Adorable and thoroughly depressing illustration by Tina Kugler
Earlier this year, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) released its annual statistics on multicultural children's books. And as you can see from above, the news is not good -- and sadly, not suprising in the least. (I mean, hellooo -- that's why we're having a whole series on diversity in YA.)
But even more distressing is the lack of progress, as highlighted by Lee & Low Books in a must-read post. Over the past eighteen years, multicultural content has only comprised around 10 percent of the total children's books being published each year. EIGHTEEN YEARS.
Keep in mind that this is only since the CCBC started keeping stats. There are literally generations of readers whose reading options haven't improved from a diversity standpoint. And guess what! 2013 is shaping up to be more of the same.
In fact, the CCBC breakdown by race is even showing a decline of diversity in children's books! Here it is in visual form (and with a rather unfortunate automatically assigned colour scheme):
I don't expect the exact same numbers from year to year (that'd be another problem altogether) -- which is far different from what I want to see, i.e. upward trends -- but really!? We're going backwards now? Was anyone honestly feeling that white, middle-class, non-denominational, heterosexual characters without disabilities were being underrepresented?*
*Yes, the statistics say nothing about income, religion, sexuality, or disability. But somehow, this is one assumption I'm OK with making.
So why the heck is this still happening? This very topic has already been eloquently and expertly addressed in that Lee & Low post (seriously, just read it.*), and a lot of the theories relate back to acquiescing to the status quo.
*Or finish reading this, and then read that. I don't know your priorities.
One group that definitely refuses to settle is First Book, a nonprofit organization that launched The Stories for All Project to "dramatically expanding the market for diversity in children’s literature". And efforts from diversity advocates like First Book and Lee & Low can only help to lessen the disparity between fiction and reality. But then again, how much worse can it get? (On second thought, don't answer that.)
2010 CCBC data was used in order to match the last U.S. Census, because I'm a stickler for statistical accuracy.
Now, the comparison above may be a bit misleading; I don't mean to imply that there should be target quotas, or that people only want to read about characters that share their own heritage. But even ignoring all human and empathic rationale -- isn't this just bad business sense? Are publishers that susceptible to the myth that multicultural books don't sell? When deciding between books of similar quality, would they rather oversaturate the market than stand out with something different? Everyone's always trying to find the Next Big Thing. Instead, how about they look for That First Big Thing that everyone else is trying to emulate?
Another problem that's mentioned in the Lee & Low post is the lack of writers of colour, for which the CCBC has also kept statistics.
So, good news: the numbers are generally pretty steady, save for the recent dip in books by African-American authors. But bad news: everything else! While the percentages aren't decreasing, they're not increasing, either. And books by writers of colour have comprised no more than 7.4% of the books reviewed by the CCBC in any of the years shown above.
While the path for writers of colour aren't always the easiest, as pointed out in that oft-cited Lee & Low article (as well as in author May-lee Chai's contribution to this here series), I also wondered about what's being done to encourage more writers of colour. And I'm not talking about the trying-to-get-published writers, although Lee & Low holds annual contests for them, too.
This is about to veer dangerously into generalization zone, but it's something I've observed to be true in the very small sample size of my life. Not a single one of my Asian friends or high school classmates majored in English. And despite English having been one of my favourite subjects* and me clearly loving to read, I chose a degree that barely had an English requirement.
*Though to be fair, I was/am an all-around nerd that liked every subject. LEARNING IS FUN, YOU GUYS. Well, at least outside of university, it is.
Heck -- even when I had the temporary life goal of being a journalist, I still thought it was impractical as an eleven-year-old. OK, maybe given the state of print media today, Tween Me had a point. But the overall theme here is that writing was never considered as a feasible career in my upbringing. (Which: obviously untrue, since there are many phenomenal writers of colour -- some of whom we've featured on this site.)
Would I have chosen differently if it had? Uh, probably not. (But for a litany of reasons, with the most persuasive being that I would not be a phenomenal writer of colour. Writing -- writing well -- is hard, y'all.)
But every child, regardless of circumstance, should at least feel like they can work towards being anything they want. And when those young readers and writers see someone just like them who's been able to make it... well, it gives them hope that they will, too.
Is that so much to ask for?