When winnowing the trends of the past year so as to predict what will happen in the next, the best thing to do is to look at the wider picture. That can be hard, and sometimes the things you predict don’t play out as expected. So before I pin the proverbial tail on the donkey, let’s take a moment to digest 2015 in a segment I like to call . . .
A season of change
“With the rise of the We Need Diverse Books movement,” I wrote last year, “the question is whether or not publishers are responding to the call. I suspect that in two years we’ll be seeing a diverse array of titles on a variety of different topics.” Sadly, 2015 was not the year of diverse children’s literature many of us had hoped for.
In September 2015, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at UW-Madison released statistics on books by and about people of color. CCBC stated on its site: “We were hoping we’d see improvement over last year but so far that doesn’t appear to be the case.” That said, there is much to celebrate. Both the diverse selections of the 2015 Youth Media Awards across the board and the sheer number of multicultural titles appearing on 2015 Best Book lists is heartening.
Publisher Lee & Low took a different route on diversity. Inspired by Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou’s efforts to assess the diversity of the tech industry, Lee & Low created the Diversity Baseline Survey. Eight review publications and 34 publishing companies have signed on.
As we await the results, it feels as if decades of suppressed conversations about diversity are exploding in the wider world. In fact, one change in the conversation about literature for youth that I didn’t see coming reflected wider issues affecting the country. In 2015, acute conversations about race captured national attention. Consider the protests in Ferguson, MO, the Confederate flag debate, Donald Trump’s offensive statements about people from Mexico (to say nothing of other ethnic groups), and more. These events haven’t happened in a world separate from our own. Children’s books reflect the times in which they are written, so the gestational period it takes for diverse books to appear on the market notwithstanding, I expect discussions of race, gender, religion, and sexuality to continue and, in time, affect publisher, author, and illustrator decisions. If nothing else in 2015, conversation and condemnation online became louder and more intense (for good or for ill, depending on your point of view).
Early in 2015, we saw the rise of blogs like “Reading While White,” created by white librarians Sam Bloom, Allison Bruce, K.T. Horning, Nina Lindsay, Angie Manfredi, and Megan Schliesman. Thanks in large part to their efforts and the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), bloggers that bring diverse perspectives have received increased attention. Such blogs include “Latin@s in Kid’s Lit,” “Cynsations,” and “Disability in Kidlit.”
It was a particularly contentious year on the subject of race and gender in the kidlit community. Young adult author Andrew Smith was accused by BookRiot (a website “dedicated to the idea that writing about books and reading should be just as diverse as books and readers are”) of making sexist statements in an interview with Vibe magazine. Later, author Meg Rosoff was criticized for her comments on Facebook about whether or not there are “too few books for marginalized young people.” In each of these cases, the response was swift. Later in the year, YA author Scott Bergstrom was lambasted for comments made about the morality of his upcoming book as being “more complicated than a lot of YA” already published. These particular comments lead to the Twitter hashtag #MorallyComplicatedYA.
Books themselves drew fire. As 2015 drew to a close, conversation focused on the picture book A Fine Dessert (Random) by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, which depicts an enslaved child and her mother preparing a Blackberry Fool and sneaking into a cupboard to surreptitiously sample what the plantation owner’s family left behind. The debate that followed arose over the book’s depiction of “happy” slaves (reported in NPR’s “Codeswitch” blog post “The Kids’ Book ‘A Fine Dessert’ Has Award Buzz—And Charges of Whitewashing Slavery”. Also this fall, The Hired Girl (Candlewick) by Laura Amy Schlitz caused a stir. Debbie Reese, an educator who blogs at “American Indians in Children’s Literature” pinpointed a sentence in the book in which the main character, an early-20th century American Catholic girl, refers to American Indians as “civilized now” (the conversation began at the SLJ blog “Heavy Medal,” where one can read both sides of the issue).
On a happier note, new books were published on a topic previously untouched in children’s literature. With nationwide increased attention on the transgender community (inspired in part by television shows like “Transparent” on Amazon and Caitlyn Jenner’s eight-part documentary series “I Am Cait”), the middle grade novel George (Scholastic) by Alex Gino came out in tandem. And while this was not the first instance of a transgender child in a book for kids (the picture book I Am Jazz (Dial) by Jazz Jennings was released in 2014) George was notable for tackling the subject for a middle grade audience.
Finally, books that broached weight and “fat shaming” were another hallmark of 2015. As reported by SLJ, the “Size Acceptance in YA” Tumblr was started to address “fatness, fatphobia, body shaming, body policing, body objectification, and all other things relating to size and body acceptance in YA literature.”
Then there was the middle grade title Husky (Grosset & Dunlap) by Justin Sayre and the YA novel Dumplin’ (HarperCollins) by Julie Murphy, two 2015 books that featured overweight characters coming to grips with bullying and self-acceptance, respectively.
Picture books and the slow death of meta
Meanwhile, picture books began to shy away from a writing and illustration style that’s been in vogue for more than a decade: the meta picture book. This isn’t to say that such books no longer exist, but many recall how, in the immediate wake of Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Disney-Hyperion) in 2003, an overwhelming number of books was released in which the reader was invited to participate in the story. This year marked a decrease in the number of these books with intrusive narrators/main characters. There will still be books that break the fourth wall, like Julie Falatko and Tim Miller’s upcoming Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) (Viking), on shelves February 2, but there’s nothing to compare to the number of Pigeon readalikes in the past. If any meta books have continued, it is those written along the lines of Press Here (Chronicle, 2011) by Hervé Tullet. Akin to a picture book app, Tullet’s title drew attention to the joys of physical contact with a book. Other titles that encourage readers to get physical with their contents continued to come out, so in 2015 we saw Touch the Brightest Star (HarperCollins) by Christie Matheson and We’re in the Wrong Book (Holt) by Richard Byrne, among others.
Trends of 2016
Now the crystal ball conundrum. The most that you can do is consider the books announced in Publishers Weekly (PW), as well as the titles released for the first half of 2016, and extrapolate from there. At this point, the most serious trend consists of the very serious topic of talking to children about death and bereavement.
Boats for Papa (Roaring Brook) by Jessixa Bagley may have been the most prominent picture book on love and loss in 2015, but in 2016 we will also be seeing a plethora of picture books examining death. From Always Remember (Philomel) by Cece Meng, in which an old turtle swims his last swim, to Ida Always (S. & S.) by Caron Levis, about a polar bear who slowly loses his best friend to illness and death, to a version of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird (HarperCollins), newly illustrated by Christian Robinson, it’s a banner year for this subject.
There’s a goofy trend for adults that may trickle down. Few could have predicted 2015’s coloring books for adults craze. Secret Garden, an adult coloring book by Scottish artist Joahanna Basford, for example, sold 452,857 units, reported PW. What does this mean for children’s books? Publishers are now looking for “related niches.” According to PW, “Fox Chapel has created a book of stickers that can be colored and then pasted anywhere. In early 2016, Little, Brown will introduce four connect-the-dots books for adults.” Don’t be surprised to see child versions of this childlike activity appear on the market.
Trends I’d like to see more of
In 2015, I was pleased to note that books were beginning to broach a topic too often passed over: economic disparity. Yard Sale (Candlewick) by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo, touched on something familiar to many children after the housing market crash of 2008: families forced to make hard choices when moving to smaller homes. Moving into 2016, this remains a harsh reality for a lot of kids.
Books that simply acknowledge that some people have less money than others can also be scarce. The elegance of Sunday Shopping (Lee & Low) by Sally Derby, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, was one of the exceptions. A simple story of the game a grandmother and her granddaughter play with the advertisements in the paper touches a nerve. Likewise, Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop On Market Street (Putnam), with art by Christian Robinson, gives a lot of thought to haves and have nots, while eschewing didacticism for wisdom.
The concept of homelessness can also be difficult to write about. For years, librarians would lean on Eve Bunting (yet again) and her 1991 picture book Fly Away Home (HMH). But since 2001 and increased airport security, that book no longer is as useful or timely as it once was. Almost no 2015 books touch on this subject, with the exception of Jean-Francois Dumont’s I Am a Bear (Eerdmans), and you’d have to go back to 2014’s Maddi’s Fridge (Flashlight Pr.) by Lois Brandt to discuss something as rudimentary as hunger.
Enter Katherine Applegate’s middle grade novel Crenshaw (Feiwel & Friends). Since the book concerns childhood hunger and homelessness, Applegate launched the Crenshaw Food Drive, a nationwide campaign urging booksellers to host food drives to benefit local food pantries.
Two or three books in a single year do not a significant trend make, however. With families facing tough economic times everywhere, it’s more important than ever to make our children aware of economic disparity. It’s surprising to consider that in our children’s collections, we have almost no picture books on kids living in shelters. Foster care books were only slightly more prominent. So if there’s a trend that I hope to see, it’s along these lines. Simply ignoring economic differences doesn’t make them go away. It only serves to make the kids in those situations feel invisible.
Now for the fun stuff:
You can name any trend you want from 2015, but the most obvious one that came up again and again throughout the year was without a doubt imaginary friends. Who they are, where they go, what they do without us (and what we do without them), appeared in picture books and chapter books alike. Even the year’s most popular children’s movie, Inside Out, postulated about the fate of imaginary friends. Here are some of the books that made them stars:
• Crenshaw (Feiwel & Friends) by Katherine Applegate
• The Imaginary (Bloomsbury) by A.F. Harrold (illus. by Emily Gravett)
• Confessions of an Imaginary Friend (Dial) by Michelle Cuevas
• Imaginary Fred (HarperCollins) by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
• We Forgot Brock (S. & S.) by Carter Goodrich
I’d also like to include Abby Hanlon’s Dory and the Real True Friend (Chronicle), if only because much of the speculation concerns the real or imaginary state of Abby’s newest friend in school. Similarly, you could almost count Leo: A Ghost Story (Chronicle) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson, since the little girl in the story thinks Leo’s imaginary for quite some time.
Cows, they’ve had their day. This year saw two books about kittens unable to identify mice: Max the Brave (Sourcebooks) by Ed Vere and How to Catch a Mouse (Candlewick) by Philippa Leathers. But the true winner at the end of the day, barnyard wise? Chickens, chickens, chickens. Or, rather, how to care for them.
• Millie’s Chickens (Barefoot Bks.) by Brenda Williams and Valeria Cis
• Sonya’s Chickens (Tundra) by Phoebe Wahl
• Gone Crazy in Alabama (HarperCollins) by Rita Williams-Garcia
• Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer (Knopf) by Kelly Jones, illus. Katie Kath
• The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate (Holt) by Jacqueline Kelly
The heroine of Kate DiCamillo’s latest early chapter book was even named “Poulet” (Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen), though admittedly the book is free of any real fowl play (hee hee hee).
Haven’t I seen that book before?
• Look! (Philomel) by Jeff Mack
• Look (Owlkids) by Edouard Manceau
• Red (Eerdmans) by Jan De Kinder
• Red (HarperCollins) by Michael Hall
I mean, how often do you encounter them? By my account, they showed up as, at the very least, malevolent in the following very different titles:
• Beastly Verse (Enchanted Lion) by JooHee Yoon
• The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob: A Challenging Job (Children’s Success) by Brooks Olbrys
• Billy’s Booger (S. & S.) by William Joyce
• The Whisper (Farrar) by Aaron Starmer
Swearing in other languages in a picture book
• Daddy Said a Word I Never Heard (Little, Brown) by Scott M. Cohn
• The Leveller (HarperTeen) by Julia Durango
Oddest cameos in picture books
Celebrity: Andy Kaufmann
Appeared in: The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York (Andrews McMeel) by Kory Merritt
Celebrity: Stephen Colbert
Appeared in: A Crow of His Own (Charlesbridge) by Megan Dowd Lambert
Celebrity: Mumford and Sons
Appeared in: Fright Club (Bloomsbury) by Ethan Long on a tombstone that reads, “Mumford N. Suns.”
Celebrity: Kanye West
Appeared in: Buckle and Squash: The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld (Feiwel & Friends) as “Prince Kanye the Anachronistic”
Maurice Saatchi once said, “Human nature is not amenable to prediction based on the trends or tendencies prevailing at the time. It is amenable to startling creativity of the kind practiced by great artists, directors, writers, musicians, actors, who know how to touch a chord in humans everywhere.” And while I might agree, I would also note that a trend is not a bad thing when it leads to great and necessary change. Let us hope then that our authors, illustrators, and publishers continue to follow some trends and eschew others as we strive to create and discover the best possible literature for our children.