Diverse Books: Talking About Them Isn’t Enough

It’s not often I get to shout out to wins in diversity by talking about the movies. But those of you who have seen the latest incarnation of Beauty and the Beast will understand – the multi-racial court in the Prince’s palace is a big deal because we all know that’s *not* how it was originally conceived.

Another actor bringing an originally white character to life is Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murray in the new adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time.

It’s great news that book-to-movie adaptations are (slowly) paying attention to the passionate dialogue about the need for diversity.

And in fact, a lot of children’s fiction itself is looking more diverse than ever before. These books are heeding the call of #WeNeedDiverseBooks championed by authors, agents, librarians, teachers, and readers demanding more #ownvoices writers, more non-white main characters.

And yet, in spite of the increasing volume of the cultural conversation, the actual number of diverse books on the shelves is still confusingly small.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collects annual statistics on the number of books published by and about persons of color. And while their statistics are only a snapshot in that they do not report gender, sexuality, or religious diversity, they are a place to start looking for a picture of where we stand today in the push for diverse books.

In 2016, out of 3200 books published by United States publishers:

  • > 12% are written by authors of color*;
  • 21% are about persons of color, regardless of author ethnicity.

*NOTE: African/African –American, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific American, First Nation/American Indian, and Latino writers. 

Wait., what?

I know. These abysmal numbers are hard to believe. Because if so many people are asking for diverse books, why aren’t we getting them?

The schism has been explained in part by the much-discussed 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey that revealed a pathetically small percentage of industry professionals are actually people of color.

It’s been nearly two years since that data was released – but the statistics haven’t changed appreciably. We all know publishing moves at a glacial pace, so even if editors snapped up a host of diverse projects in response to that survey, those books won’t be out until this year. So, maybe the 2017 CCBC numbers will be better.

That’s me being hopeful.

Realistically? We’re nowhere near where we need to be – one year isn’t going to close the gap. Which means our mandate is clear: #Ownvoices authors need to keep writing, keep querying, keep subbing, keep banging on the door. Readers need to support books that include the spectrum of skin and hair colors, culture, religion, and places.

I believe we can do this — but we will have to persist.

I’m curious – did those numbers surprise you?

Heather Murphy Capps
Heather Murphy Capps has always had a deep appreciation for comfort and elegance. She and Claudia would have run out of money quickly together but would absolutely have been on the same page about taxis and nice restaurants. And of course, solving mysteries about beautiful art. That said, Heather also appreciates Jamie’s love of complication, which is why she spent several years living in rural Kenya and then became a television news reporter, which involved standing for hours in the middle of hurricanes and political battles. Now she’s raising middle-grade readers and writing for them. She loves to read and write books with lots of great science, magic, mystery, and adventure. Heather is the communications coordinator for Mixed-Up Files, as well as creator/curator for our We Need Diverse MG series. She is committed to creating more diversity in publishing.
  1. We owe it to everyone to stop spreading fake news. The diversity figures for 2016 are actually excellent, as the interview with K.T. Horning over at the Horn Book when these figures were released makes clear. Horning notes the following;

    Number of picture books published in the USA about PEOPLE (as opposed to animals or things, and sorry for the shouting): 511.
    Number of them about white people: 319.

    The math is easy. Percentage of these about white people: 62.4%. Percentage of the USA population that is white, according to 2010 census statistics: 63.7%.

    Percentage of picture books about Asians and Asian-American: 5.8%. Percentage of USA population that is Asian: 3.6%. Asians slightly overrepresented.

    African-Americans would seem slightly underrepresented, but when you factor in the new CCBC “multicultural” category (59 out of the total) and the new CCBC “brown, no race specified) category (42 out of the total), those numbers shoot up big time.

    The bottom line is that we are at census level parity.
    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0762156.html has the census figures from 2010, by race.

    (Pardon the adaptation of a post I made at Horn Book)

  2. Hi Helen,

    I’d recommend checking out the We Need Diverse Books website. They have a huge bookshelf that you can sort by age of reader and even the group the book represents (for example, if you were looking for books about kids with disabilities), and they also create summer and end of the year reading lists–it’s fantastic! http://weneeddiversebooks.org/where-to-find-diverse-books/

  3. This is so true. I think hope may be on the horizon though. I recently went to the SF Writer’s Conference and diversity was the watch word for sure. There were panels about how to represent the underrepresented in a respectful way, I learned about sensitivity readers, it was really hopeful. I actually just interviewed an author who’s created a non-fiction picture book series based on interviews she did with kid entrepreneurs and one thing that struck me was that there was a real effort to feature kids of different backgrounds so that all kids could be empowered by seeing themselves as innovators and creators. We still have a long way to go, but I do see some positive steps being taken.

  4. The gears are clicking and it will take some time to get to the numbers we want. But we’re surely heading there.

  5. Hi, I’m looking for lists of well-written, engaging, recent multicultural chapter books for 4th-8th graders of all genres. Any suggestions? Thanks, everyone!

  6. Yes, I was shocked by the numbers. But I hope the conversations will start to translate to some real improvements in representation. Kids deserve to see themselves in books. And they also deserve the opportunity to develop empathy through reading stories about people of different races, ethnicities, abilities, religions, sexual orientation, and culturals.