The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015

This February, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) released its statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color published in 2014. The issue of diversity in children’s books received a record amount of media coverage last year, in large part due to the success of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Many people were anxious to know if the yearly CCBC statistics would reflect momentum of the movement.

The biggest takeaway from the new statistics was positive: in 2014 the number of books by/about people of color jumped to 14% (up from 10% in 2013) of the 3,000 to 3,500 books the CCBC reviews each year. Though not as high as it should be, the number shows definite improvement.

But looking at this number alone doesn’t show the whole story. In 2012, we kicked off our infographic series with information about the diversity gap in children’s books. Here is the updated infographic, which reflects statistics through 2014:

Diversity Gap in Children's Books Infographic 2015
Diversity Gap in Children’s Books Infographic 2015 – click for larger image

Some observations based on the CCBC data and our infographic:

  1. One good year is not a guarantee of long-term change. Although the statistics for 2014 were the highest they have ever been since the CCBC started keeping track in 1994, the key question is whether or not this momentum will be maintained. The second-highest year, 2008, hit 12%, but was followed by a decrease to 11% in 2009, and then down to 10% in 2010, where it stayed until 2014. In addition, one good year does not erase 20 bad years: the total average still hovers around 10%. It will take a sustained effort to push the average above 10% and truly move the needle.
  1. The increase predates 2014’s big changes. The founding of We Need Diverse Books and last year’s burst of media coverage certainly brought the issue of diversity to the forefront, but they did not cause this particular increase. It takes several years to move a book from acquisition to publication. The books released in 2014 would have been acquired in 2012 or earlier—long before Walter Dean Myers’ New York Times editorial, which many credit with reigniting awareness of the diversity issue. This could mean that publishers were making a concerted effort to diversify their lists before 2014, and it was a happy accident that last year’s increase in demand coincided with an actual increase in supply. Or it could mean that 2014’s increase was just a blip on the publishing radar and not part of a larger trend.
  1. Creators of color are still heavily underrepresented. For the first time in 2014, the CCBC released more detailed statistics. They categorized books as “about,” “by and about,” or “by but not about” people of color. Based on those numbers, we can also calculate the number of books that are “about but not by.” The chart below compares the number of books “about but not by” people of color (blue) with the number of books “by and about” (red) people of color.
    Graph: books by and about vs. about but not by
    Original data taken from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center:

    In every category except Latino, more books are being published about characters from a particular culture by someone who is not from that culture than by someone who is. This disparity is most dramatic when it comes to books with African/African American content, of which only 39% were by African Americans.

    In 2014, there were 393 books published about people of color, of which 225 (57%) were by people who were not from the culture about which they wrote or which they illustrated.

    It’s disconcerting that more than half the books about people of color were created by cultural outsiders. Realistically, these 2014 Stats: Books by or about people of colornumbers likely mean that there are more white creators speaking for people of color than people of color speaking for themselves. This problem may stem from a long history in which people of color have been overlooked to tell their own stories in favor of white voices. Authors and illustrators of color have a right to be wary of an industry in which they are still underrepresented, even among books about their own cultures.

    This also raises questions about quality and cultural authenticity. Who is checking to make sure diverse books are culturally accurate and do not reinforce stereotypes? Are cultural consultants being routinely employed to check for accuracy? Are reviewers equipped to consider questions of cultural accuracy in reviews? Given that more diverse books are being created by cultural outsiders than insiders, these questions must be answered.

    It’s worth celebrating that the number of authors and illustrators of color went up by 23% in 2014, but this does not lessen the urgent need to find ways to bring more talented creators of color into the publishing fold.

  2. Some authors and illustrators of color have more freedom than others. For the first time in 2014, the CCBC also released statistics citing the number of published books by creators of color that did not have significant cultural content. This statistic is a measure of the freedom that people of color have to write or illustrate topics other than their own cultures. As the numbers show, this level of freedom varies greatly from culture to culture:
    Books by creators of color with no significant cultural content
    Original data taken from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center:

    Why are Asian/Pacific American creators so much more free to create books without significant cultural content? Perhaps it is because they don’t have the same pressure to create books that will be eligible for certain awards. Latino and African American authors and illustrators often work with the prospect of the Pura Belpré Award and the Coretta Scott King Award (respectively) looming over them. These awards can sell thousands of copies of a book—no small drop in the bucket, even for a major publisher. For a book to be eligible for either award, it must be both by a person from the culture and contain significant cultural content. So Latino and African American creators may feel pressured to create Belpré- or King-eligible books instead of books without cultural content. These may also be the books that publishers are most likely to acquire. While awards also exist for Asian Pacific American and Native American literature, they carry less weight in terms of sales.

    Or, perhaps, Asian American creators don’t feel this freedom at all, and the numbers aren’t telling the whole story.

Conclusion: What the CCBC numbers tell us are that things are looking up, but there is a lot of work left to be done. No one set of statistics tells the whole story, but the CCBC numbers offer a baseline for tracking the progress that has been made, and shows us how far we still have to go.

102 thoughts on “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015”

  1. I just….. I see the point, and I’m glad CCBC pulls all this data, and I know what they MEAN when they say “no significant cultural content,” but also, that’s total BS. That kind of phrasing helps racists who think that “you should just read good books” or “they should stop writing about racism all the time” go on with their mistaken assumption that refusing to engage with race is the same thing as not being about race. White authors writing about white people and not writing about racial privilege is still writing with race and cultural content. It’s just racial unconsciousness.

    1. mclicious, I was relating that statistic more to what I’ve been reading about in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, in which several Asian American creators comment that there are a number of Asian Americans working in mainstream comics, which continues to have a dearth of Asian American characters. From that commentary, it sounds less like “freedom” to illustrate non Asian American themes and more “Here’s what we’re publishing and assigning you to illustrate.” I don’t know if there’s a crossover to kids’ books there.

      (Also, the anthology is definitely worth checking out. There are some great stories in it!)

  2. This is really interesting stuff, and I am also curious as to what they mean by “cultural content.” That’s a super loaded phrase. Regarding the “freedom” to write outside one’s culture of origin/ancestral cultures — I don’t think “freedom” is the right word here. I would guess that Asian American writers write about non-Asian people because (1) Asian Americans face a lot of pressure to assimilate into white culture; this pressure comes from both Asian and white cultures; (2) publishers simply don’t publish much stuff about Asian characters, so Asian writers may be making a rational choice in order to get published at all. Also FYI the library awards for Asian American literature are not featured at the Youth Media Awards (for reasons), which is part of the reason they carry less weight. If this changes and they are featured at the YMAs, I suspect the influence of the awards will also change.

  3. I am a children’s librarian at a library serving an ethnically diverse community. My coworkers and I strive (and struggle) to display materials which reflect the patrons of our library. I can attest to the lack of published materials featuring characters with brown skin. The rise from 10 to 14% of non-white book characters is heartening.

    I have one critique of the sample set thats make up these stats. A large percentage of children’s books feature anthropomorphized animal characters. The CBC site includes these in their sample. Considering that many book characters aren’t human,14% might reflect a larger jump than it seems.

    The argument could be made that most animal characters represent the homogeneity of eurocentric “White” culture. However, many authors successfully use animals to represent racial diversity in their book worlds.

    Nevertheless, the small number of non-white authors and illustrators is still disappointing…

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  5. The article here is intentionally misleading. The conclusions are biased at best. The 10% figure only accounts for the books that the CCBC take in. It doesn’t account for all books, and their sample size is small, their deviations are high, their conclusions mean little and the author here should feel bad for trying to deceive you. The 10% accounts for books, that the organization receives, not all book, then it uses it’s own discretion to determine if a book meets their subjective criteria to be included in an ethnic category. Then, they don’t do anything else. They don’t count the books that are “white” books. They don’t count the books that are about butterflies, or tractors, or fire trucks, or birds, no hungry little caterpillars, no books about saying goodnight to the moon, nothing. They as much as admit it in their own literate, which you have to cherry pick to come to THIS conclusion. I know this reply is a year old, but people are quoting this blog and pretending it represents the hard work of the CCBC, which is does not. It distorts it at best, and at worst manipulates it to advanced a twisted narrative.

    1. Hi Matt,

      The CCBC actually did a blog post a few years back addressing the question of how many books are not about humans and how they make determinations about what to count. You can see it here:
      They’ve always been very transparent about the way they calculate statistics, and our infographic is just a visual representation of the stats that they have shared.

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