Here at the CCBC we are still reeling from the news of the death of our dear friend, Charlotte Zolotow. She was 98 and she had lived a full life that touched the lives of so many others. But still, we will feel her absence. We will miss her handwritten notes in green ink. We will miss her distinctive, chirpy voice. We will miss her spontaneous phone calls, which always started, "Hello, my dear. Tell me something good about Wisconsin!"
Charlotte had a special fondness for Wisconsin because she attended UW-Madison from 1933-36, where she studied English with the formidable Professor Helen C. White. It was Professor White who first told Charlotte she was a writer, and who nurtured her talents. Charlotte once said that at the University of Wisconsin, she was taught not what to think, but how to think.
And what a thinker she became! At a time when most women, especially married women with children, did not have careers, Charlotte worked at Harper & Row as a children's book editor, under the direction of another formidable woman, Ursula Nordstrom. At Harper they worked with some of the greatest children's book authors and illustrators of the 20th century, including Margaret Wise Brown, E. B. White, Maurice Sendak, Louise Fitzhguh, Paul Zindel, John Steptoe, M. E. Kerr, Robert Lipsyte, M. B. Goffstein, Paul Fleischman, Karla Kuskin, and Patricia MacLachlan. They didn't shy away from controversial topics -- they became the first to publish a young adult novel on a gay theme in 1969, and they continued to take risks with authors and illustrators who were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. Charlotte once told me she took a risk on an edgy novel, knowing that it might sell only three copies, because it was a story that needed to be told. And one of the last acquisitions she made before she retired was a quirky novel called Weetzie Bat, written by a newcomer, Francesca Lia Block.
And Charlotte herself was a writer. After Ursula Nordstrom encouraged her to try her hand at writing. The result was The Park Book, published in 1944. That launched her long career as a writer of picture books that explored the emotional landscapes of early childhood, books that still resonate with children today with their psychological truths -- so much so that they are frequently reissued with new illustrations. The art may get dated over time but her words never do.
Last spring, CCBC librarian Megan Schliesman presented a thoughtful lecture about the essence of Charlotte's writing for young children called "Feeling Back into Childhood: The Picture Books of Charlotte Zolotow." Thanks to our friends at TeachingBooks.net you can now view and listen to her lecture.
The words of one of Charlotte's last picture books Who Is Ben? take on special meaning this week.
"Where was I before I was born?" he asked.
But he felt the answer,
he had been part of that strange
trembling huge blackness
with no light and no sound
no beginning and no end.
"And where will I be when I die?"
But again he felt the answer,
and he felt that lovely soft enfolding blackness...
no moon, no stars,
he was it and it was Ben.
How like Charlotte to comfort us in a time like this, with knowing that she has found herself in that lovely soft enfolding blackness.
Meet Bonnie Stecher. She was the Cooperative Children's Book Center's first official librarian, and she worked at the Center from June 1964 until June 1965. Mrs. Stecher, as she was always called back then, accomplished a lot in her one-year tenure at the CCBC. She made numerous contacts with children's book publishers to assure that the CCBC would receive review copies (there were 88 publishers included on her 1964-65 checklist). She responded to correspondence related to donations for the CCBC's Historical Collection. And she started compiling the bibliographies of recommended books that the CCBC is still known for today.
But perhaps her most lasting accomplishment was her compilation of Newbery and Caldecott winners and honor books. In the age of easy access to this sort of information via the internet, it's hard to imagine a time that there was no comprehensive list of Newbery and Caldecott Award winners. But even ALA didn't have such a list. In fact, in the CCBC files is a copy of a letter from Mildred Batchelder herself (the Executive Secretary of ALA's Children's Services Division), thanking Mrs. Stecher for sending her the list of award winners and runners-up. In her letter, Miss Batchelder brainstorms some possible ways for ALA to disseminate the list -- pending Mrs. Stecher's permission, of course.
Her list eventually saw publication as part of Lee Kingman's Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965 published by the Horn Book, where it was credited to Bonita E. Stecher. Over the years, as the list has been updated, the credit was dropped, and few people know or even think about where it came from. But here at the CCBC, we haven't forgotten what Mrs. Stecher accomplished. In fact, those of us who started out here as student reference assistants in the 1970s-1980s will remember updating the original list each year after the ALA awards were announced, and sending out copies whenever anyone requested one (and provided us with a self-addressed stamped envelope).
I'll leave you with this last photo of Bonnie Stecher, working with the CCBC collection back when the library was located in the dome of the State Capitol Building. She looks so deep in thought that perhaps she is trying to track down those missing honor books from the first few years of the Newbery Medal's existence. The CCBC librarians no longer wear pearls and heels to work but we are no less dedicated providing information about children's and young adult literature to those who request it.
We still have those wooden benches -- and that book truck!
Our national children's book ambassador, Walter Dean Myers, has been a fierce advocate for equality and diversity in children's book publishing throughout his career. He had this to say about the issue we have been discussing the past few weeks:
I have changed my notion of the obligation of the book publishing
industry. While it does have the responsibility to avoid the publishing
of negative images of any people, I no longer feel that the industry has
any more obligation to me, to my people, to my children, than does,
say, a fast-food chain. It's clear to me that if any race, any religious
or social group, elects to place its cultural needs in the hands of the
profit makers then it had better be prepared for the inevitable
These words first appeared in an editorial Mr. Myers wrote for the New York Times back in 1987. You read that right -- 1987. For more than 25 years, we have been having this same conversation and nothing seems to really change. The entire essay, "I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry," is well worth reading, and still sadly relevant.
Last week I posted mid-year statistics about the multicultural landscape in children's book publishing so far in 2013. Using the review copies in our Current Collection I counted the number of books we've received to date (1509) with human characters (1103) as opposed to animal characters or about non-human topics (326), and found that 78.3% are about human beings. Of the 1103 books about people, 124 (or 10.4%) of these were about people of color.
When I did the count last week, I didn't take authorship into account. But one of the things we do keep track of here at the CCBC is just that -- the number of books written and/or illustrated by people of color. We first began documenting the number of books by African-American authors and illustrators since 1985 when CCBC Director Ginny Moore Kruse served on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, and was stunned to see that there were only 18 books by Black authors and illustrators published that year. We decided to keep track and put the statistic into print each year, and by 1994 we were also documenting the numbers for Asian/Asian-American, Latino, and Native American author/illustrators, as well.
No one will be surprised to learn that there are always more books about people of color than there are by people of color. But it may surprise you to know just how many -- at least so far in 2013.
15 of the 47 books received so far in 2013 by and about people of color
Of the 124 books documented in the first half of 2013 that are about human characters who are not white, 47 were written and/or illustrated by people of color. That means that just 37.9% of the books about people of color that we've received so far in 2013 were actually written and/or illustrated by people of color.
Published by Abrams, (c) 2013
And remember those animal characters who started this discussion? It turns out, people of color create their fair share of books with nonhuman characters, as well. In addition to the 47 books cited above, there were eight more books by authors/illustrators of color that I didn't count because they were about animal characters, from Monkey King to a frog who sings in Spanish. Most, like Duncan Tonatiuh's Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, are culturally specific.
So are authors who choose to portray characters as animals really avoiding race and ethnicity? And, if they are, what does it say about us as a nation if we assume our children will have an easier time identifying with a dinosaur than they will with a human child of another race?
There has been a lively discussion going on over at Read Roger, prompted by Lee & Low asking why the number of multicultural books has stagnated for the past 18 years. Roger remarked:
Semi-facetious response: While the blog states the disparity between the
non-white population in this country (37% of the whole) and the
percentage of children’s books with “multicultural content” (hovering
around 10% over the last eighteen years), I want to know what percentage
of children’s books are in the first place about people (as opposed to talking rabbits or outer space, for example). Things may look worse than they are.
Since the CCBC is the source of the multicultural statistics that have been widely quoted since USA Today first used them in a feature article back in 1989, I decided to respond to Roger will some hard data. I took a look at the children's and young adult trade books we have received so far in 2013 here at the CCBC. I counted the total number of books we have received, noting how many were about people, and how many were about nonhuman characters. I also counted how many were about white people and how many were about people of color. I was generous in my assessment: if a cover with a crowd of kids showed two or more kids of color, I counted it as multicultural. Similarly, if a cover showed two people and one was a person of color, I counted it as multicultural. I was struck by how many middle-grade fiction books show three kids on the cover, a la Harry Potter, all of them white.
A sampling of 2013 books from the CCBC's Current Collection
So here's how the stats break down so far this year:
To date we have received 1509 books from U.S. publishers. Of these, 1183 (or 78.3 %) are about human beings. I know it seems like there are lots and lots of bears, mice and bunnies standing in for people in books, and there are, but these stand ins occur mainly in picture books, which represent just 23.5% of the books we have received so far in 2013. I went through all the picture books published in 2013 that we have received so far as review copies. Of the 355 picture books in our current collection, 164 had non-human characters (mostly dinosaurs and cute furry critters but we also have picture book protagonists who are cars, crayons, monsters, lollipops and smurfs).
I counted 191 picture books with human characters, which is a little over half (53.8 %) of the total number of this year's picture books in our collection. Of these 191 titles, 28 (or 14.6%) feature a child of color as the protagonist. In the overall total number of picture books, adding together human and nonhuman characters, children of color make up just 7.8% of the total number of picture book protagonists.
Nonfiction is another genre that includes a lot of books about animals, outer space, etc. We have received 472 nonfiction titles so far this year, which makes up 31.27% of the total number of books. Just 130 of these books (or 27.5%) are about nonhuman subjects. People of color fare a little bit better in nonfiction than they do in picture books: of the 342 books about people, 60 are about people of color, which amounts to 17.5% of the total number of nonfiction books.
The really dismal numbers come with fiction, both middle grade and young adult. Anyone who is up on trends in children's and young adult book publishing knows that fiction (a/k/a chapter books and novels) make up the bulk of what is currently being published. Our stats so far for 2013 bear this out. We have received 682 works of fiction to date this year, which makes up 45.19% of our total. Just 32 of them are about non-human protagonists (Most of these were animals; I only counted paranormals if there was no interaction with mortals in the story.) That means 95.3% of all fiction titles are about human beings. Of the 650 books about human beings, 614 feature white characters, and just 36 feature people of color as main characters. That amounts to just 5.27% of the total.
So to get back to Roger's semi-facetious response, here is the big picture. Of the 1509 books published in 2013 that we have received so far, 1183 (or 78.3%) are about human beings. If we subtract the 326 books about nonhuman characters from the overall total and just figure the percentages of books about people of color among the books with human characters only, we still get a fairly dismal number: of the 1183 books published so far in 2013 about human beings, 124 of those books feature people of color. That's 10.48%. We're only half way through the publishing year and the fall season is usually the heaviest, but it still looks like we are on track for yet another year of stagnation.
When the CCBC first opened its doors just over fifty years ago, founder Elizabeth Burr would never have imagined a time when we would be blogging about books. But I hope she imagined that we would still be here five decades later, still going strong and still sharing a passion for children's books. (Young adult books, too!)
The CCBC has been much in the news lately due to a recent NPR report that used our multicultural literature statistics. We've had quite a few email messages and phone calls as a result -- and, of course, this all happened while we were all away attending the annual conference of the American Library Association. Over the next week or so we'll continue the discussion here on our new blog in order to provide some context for the statistics and discuss the sorts of issues they bring up. We welcome your own observations and questions.