Since 1985 the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has kept an annual count of the number of books by and about people of color, starting with African-Americans and adding Asians/Asian-Americans, First/Native Nations, and Latinx to the count in 1994. Recently, in response to requests from researchers, we have also begun to keep track of characters with disabilities and who are LGBTQ.
During that time we have seen some encouraging growth— particularly in the first decade—but looking at the statistics over time, it’s mostly a story of stagnation. When we chart the numbers on a simple line graph, we see a marked plateau from about 2003 on. It is especially true when we just pull out the number of books by people of color. In 2016, for example, while 22 percent of the children’s and young-adult books published in the United States were about people of color, only 6.8 percent of those books were also written by people of color. The majority of children’s and young-adult books published in the United States are still being created by white authors and illustrators.
The gap between “by” and “about” has widened in the past three years. From 2013 to 2016, for example, the number of books about African-Americans has nearly tripled, while the number written by them has stayed pretty much the same.
Does it matter? It matters if we turn our attention away from quantity and begin to look at quality. It matters if we care about authenticity and cultural substance. It matters if aspiring authors and illustrators of color are not being given a place at the table because others are writing diverse books. It matters if we care about #OwnVoices.
“Who can tell my story?” has been the central question in our conversations about diversity from the beginning. “How do I know this voice is authentic?” has been the question from critics. One way to start is to pay attention to the work of authors and illustrators of color who offer diverse voices and visions of our world. Within this group we are already seeing a variety of forms, styles and genres. We are seeing outstanding, distinguished books. But we won’t see real change in the numbers until there are more book creators of color and until that gap between “by” and “about” begins to close.
KT Horning is the Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.