As I was coming back from class today, I was discussing the weather with a young lady who was also exiting the building. She commented on the cold and the need for a jacket (still) and said she couldn’t wait for summer to come “so then, I can complain about how hot is it.” Are we ever satisfied?
That’s how I was feeling about the CCBC’s latest numbers. They gnaw at me.
This is the chart that counts all books available in the US, some of which are published outside the country. (The other chart provides information only on books published in the United States.) They’re books that someone thought would sell here. Looking at the pre-#WNDB (pre 2015) numbers provided, it’s obvious that the movement did make a difference in what gets published. It’s important to note that this grassroots movement that occurred 5 years ago made a difference because we need to remember that our voices can change things.
The numbers reflect that diversity is an all day, everyday work in progress. I cannot deny that there’s a continuous uptick in the number of books both ‘by’ and ‘about’ each group presented. I see the proportion of books about African Americans to books by African Americans has fallen back to 2:1 from 3:1 in 2017. There’s decrease in the number of books about American Indians/First Nations people and an increase in books both by and about Latinx people.
Every once in a while, I see numbers on representation from the LGBT+ or the disabilities community, but I don’t know that anyone is consistently delivering that data. It’s needed.
Asian Americans are the only group with more books authored by members of the group than by outsiders. Anecdotally, however, the books written by Asian Americans are often not about Asian Americans. I’ll leave it to the social psychologists to tell us what it means when marginalized people write outside their own identities. It could mean nothing at all, it could represent a way of overcoming or it could be a psychosis. I don’t know which. What I do know is that we cannot say that ‘by’ books are #ownvoices using this data. While I don’t see any improvement in representation as a marginalized person when someone else is telling my story, I do worry what it means when no one else tells it.
I have that gnawing; that inability to get excited over these numbers.
That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the work of the CCBC, KT Horning and her crew in providing these numbers every year. The data is meticulously and consistently gathered and collated to give us an idea of how diverse the world of children’s literature is becoming. Becoming.
The thing is, this is only one metric. When doctors assess wellness, they use 4 main vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate. Here, we have a pulse, but we’re not measuring anything else. This particular vital sign indicates that a growing portion of the books submitted to the CCBC contain People of Color or Indigenous People.
Should we consider how many marginalized authors are winning mainstream awards? What do the state book lists look like? Will that address the quality? [no]
Where are the critical reviews of these books? How do we address the number of books with stereotypes, misrepresentations and oppressive storytelling?
So many of the issues, concerns and false steps in storytelling fall right back onto the publishers. What does diversity look like inside publishing? From the suppliers to the board members to the editors: how diverse are those at the publishing table? And, what are we doing to make room for more? What are some of the diversity initiatives implemented by US publishers?
How well are books with Native Americans or People of Color being promoted? Can we get a count of how many marginalized authors are debut authors, with multi-year contracts? How many are “A” listers?
How do we account for accessibility? Who is reading the books? Are they being incorporated into curriculum? Are they available, promoted and displayed in libraries and bookstores?
There can be, there are, more books being printed but lining a shelf with ‘diverse’ books doesn’t necessarily reduce the Whiteness on that shelf, doesn’t automatically mean there is any less racism or that we have overcome. It’s not just about the books; it never was. To paraphrase Kwame Alexander, ‘how you living your life?’
That’s what’s gnawing at me.