As I write this, I have just finalized my picks for the best books of the year. It’s an agonizing process that involves much hand-wringing and negotiation, both internal and external: “Oh, pretty please, can I have an extra 10 titles for my picture-book list?” (Answer: “Yes.” Hooray!) We will be unveiling the lists beginning November 15, but I wanted to take some time now to consider some of the observations I made during my process.
As I proceed through the year, I make sure to save a copy of every book that receives a starred review, and I use those as my foundation for making my choices. We always star far more books than we can include on any best-of-the-year list, but it is a way of making a first cut.
It’s also a very physical process, and as I sorted through the books, I decided to see how the proportions literally stacked up. We will be doing three lists of best books for young readers: picture books, books for middle-graders and books for teens. Since the age ranges for these three segments of the market are (very) roughly equivalent— 0-6, 7-12, 13-18—you’d expect relatively even numbers in each. But that’s not how it broke down:
Now obviously, picture books are way thinner than the text-heavy fiction and nonfiction middle-graders and teens read, so I certainly expected the picture-book pile to be shorter than the other two. It’s shorter, but it’s still pretty darn tall—taller than I am. This was a great year for picture books, and in terms of sheer numbers, I had almost twice as many starred picture books as I did books in either of the other categories.
I was also not surprised to see that I had more books for teens than books for middle-graders. The latter pile reached up to my ceiling, but the former needed more loft than my office could provide. I have informally observed (and formally complained) that the outsized success of the “YA crossover” phenomenon has led to a real boom in teen publishing. That much of this boom is producing, um, less-than-excellent fare can be seen in the fact that I had only 10 titles more in the teen starred pile than in the middle-grader starred pile despite our having reviewed far more books for teens.
Once I started playing book Jenga, I thought of other piles I could make, and these too say something about the state of the industry. The nonfiction pile and the pile of books by creators of color were about the same height—around my knees. Holy cow.
Given the years-long conversations about the Common Core State Standards and their emphasis on the reading of informational texts, I had expected more nonfiction. It was particularly interesting to note that of the starred nonfiction, the greater proportion was picture books; since Common Core recommends that by the time children reach high school they be reading almost exclusively nonfiction, the absence of upper-grade nonfiction seems particularly startling.
And given the decades-long conversations about the dearth of children’s books by and about people of color, the relatively small number of books in that pile was, alas, not terribly unexpected and all the more shameful for it (see the image at right of the books that don't even reach the height of a standard cabinet).
Two other depressingly small piles consisted of early readers (about mid-calf) and board books (about the same; their chunkiness helped to mask the fact that there were only 10 of them, including four from one series). What is going on? Kids who are just beginning to read on their own and infants who are just being introduced to books for the first time need excellent books just as badly as preschoolers and independent readers do.
As I begin to work on 2014, I’ve already received a couple of recommendations for stars. Here’s hoping 2014 delivers the same bounty of excellence, with considerably more diversity in its creators, formats and content.
Vicky Smith is the Children’s & Teen Editor of Kirkus Reviews.