Relationships. Identity. New Beginnings. What SLJ’s Starred 2022 Books Reveal About Trends in Children’s and YA Publishing

Themes in this year’s stellar works of fiction for children and teens.

Relationships. Identity. New beginnings. These perennial themes, and others, are all present in this year’s stellar works of fiction for children and teens. Central to these stories are characters learning to navigate the world around them and discover their place in it.

Nonfiction highlights moments and events of significance and encourages readers to reflect on how they would respond in similar moments or circumstances. It centers people who have left their mark, often after overcoming huge obstacles. Other informational titles examine contemporary issues as they explore solutions. That these themes and subjects are revisited with fresh approaches and innovative styling attests to the originality, creativity, and respect for readers that authors and illustrators of children’s literature bring to the field every year.

You’ll find that talent in full gear in some of the topics and trends that have emerged from SLJ’s 2022 star lists thus far.

Earth day, every day

From rising temperatures to the increasing number of catastrophic storms, the message is clear: Unless we work together to effect change, the future of life on this planet is at risk. Through story, children and teens can learn about the forces that cause climate change and individual and collective actions that they can take toward creating a healthier, more sustainable planet.

For the very young, Lucy Cousins’s A Good Place (Candlewick) introduces the concepts of conservation and habitat preservation as it follows four bugs in search of a safe home. For early elementary students, there’s Remy Lai’s graphic “Surviving the Wild” series entries, Rainbow the Koala and Star the Elephant (both Holt). These titles, inspired by real-life events, present young animals experiencing food and shelter insecurity due to environmental destruction and challenges, including deforestation, rising temperatures, and forest fires.

Focusing on the connection between emotions and the natural world, Nature and Me (The School of Life), illustrated by Tyla Mason, provides insight into the rewards of outdoor adventures. Through images, questions, and prompts, upper elementary readers can explore the lessons the natural world offers and connect them to their own lives and well-being. Anita Ganeri’s picture book biography Forest Fighter (Interlink/Crocodile), illustrated by Margaux Carpentier, considers the life and legacy of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes and his work to protect the Amazon rain forest and the rights of exploited rubber tappers. Rebecca E. Hirsch's Where Have All the Birds Gone? (Twenty-First Century), for teens, examines how climate change is leading to the dwindling numbers, death, and extinction of birds around the world (a whopping 30 percent since 1970), and relates what scientists are doing to save them.


Social-emotional learning (SEL) encourages social and self-awareness, positive and collaborative relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Its emphasis on such competencies as developing empathy, mindfulness, and managing emotions makes SEL-relevant titles classroom staples. John Hare’s wordless picture book Field Trip to Volcano Island (Holiday House/Margaret Ferguson) features a scene of delightfully unexpected camaraderie when a child picking flowers encounters friendly lava monsters. Educators will also be interested in Deborah Marcero’s picture book Out of a Jar (Putnam). Sweet little bunny Llewellyn literally tries to hide his big emotions, shoving them into jars, but learns feelings are meant to be felt, shared, and managed. Community and compassion take center stage in Refiloe Moahloli’s picture book I Am You (Amazon Crossing), illustrated by Zinelda McDonald. Here readers are introduced to the concept of ubuntu, found in many African cultures, which emphasizes individual value through connection and community.

Perfect for the elementary school classroom, Letters to Live By (Running Pr.) by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough, illustrated by Asa Gilland, is an alphabet book that focuses on intention and mindfulness, and encourages choices and values that demonstrate compassion and kindness. For middle school students, Deborah Ellis’s short story collection Step (Groundwood) features characters around the world on their 11th birthdays, their differences and commonalities, urging connection, empathy, and solidarity.

Spotlighting women

Among the many biographies singled out this year are stories about the groundbreaking achievements of women, including a few that may be unfamiliar to readers. Ablaze with Color (HarperCollins), a picture book written by Jeanne Walker Harvey and illustrated by Loveis Wise, explores the creativity, persistence, and accomplishments of Alma Thomas, an African American educator and artist who broke racial barriers in the art world.

Ruth Sanderson delves into the life of a queer nonconformist in A Storm of Horses (Interlink/Crocodile). This picture book for upper elementary grades highlights the 19th-century French artist Rosa Bonheur, a superb realistic painter known for her depiction of animals. A middle grade biography told through verse, Hidden Powers (Atheneum) by Jeannine Atkins tackles the complex legacy of Lise Meitner, a pioneering Jewish physicist working during the World War II era. Meitner played a major role in the discovery of nuclear fission, which led to the creation of the nuclear bomb.

Ibi Zoboi’s Star Child (Dutton), for middle and high school readers, looks at the life of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Zoboi employs verse, prose, sketches, and newspaper clippings to explore Butler’s younger years, influences, and legacy. Emily Dickinson is the subject of Quiet Fire (Twenty-First Century) by Carol Dommermuth-Costa and Anna Landsverk. The authors examine the life and relationships of the enigmatic, iconic 19th-century poet and present interpretations of her work for a new generation of YA readers.

Verse novels, here to stay

Novels in verse are a powerful and increasingly popular storytelling format. Often character-driven and addressing deeply emotional topics, these titles feature strong, intimate narrative voices and a range of poetic forms and techniques. In Jane Kuo’s heartfelt In the Beautiful Country (HarperCollins/Quill Tree), set in 1980, middle schooler Ai Shi, or Anna, and her family move from Taiwan to California. But the United States isn’t the beautiful country Anna envisioned; it’s a place where the girl experiences bullying, racism, and alienation. In Ashley Woodfolk’s YA Nothing Burns as Bright as You (Clarion/Versify), an unnamed narrator recounts the toxic relationship between two African American girls, a relationship that burns hot and consumes everything in its path.

In another YA story of first love, Robin Gow’s A Million Quiet Revolutions (Farrar), two transgender teens, one Puerto Rican and one white and Jewish, forge a deep connection as they dig into the lives of trans Revolutionary War soldiers and adopt the soldiers’ names, Aaron and Oliver.

Kip Wilson takes YA readers to 1930s Germany in The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (HarperCollins/Versify). There, Hilde, a queer, white 18-year-old, discovers found family and independence when she begins working at a local cabaret. In a nonfiction work for older readers, poet Marilyn Nelson uses verse to tell the life story of acclaimed African American sculptor Augusta Savage (Little, Brown/Christy Ottaviano), an important Harlem Renaissance figure.

Systemic and social in/justice

Increasingly, books for all ages address critical social justice, exploring the realities of these issues and avenues to make a positive impact. The titles here will
encourage readers to reflect on their own experiences and can be used to spark important conversations, challenge bias, and build empathy and awareness.

For young children, Taye Diggs’s timely picture book Why? (Feiwel & Friends), illustrated by Shane W. Evans, shows marginalized children and adults in conversations about race and protests. Middle grade Omar Rising (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen) by Aisha Saeed tackles power dynamics and class inequities at a prestigious boarding school in Pakistan. Omar, a scholarship student, is held to rigorous standards, different from those of his affluent classmates. Kristen R. Lee’s YA Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman (Crown) portrays the story of Savannah, who is Black and attending a primarily white elite college. Racism, classism, and microaggressions abound on campus as the young woman struggles to decide if she should just get through her time there speak out and demand change.

In Ruby Yayra Goka’s YA Even When Your Voice Shakes (Norton), Amerley, a seemingly powerless young woman in Ghana, finds the courage to speak out about her sexual assault at the hands of her wealthy employer’s son. Amerley eventually testifies in court in this moving look at community, poverty, class, power, and resilience. Michael Eric Dyson and Marc Favreau’s nonfiction Unequal (Little, Brown) examines the long history of U.S. racial inequality. Writing for middle grade and YA audiences, the authors consider how structural racism has permeated American society and profile African Americans who have created change.

Classic reimaginings

Classics get a reboot in 2022 retellings, bringing diversity and modern twists to familiar tales. Emily X.R. Pan’s YA An Arrow to the Moon (Little, Brown) infuses Romeo and Juliet with Chinese mythology; specifically, the tale of the god and goddess Houyi and Chang’e. Set in the U.S. in 1991, Arrow tells the story of Hunter Yee and Luna Chang, who fall for each other despite their Taiwanese and Chinese immigrant parents’ rivalry.

Jessie Burton’s haunting Medusa (Bloomsbury), illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill, puts a feminist spin on the myth of Medusa and Perseus. This YA novel recounts brown-skinned Medusa’s experiences seeking independence and connection on her own terms. And Leslie Vedder takes on “Sleeping Beauty,” but swaps the protagonists’ genders in The Bone Spindle (Penguin/Razorbill), for grades seven and up. Prince Briar Rose is afflicted with cursed sleep, and it’s up to Lady Fi, a treasure hunter, and a queer huntswoman, Shane, to break the spell.

Things get messy quickly when a girl (Sam) and her ex-boyfriend (Christian) unexpectedly fall for the same girl (Ros) in Rachel Roasek’s YA rom-com Love Somebody (Farrar). Channeling Cyrano de Bergerac, Sam coaches Christian on wooing Ros, manipulating matters along the way, but ends up enamored of the girl she once resented. Clocking in at 92 pages, Laurel Snyder and Dan Santat’s delightful picture book, Endlessly Ever After (Chronicle), allows readers to choose their own path to classic fairy-tale endings.

Perspectives on history

Histories not often told made SLJ’s star list, including two middle grade novels that share a World War II setting. L.M. Elliott’s Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen) covers that well-trodden ground, but locates the story in coastal Virginia. Thirteen-year-old Louisa June longs to help the war effort while Nazi U-boats
attack cargo ships along the coast. Katrina Nannestad’s We Are Wolves (Atheneum) tells the story of three Wolfskinder—German children separated from their families or orphaned—and their harrowing experiences trying to survive in East Prussia at the end of the war.

Alexis Castellanos’s wordless middle grade graphic novel, Isla to Island (Atheneum), recounts the journey of Marisol, sent from Cuba to the United States in Operation Peter Pan, a program to relocate Cuban minors during the Cuban Revolution. As Marisol adjusts to her life in New York City, she finds comfort in the library, nature, and the Cuban food her American hosts learn to cook.

Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is the setting for Katherine Locke’s YA novel This Rebel Heart (Knopf). Holocaust survivor Csilla Tisza must decide whether to flee to Israel or fight for liberation. And Ruta Sepetys’s YA novel I Must Betray You (Philomel), set in 1989 Communist Romania, follows Cristian Florescu, grappling with a world on the brink of revolution and forced to be an informant to save someone he loves.

Amanda MacGregor blogs at “Teen Librarian Toolbox.” 


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