social media has helped drive the increase, as well as sales: “Every publisher would like a book as successful as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which has maintained its spot on the list now for more than two years. Success breeds imitation – as Harry Potter taught us.”
But Horning warned that there had been “the beginning of what seemed to be a genuine change” both in the late 1960s and the late 80s, “and both times everything stopped”.
“It’s hard to say just by looking at one year that we’re seeing real change,” Horning said. “It can feel like we’re making progress. And then it’s as if publishers say, ‘OK, we’ve done that. Let’s move on to the next thing. We’ll have to see where we are in five or 10 years.”
She stressed the need “not just for diverse books, but for authentic and accurate diverse books that reflect the reality of the increasingly diverse population in the United States, and the belief that all children deserve to see themselves in the books”.
Johnson agreed more needed to be done. “It is critical to bring forward diverse writers and illustrators to produce books that will influence the next generation,” she said. “In addition to looking for diverse characters, the conversation can expand to explore how illustrators and authors of colour through their creations can challenge the stereotypes and racial biases that still surface in children’s literature. These are difficult conversations. They will require empathy and tolerance for discomfort. We Need Diverse Books believes this is necessary if we are to move beyond the need to tally diversity to a place where diverse representation is the standard and mainstream.”
In the UK, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education began tracking the number of books featuring BAME characters for the first time last year, finding that of the 9,115 children’s books published in 2017, only 4% featured BAME characters, and 1% had a BAME main character.