Diversity in MG Lit #22 A Progress Report

We’ve hit the award season for books. In the next weeks there will be plenty of best-of-the-year lists going around. I wanted to focus on something slightly different. In years past  the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) has analyzed the years books and put together a graphic representation of diversity in children’s books. In a nutshell, in 2018, 23% of children’s books depicted POC characters. 27% depicted non-human characters. 50% depicted white characters. This is an improvement over statistics gathered in 2015 but clearly there is plenty of work to do.
I have been keeping track of which books are getting the big promotional push in both public media and in professional conferences. I’m going to highlight three events of the last six months. And I’m going to do so with a big caveat. I am not a social scientist. I have made my conclusions on the race or ethnicity of the author based on readily available information from the publisher. Not every author states their race explicitly. It would be unethical for publishers and booksellers to ask an author to identify themselves by race. I know that people do not always belong to the race or ethnicity they most resemble. So please take my observations as just that—the candid observations of one person working as an author and bookseller.
First up—The Childrens Institute—a conference hosted by the American Booksellers Association where many publishers send their authors to promote forthcoming books to independent bookstores. This year it was online. I went to the pitch sessions where publishers had about 20 minutes each to introduce us to about a dozen titles each. The diversity of offerings varied a lot from one publisher to another. A few had as many as 90 or even 100% books by diverse authors featuring diverse characters. A few publishers had no diverse books at all. But overall when I totaled up the more than 200 book pitches I heard,  it was very close to 50-50 authors or illustrators and diverse authors or illustrators. (In my calculations I included white characters as diverse if they were disabled or LGBTQ though those were both small categories.) When challenged about lack of diversity the publishers with none or very few diverse books all pointed to past lists that had more diverse books or future ones. Many books got delayed this year or were moved to a later season. Notably every single  publisher who was asked was aware of the need for diverse books and trying to fill the need, though with varying degrees of success.
The New York Times just came out with their holiday guide to children’s books. It interested me because their content (unlike the Children’s Institute) is beyond the control of the publishers, yet it can have a powerful impact on sales. Again I took a look at not the characters of the stories but the authors and illustrators and reviewers.
16 reviewers contributed: 8 POC reviewers (3 men and 5 women) and 8 white reviewers (5 men and 3 women). So far a 50-50 split.
These reviewers presented books by 73 authors and illustrators. 26 of the creators were POC (10 men and 16 women). 47 of the creators were white (21 men and 26 women.) So 36% POC creators and 64% white creators.
Two things caught my eye. First, the gender divide was slightly more favorable to POC women.  I was also surprised to see that of the white authors & illustrators 17 or 23% of the total were not Americans but only one of those foreign book creators was a POC. So you could also represent the book creators as 1% foreign POC, 23% foreign white, 36% POC and 41% white.  Still room for improvement but clearly an effort at inclusion is being made.
Finally, it was my great pleasure to go to the virtual SCBWI Non-fiction conference. It was hosted by the Smithsonian in partnership with the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. There were 32 men and women on the faculty, 47% POC and 53% white. That is very close to parity even though the organization as a whole has a predominantly white membership. The faculty was 25% men and 75% women—not equal but reflective of the gender composition of the SCBWI as a whole.
Overall, I am encouraged. There are areas in need of improvement, but I have been glad to see acknowledgement of the problem across the board. Everyone I’ve talked to agree that the needed changes are coming slower than they’d like. Unfortunately publishing is not a speedy industry. I think the unsung heroes in all this are independent bookstore owners—most of whom are white women—who have pressured publishers for years to provide books that better represent the neighborhoods they serve.
Rosanne Parry
Rosanne Parry is the author of 7 MG novels including best sellers A Wolf Called Wander, and A Whale of the Wild. Her first picture book Big Truck Day will go on sale in September of 2022. She sells books at Annie Blooms Bookstore in Multnomah Village and writes books in her treehouse in Portland, Oregon.