Book trends, diversity, and what middle-grade and YA readers were really reaching for in 2015 were among the topics of discussion during a Children’s Book Council forum on March 1 at Penguin Random House. The panelists included Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music, with locations in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Nikki Mutch, district sales manager, Scholastic Inc.; and Allie Bruce, children’s librarian, Bank Street College of Education. Alison Morris, senior director of collection development and merchandising at First Book, served as moderator.
The panelists kicked off the discussion by listing some of the children’s books that flew off the shelves in 2015. For Mutch, Alex Gino’s George (Scholastic Press), about a transgender fourth-grader, was “the biggest standout,” adding that she felt booksellers were “ready for the challenge” of hand-selling a book that so honestly deals with a complex topic. “Overwhelmingly, buyers embraced this book,” she said.
Hermans agreed that George was very significant. “It was the right book at the right time,” she said. Readers, parents, and booksellers “were ready to have that conversation together.” She also added that bestsellers for 2015 included the “usual suspects, but less so” than in past years. Other well-performing titles were The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin) and The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Candlewick). The book’s hybrid chapter book/picture book format (not to mention a “kick-butt girl”) hit a sweet spot for many middle graders. She also commented that, overall, YA, middle grade, and board books saw the most growth at Oblong in 2015.
Bruce found that The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (Delacorte) strongly appealed to a group of fourth-grade readers she worked with last year at the library. And, while she believes that “it didn’t get past a lot of adult barriers” because it was seen as a light read, The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh (Little, Brown) was a huge hit with kids. She thinks the appeal partially has to do with the book’s integration of “fun food and fun recipes” directly into the story.
It’s something that Mutch has noticed first-hand: readers respond differently to reading when they are allowed to select their own books. She often explains to parents that they are “building a lifelong reader by letting them choose what they want to read.”
When speaking to a parent about a child’s reluctance to read, Bruce often gently turns the focus back on the parent: “When was the last time you curled up with a book and didn’t do anything else in a place where your child could see you?” she’ll ask. And she also walks the walk. Whenever a group of kids comes into the library, she makes a point to always be reading herself – and she pretends to be “very annoyed” when she’s interrupted. At the library, kids are also provided Do Not Disturb signs, which they can use when they are immersed in books of their own choosing.
When given the opportunity to choose their books, kids often gravitate toward graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, Hermans said. But at the bookstore, she continues to see some resistance on the part of parents. She attempts to squelch this mindset by telling them things like: “They are fantastic for visual literacy!” Bruce also sees a great deal of enthusiasm for graphic memoirs like Cece Bell’s El Deafo (Abrams) and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (Scholastic/Graphix). “Kids love them,” she said.
The panelists also reported seeing fewer books marketed at specific genders and generally more willingness among kids to reach for a book that in the past that they might have dismissed because it was seen as more “for girls” or “for boys.” Bruce pointed out Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial) as a prime example of a book that holds strong appeal across genders.
And more and more, kids are reaching for books with diverse characters. “It was a constant struggle” to find and hand-sell diverse books until this year,” Mutch said. She believes that there has been a true awakening to the fact that “we need to be better about this. This is the world we live in and these are the kinds of books kids should be reading.” She noted that books like Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper and Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death (both from Scholastic/Levine) drew attention from readers of all backgrounds throughout last year.
The impact of Black Lives Matter and We Need Diverse Books has been significant, the speakers agreed. “I have seen increased sales” of diverse books, Hermans said. However, she isn’t certain whether buyers are making conscious decisions to buy such books, or if there are simply “so many more to choose from.”
After discussing the importance of reading outside readers’ comfort zones with kids, Bruce will sometimes receive “stream of consciousness emails” from kids. One girl confessed how she realized that she was only reading books about white girl characters and wanted to let Bruce know that she was now reading Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. This “leaning into discomfort” is what she feels people of all ages must embrace.
If 2015 was the year of “diversity” in children’s books, Morris asked the panelists, what do they hope to see in 2016? For Hermans, she would like to see a “swing back to fantasy books” from the recent trend of more contemporary realism. Also, adventure stories for middle-grade readers, particularly with female characters. Mutch is thinking less in terms of new books and more about backlist titles. She’d like 2016 to be “the year of the rediscovered book.” With so many new books being published, it can be easy to forget about those that did not receive all of the attention that they might have deserved: “We can be really quick to turn the page,” she said. And for Bruce, it’s more diversity, which she hopes is not “a trend, the way dystopia or vampires are.” What she’d most like to see is a book featuring “a transgender kid of color – deliver, please,” she implored the audience of publishers.