Reading has proven to be extremely important to a child’s development. They are more likely to engage if they come across a character or story that reflects their life, culture, or background.
On May 25th, 2020, the world was shocked by the killing of George Floyd. The reverberations of this shocking incident saw books about race become bestsellers and the reverberations were also felt in the children’s literature market with 2020 being the first year ever with more black characters than white characters in children’s best sellers.
For this report, WordsRated has analyzed 1,511 children’s bestsellers published between 2012 and 2021 to understand the diversity landscape of children’s literature and how this has evolved over time.
It appears, that in 2021, the momentum quickly faded and it leaves us asking what can be done to ensure children are able to read books that reflect their lives and inform their sense of self.
- Between 2020 and 2021, the percentage of black characters in children’s best sellers decreased by 23%
- In 2020, there were more Black characters than white characters in children’s best sellers for the first time ever
- There was also a 31% decrease in the percentage of children’s bestsellers written by black authors from 2020 to 2021
- From 2020 to 2021 there was the largest increase (+17%) in the percentage of bestsellers written by white authors over the last 10 years
- There are still 3.5 children’s bestsellers by a white author for every children’s bestseller for a black author
- Bestsellers are significantly more diverse than children’s books as a whole, based on CCBC data:
- Only 12.12% of children’s books are about black or African characters
- Only 7.64% of children’s books are written by black or African authors
Overview of methodology
To read the extended methodology, please see the full methodology section at the bottom of this report.
- Collected a list of 1,511 books total published between 2012 and 2021. For each year in our sample, there is a minimum of 130 unique books.
- The books were selected from the NYT bestseller lists for children’s books (Children’s Middle-Grade Hardcover, NYT Children’s Picture Books) and School Library Journal best book lists (e.g. SLJ Best Picture Books 2020).
- Books were chosen from these additional lists as the books from the NYT bestseller lists repeated often and did not provide a large enough sample
- The overall data follows a similar pattern to the data we found from the books on NYT bestseller lists, providing confidence that the sample is representative of the market as a whole
- Recorded 7 data points on each book: Book name, publish date, the race of characters on the front cover, the gender of characters on the front cover, author name(s), the race of author, gender of the author.
- The race and gender of the characters on the front cover of each book give an indication of the race and gender of the main character(s).
- The data was then analyzed to understand the breakdown of race, authors and get an understanding of what authors of different races choose to write about.
23% decrease in black main characters
From 2012 to 2020, there was a 306% increase in black main characters on the front cover of children’s bestsellers.
However, come 2021, we have seen a significant backwards with a 23% decrease in the percentage of children’s bestsellers that contain a black main character.
2020 was the first year we have seen black characters outnumber white characters on the front cover of children’s bestsellers. This trend continued in 2021 despite the percentage of black characters falling.
There are a couple of factors that suggest this isn’t the good news for diversity it might be assumed to be.
When we look at who writes about what, black authors write about black characters 91.3% of the time. However, white authors write about white characters 53.4% of the time. 39.5% of the time, white authors writer about non-human characters (such as trucks or bunny rabbits.)
In fact, 92.5% of bestsellers about non-human characters are written by white authors.
The 101% increase in non-human characters between 2020 and 2021 suggests a jump in the percentage of bestsellers written by white authors. And the data bears this out.
From 2020 to 2021, there was a 17% increase in the percentage of bestsellers by white authors. This is the largest increase we’ve seen over the last ten years.
31% decrease in children’s bestsellers by black authors
The largest increase in books by white authors over the last decade goes hand in hand with the largest decrease in the percentage of bestsellers written by black authors over the last decade.
In 2020, we say a record 26.3% of bestsellers written by black authors. In 2021, this fell by almost a third down to 18.0%, below even 2019 levels.
As stated previously, black authors tend to write black stories. So it’s no surprise to see the decline in black authors mirror the decline in black authors.
Black male authors and black male characters still underrepresented
Even with the significant increase in the number of black characters we have seen since 2012, there is still significant underrepresentation of black males both as authors of and characters in children’s bestsellers.
In 2021, there were 56% more black female main characters than black male main characters in children’s bestsellers.
This is again borne out when looking at authors. There are 1.8 books by black female authors for every book by a black male author.
Bestsellers more diverse than the wider market
The CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) compiles data on books sent to them by publishers. They analyzed over 11,000 books from 2018 to 2020.
There, the numbers are significantly less encouraging.
In 2020, 12.1% of children’s books examined by the CCBC featured a black/ African main character and 7.6% were written by a black/ African author.
This is significantly different from the bestseller data where we see 28.0% of books in 2020 featuring a black main character and 26.3% of books written by black authors.
It seems despite all the positives we have seen over the last 10 years, things are in danger of sliding backward without concrete steps to ensure momentum is maintained.
Conclusion: BLM bounce has faded leaving us a long way away from a market reflective of society
After a positive period of growth in the diversity of children’s bestsellers, it’s concerning to see such a sharp drop off. Part of this can be explained, but not excused, by the spike in interest after the killing of George Floyd and the increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Where this interest should have been seen as an opportunity for publishing companies to build upon, it looks as though they have let this opportunity slip through their fingers.
With the biggest drop in black authors and black characters we have seen in children’s bestsellers, a concerted effort must be made by everyone involved to ensure the hard-earned progress made over the last decade is not lost.
Click to view the full methodology
Danny McLoughlin is a media researcher. His work has included research into racial bias in the broadcast media and has been featured in The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian and more.