February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What’s Trending? Hot Themes in kidlit and what we want to see

Illustrations by Linzie Hunter

Is there any more disparaging term than “trendy”?

It drips with disdain. To be trendy is to be of the moment rather than of all time. Little wonder authors and illustrators shy away from the label when at all possible. But on the flip side, the librarian who ignores trends might miss something along the way.

It is the mixed blessing and curse of the 21st-century children’s librarian that if you delve deep into the full spectrum of children’s books published in a single year, you will begin to spot unexpected trends. Trendwatching is a spectator sport in the best sense of the term. It can be fun to do. Travis Jonker, for example, has already noted the sheer number of whales taking up space on our shelves, as well as the plethora of picture books featuring photography. But it’s not all fun and games. There are trends and then there are monumental shifts in what is or isn’t being published. If nothing else, the We Need Diverse Books movement is giving us a new set of criteria with which to examine publishing years as a whole.

Let us take a gander at some recent trends, then cast our eyes upon 2015 and where we’re headed.

On trend

Larger trends are more than mere coincidences. Where a coincidence may or may not say something about the times in which we live, larger trends are indicative of something grander at play. They reflect our current state of affairs, for better or for worse. This year, two trends came to mind when reading books for kids.

Fantasies for kids grew darker

In 2014, a number of fantasies were published, ostensibly for children. Yet time and again, librarians would read them cover to cover and determine that in spite of the publishers’ suggested age range of 9–12, perhaps these books were better suited for the YA section. The perception that children can handle darker themes may have much to do with the state of the world in which they live today. If this trend continues into 2015 we may see a backlash of much lighter fare in the near future. Three books that exemplify this category are:

The Riverman (Farrar) by Aaron Starmer. Inspired by works of children’s literature (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) the book takes a very dark turn later in the novel when violence explodes on the page.

The Thickety (HarperCollins) by J.A. White. It opens with a heartrending hanging and stays dark from there on in.

The Glass Sentence (Viking) by S.E. Grove. Definitely operated like a middle grade fantasy at first; it was the torture in this book that pushed it into the YA sphere.

This is not to say that there weren’t other fantasies that tripped into the dark. The fantasies featuring carnivorous trees are a good example (see sidebar). After a while, I began to cling to any lighthearted fantasy published in 2014 that I could find. There were a couple, but the darker fare certainly outweighed the fluff.

Illustrations by Linzie Hunter

Illustrations by Linzie Hunter

Lies vs. storytelling

For me, this was undoubtedly the most interesting trend of the year. The relationship between lying and storytelling is something every writer must grapple with on some level. Authors convey information, but take no oath to keep it accurate. In 2014, a number of fiction titles featured characters who struggle with the relationship between lying and telling tales. We may see alternative versions of this in 2015. As unreliable narrators start to glut the YA market, expect the occasional unreliable middle grade narrator to pop up now and again. Stories with an interest in this relationship included:

Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin) by Jacqueline Woodson. The recent National Book Award winner spends quite a bit of time depicting herself as a child, wrestling with her desire to tell tales. When Jackie’s mother tells her daughter that “If you lie . . . one day you’ll steal” the child cannot reconcile the two. “It’s hard to understand how one leads to the other,/how stories could ever/make us criminals.”

The Night Gardener (Abrams) by Jonathan Auxier. As Auxier’s book says, “Both lies and stories involved saying things that weren’t true, but somehow the lies inside the stories felt true.” Molly, the main character in the book, considers the problems with lying when all she really wants to do is protect her younger brother from the harsh world. As the novel declares, “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ’em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.”

West of the Moon (Abrams) by Margi Preus. The author returns to the notion of where stories stop and lies begin, again and again. The book reads, “soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just the thin thread of truth.” Much as Molly tells her brother stories in The Night Gardener, Astri is constantly telling stories to Gerta, her little sister, sometimes to coax her into something, sometimes to comfort her. But in her greatest hour of soul-searching, she wonders, “Is it a worse sin to lie to my sweet sister than to steal from a cruel master?” Where does lying start when storytelling ends?

Greenglass House (Clarion) by Kate Milford. With all the different plots and stories intertwining in this clever novel, it’s easy to miss Milo’s struggle as he tries to come to grips with role-playing (a form of storytelling in and of itself) and whether or not the fantasy he constructs there reflects badly on who he is as a person. Adopted by his parents when he was a baby, Milo creates a character for himself with a strong personal lineage, but then feels as though he’s betraying his parents by fantasizing in this way.

The Riverman (Farrar) by Aaron Starmer. This book examines not just the role of storytelling as lies, but what those lies might be covering up. If someone starts telling you a fantastical story about another world they can visit, wouldn’t you assume it might be a kind of escape from reality? Starmer’s book takes the darkest look at the relationship between lying and telling tales.

Things to come?

On the more coincidental side of the equation we’re already seeing some interesting similarities in rather original ideas. Pranking, for example, seems to be the order of the day, thanks to two upcoming middle grade novels. On the one hand, you have Mac Barnett and Jory John’s Terrible Two (Abrams), a tale of two pranking enthusiasts pooling their talents to pull off the greatest cow-related stunt of all time. A couple months after this book is released Geoff Rodkey’s novel The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other) (Little, Brown) debuts, in which pranking is extended to the virtual world as well as the real one.

This, however, is not the strangest coincidence of the new year. Right up there with my beloved sentient cheese is a coincidence that leaves all the rest in the dust. Apparently, 2015 should

be known as the year of the postapocalyptic dog. Two upcoming graphic novels involve dogs living in a world that is suddenly bereft of humans. The first would be Apocalypse Bow Wow (Bloomsbury) by James Proimos in which two dogs must navigate a world in which humans (and their opposable thumbs) are gone. As Dan Santat put it when he blurbed the book, “It’s The Walking Dead with dogs.” Then there is Vacancy (Nobrow) by Jen Lee. This book is described as starring “a dog in a hoodie and glasses who might not be ready to live in the wild, no matter how much the post-apocalypse might need him to.”

The larger trend I’m seeing in 2015 affects YA titles more than children’s. Given the popularity of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Delacorte) and Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton), lying is in. We’re seeing titles such as Lies I Told by Michelle Zink and Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, alongside books with unreliable narrators like Twisted Fate by Norah Olson or Made You Up by Francesca Zappia (all HarperCollins). How different is this trend from the multiple 2014 books featuring characters that struggle with lies vs. storytelling? One could argue that the unreliable narrator is simply a more mature interpretation of that very conundrum.

Looking to the future: Trends I’d like to see

With the rise of the We Need Diverse Books movement, the question is whether or not publishers are responding to the call. Maybe so, but it’s important to remember how long it takes a children’s book to be published. I suspect that in two years we’ll be seeing a diverse array of titles on a variety of different topics. Then again, I’m a glass half full kind of gal. As long as we’re voting for these books with our dollars, we’ll be able to make our desire for such books known. Publishers, after all, are more willing to take risks when they know those risks may turn a pretty profit.

TrendCallout_Jan2015That rose-colored glasses prediction aside, people are talking about diversity now. What is 2015 going to do to serve that need?

When we talk about diversity in children’s literature we instantly think about race. But diversity is so much more than just the color of an individual’s skin. For instance, there’s the topic of disability to consider. How are the differently abled featured in works of children’s literature? Are they there at all? In 2014, Cece Bell’s El Deafo (Abrams) broke barriers in portraying a regular kid with a hearing disability. But how long do we have to wait for another book that treats disability as just a part of somebody’s larger story? In 2015, First Second will release Dragons Beware, the sequel to Giants Beware by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. In it, the heroine’s father is a strong, smart, badass dad who just happens to not have legs. It’s a move in the right direction.

Another form of diversity we see too rarely in children’s books? Economic disparity. In 2014, the Flashlight Press picture book Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt and Vin Vogel put a human face on everyday hunger. But why is it that when people ask librarians for books on poverty they’re consistently referred to titles that are 20, 30, even 40 years old? Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam) is a step in the right direction, portrating lower-income families without patronizing the characters or offering simplistic solutions. More of that, please!

None of this is to say that we don’t need more kids of color in our literature. The Crossover (Houghton Harcourt) by Kwame Alexander and Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic) by Coe Booth aside, 2014 was not overly strong for contemporary African American boys. Mind you, it was better than 2013, that’s for sure. That was a year dominated by books by sports stars (Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Amar’e Stoudemire)—and almost no one else. At least in 2014 we saw books by authors who are established (Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods [Scholastic]) and still relatively new (Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist [Scholastic]). And 2015? Though I have no doubt that we’ll see books for and about African American boys, I’ve seen almost none so far. There’s Marcia Wells’s sequel Eddie Red: Mystery in Mayan Mexico (Houghton Harcourt) and James Patterson’s Public School Superhero (Little, Brown), but I worry we’re seeing even fewer boys in 2015 than we did in 2014. I pray that I’m given the chance to eat my words with relish.

Of course the greatest disparity between population numbers and the number of books being published falls squarely in the Latino quarter. Latino boys starred in hardly any middle grade novels in 2014, save exceptional titles like Ambassador (S. & S.) by William Alexander and Saving Baby Doe (Putnam) by Danette Vigilante. Latino representation in older chapter books is rare and in early chapter books, nearly nonexistent. That’s why I was so pleased to see the new series by Jacqueline Jules starting with Sophia Martinez: My Family Adventure (Picture Window). Pair that alongside the new “Gumazing Gum Girl” title Gum Luck (Disney-Hyperion) by Rhode Montijo, and that’s a whopping TWO series in a sea of white faces. I will take what I can get.

One could argue that, in the end, trends are only as significant as we allow them to be. We can choose to wall ourselves off from them, preferring to look for books that fill our patrons’ and collections’ needs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to watch, though. The impetus to place importance on one trend or another, however, lies solely with the gatekeepers. And as the increased scrutiny of books featuring diverse characters shows, there’s a great deal of hope that what starts out as a trend will transform into a publishing movement. A movement that can only happen as we watch what’s coming out and note it carefully for future reference.

Carnivorous Trees and the Like

Coincidences are those odd little similarities that crop up in a single year without any rhyme or reason. In my early days as a children’s librarian I can remember a year when no fewer than three works of middle grade fiction contained sentient cheese. As for 2014, we’ve seen some strange and wonderful coincidences come our way. Some of my favorites include:


Girls correct problems with STEM solutions

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (First Second) by Ben Hatke. A girl invites a monstrous crew to her home but must use her brain when the guests take advantage. Shows the importance of designating!

The Most Magnificent Thing (Kids Can) by Ashley Spires. A wonderful title about a girl trying to invent something new only to fail over and over. Frustration sets in, but so does inspiration.

Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover (Clarion) by Josh Schneider. What happens when your pet pup destroys your favorite toy? A maker makeover, that’s what!

The Mermaid and the Shoe (Kids Can) by K.G. Campbell Problem solving sometimes means working outside your comfort zone. In this book, a youngest sister discovers that her true talents lie in exploration, discovery, and storytelling.


African American ballerinas live their dreams

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey, illus. by Floyd Cooper (Philomel)

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illus. by Christopher Myers (Putnam)

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illus. by Frank Morrison (Random)


Trains are meant for dramatic chase sequences

The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove (Viking)

The Blood Guard by Carter Roy (Two Lions)

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel (S. & S.)

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson (Delacorte)


Carnivorous trees

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey (Putnam)

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier (Abrams)

The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne (HarperCollins)

This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird (fusenumber8@gmail.com) is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and blogs at “A Fuse #8 Production” on SLJ ’s website. Her last feature for the magazine, “Betsy Goes to Bologna” ( July 2011), offered a bird’s-eye view of the world’s largest kids’ book fair.

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  1. I noticed your comment about the need for middle grade books featuring Latino boys. The main character in my recent middle grade verse novel Mountain Dog is Cuban-American.

  2. I love your opening comment about avoiding the “trendy” label. Your thoughts and observations on trends both current and yet to come, are interesting and useful for all to consider. I too encourage being aware of what’s going on (it’s kind of a must in our biz) but remaining true to your own voice and style is important. I still believe that there are publishers out there who will notice a good story and good art and present it to the public even when it’s not with the trend.

  3. Cassie @ For the Art of It says:

    I’m claiming the old adage: there are no stupid questions.
    When you use the term sentient cheese, what does that mean? I feel like I’ve heard this term before, but I am not really connecting with what it refers to (which does indeed, make me feel stupid). Thanks!

  4. Thank you for your comprehensive overview, Betsy. I’d like to add one area about which you’ve previously written, as well. I believe size diversity is still underrepresented appropriately in children’s and middle grade literature is size diversity. Assumptions that children of a certain size or weight are “over” eaters and “under” exercisers is common, particularly in picture books and middle grade fiction. I hope to be able to change that, but I believe it’s important to acknowledge the current situation.

    • I like to help kids who are larger than our norm with novels like
      Larger-than-life Lara by Dandi Mackall. Popular book in my middle school library!