What do the children’s classics “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh and “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats have in common?
At one time, they all were considered revolutionary — “Little Women” because it presented a (for the time) realistic slice of family life, “Harriet the Spy” and “Where the Wild Things Are” because they portray children in conflict with their parents, and “The Snowy Day” because an African-American child is the main character.
Welcome to the big bold universe of children’s literature, which is still and forever evolving. The Tribune recently caught up with experts in the field to comment on current trends.
“Everyone from publishers to authors to booksellers are talking about and working toward making books more inclusive,” says author Shannon Hale. This means that more books by and about people of color are being published.
Margaret Neville, children’s book buyer for The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, points to writers like Jewel Parker Rhodes, Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander and Matt de la Peña, whose voices, she says, “deserve to be read and heard.”
“Diversity” isn’t just code for “race.” Literary agent Amy Jameson sees an uptick in novels about young people, such as August Pullman, who are “differently abled.” August is the main character of the megahit “Wonder,” which tells the story of a boy with severe facial abnormalities who is mainstreamed for the first time in the local elementary school.
Jameson also points to the publication of books promoting female empowerment—fiction and nonfiction that show girls discovering their strengths and defying stereotypes in the process.
Nathan Spofford, a children’s literature instructor at Westminster College, agrees, noting that biographies about women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Margaret Bourke-White have been very popular, along with collections such as “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” and “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.”
One of the most exciting developments in the world of children’s literature has been the ongoing explosion of nonfiction titles. Gene Nelson, director of the Provo City Library and chairman of the 2017 Newbery Committee, says this: ”Incredible informational books are becoming more visible and integral in the field. The STEM emphasis has certainly influenced the production of these titles. Stellar writing and quality illustrations, photographs and graphics have made this genre increasingly approachable and important.”
Graphic novels have experienced a similar surge in popularity, in part (as Hale notes) because of their “priceless accessibility” for so many readers.
Spofford singles out Nathan Hale’s terrific Hazardous Tales series, which explores famous historical episodes, for praise. He also admires the ongoing contributions to the genre by writers like Raina Telgemeier (author of “Drama,” “Sisters” and “Smile”) and Dav Pilkey (author of the very funny “Dogman” series). Graphic novels have been so popular, in fact, that older novels like “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle and “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman now appear in graphic form.
All the respondents view these developments as good things. Still, they have wish lists — things they’d like to see more of and things (frankly) they’d like to see less of.
Neville says she’d love to see stories about people of color where race isn’t the central issue. She’d also like to see more good historical fiction like “The War That Saved My Life” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys. Jameson agrees, saying she wants to see “publishers taking more chances on creative historical fiction.” She’d also be happy to find more smartly written “clean teen” fiction available on the shelves for readers ages 10-14.
Hale, who is a devotee of graphic novels and has written several herself including the autobiographical “Real Friends,” says she would love to see more graphic novels published “for the 7-10-year-old set, as well as more graphic novels generally created by people of color.”
What might be out?
What would these experts like to see less of when it comes to books written for young readers? Dystopian fiction, for one thing. Nelson also jokes he’d like to see fewer young-adult novels featuring love triangles, although he isn’t holding his breath.
Hale, who passionately resists labeling novels as “girl books” and “boy books,” says she wishes adults would stop “shaming boys for caring about female characters.”
“Girls grow up reading and watching stories about boys,” she continues, “yet we try to ‘protect’ boys from empathizing with girls. Give them books about girls! Take them to movies about girls! It’s better and happier for everyone.”
Spofford would like to see fewer picture books that rhyme. “Dr. Seuss gets away with it, but most other books lose their credibility immediately in sing-song verse.”
Neville, who combs through endless lists of titles each new season, says she’d like to see “less of everything” in a market that can feel saturated. “I wish that publishers would devote more of their precious time to finding, editing and supporting well-written, good books” instead of rushing to put so many new books out there.
Overall, those involved with children’s books are optimistic about what they’re seeing. Says Nelson, who read literally hundreds of books while serving on the 2017 Newbery committee: “I’m pretty happy with the balance of books coming out. Readers of children’s lit can find great new books in all areas of the field.”
PICKS FOR THE NEW YEAR
Our experts were happy to share some of their favorite titles of the past few years. Recommended titles include the following:
Picture books (children 3-7 years old)
• “The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” by Michelle Cuevas
• “When Green Becomes Tomatoes” by Julie Fogliano
• “We Are Growing” by Laurie Keller
• “Finding Wild” by Megan Wagner Lloyd
• “They All Saw Cat” by Brendan Wenzel
• “Henry and Leo” by Pamela Zagarenski
• “Freedom Over Me” by Ashley Bryan
• “The Princess and the Warrior” by Duncan Tontiuh
• “Life on Mars” by Jon Agee
• “Laundry Day” by Jessica Baxley
• “The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse” by Mac Barnett
• “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors” by Drew Daywalt
Transitional (emerging readers)
• The Dory Fantasmagory series by Abby Hanlon
Middle grade (ages 7-12)
• “Wolf Hollow” by Lauren Wolk
• “Beyond the Bright Sea” by Lauren Wolk
• “Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate
• “The Inquisitor’s Tale” by Adam Gidwitz
• “The Wild Robot” by Peter Brown
• “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” by Kelly Barnhill
• “When You Meet Me” by Rebecca Stead
• “Hour of the Bees” by Lindsay Eager
• “Summerlost” by Ally Condie
Young adult (12 and up)
• “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
• “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo
• “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit
• “Refugee” by Alan Gratz
• “All’s Faire in Middle School” by Victoria Jamieson
• “Yvain: The Knight of the Lion” by M.T. Anderson
• “Vincent and Theo: the Van Gogh Brothers” by Deborah Heiligman
• “Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West” by Candace Fleming
• “Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet
• “Symphony for the City of the Dead” by M.T. Anderson
• “The Plot to Kill Hitler” by Patricia McCormick