A librarian, bookseller, and publishing professional gathered to discuss 2016 children’s book sales and reading trends at a Children’s Book Council Forum held at Penguin Random House on March 2. The speakers were Erin Berger, v-p, creative marketing director, Penguin Random House; Cristin Stickles, children’s and YA buyer, McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan; and Chantalle Uzan, senior young adult librarian, New York Public Library. Matthew Baldacci, director of business development at Shelf Awareness, moderated.

The panelists dove into the discussion by remarking on 2016 trends and their expectations for 2017, as well as the types of books that they feel might be missing from library and bookstore shelves. One of the trends that Stickles observed in 2016 was a strong interest in books that she described as “emotional tool kits”: titles that address readers’ emotional or psychological well-being by focusing on empathy, anxiety, and related topics. The book In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey, was the bestselling picture book last year in Stickles’s store last year. Another picture book that addresses anxiety, Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi, was very popular at McNally Jackson. Berger similarly observed a need for books that deal with empathy, naming books like Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama series and Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street as ones that are consistently in demand.

At the Francis Martin Library in the Bronx, Uzan has observed many parents seeking out books that focus on sight words that align with grade level requirements, as outlined in the Common Core standards. She also continues to see a thirst among readers for books that feature authentic voices representing diverse experiences. Serving an international community of library patrons in the Bronx, she finds readers want quality stories that better represent their own realities. From Uzan’s perspective, there continues to be a dearth of relatable non-white characters: “It’s something we think about and we look for,” she said. Uzan also hopes to see diverse books being better integrated into bookstore and libraries, rather than being categorized as different because they feature diverse characters. When it comes to exposing more kids to books featuring characters from backgrounds unlike their own, Uzan suggested: “Don’t be afraid. Just throw it at them,” she said.

On the Rise: YA Horror

For older readers, Berger is noticing an uptick in interest in the horror genre, a trend that she predicts may continue in 2017. She noted, however, that past predictions of a teen horror boom have not always come to fruition. Stickles believes that Berger may be spot-on in her prediction, though. Citing an essay by Stephen King called Why We Crave Horror Movies and other studies, Stickles noted that people tend to be drawn toward horror stories “during times of national crisis.” Since the election, Stickles has encountered a definite “atmosphere of hopelessness” at the bookstore, made evident through the reading trends she has observed. That classic dystopian fiction like 1984 is flying off the shelves serves as a case in point. The gravitation toward monster or zombie fiction suggests to her that, when facing overwhelming life circumstances, readers sometimes seek out an “external monster or a conquerable monster,” the type that one can find in the pages of horror novels.

Yet, it’s not all zombies and vintage dystopia. At McNally Jackson, readers are also gravitating toward books centered on teen activism, like Chelsea Clinton’s It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going! In what she called a “productively spiteful” act, Stickles saw many people purchase copies of Who Is Hillary Clinton? (part of the Who Was? series) even after the election. Debbie Levy’s picture book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, is also a consistent seller. Additionally, books addressing moments of revolutionary history are big, and patrons have recently been drawn toward the store’s refugee displays of pertinent titles. Uzan commented that, in regards to the political unrest in the country, “the kids are aware.” She has had children from immigrant families speak to her directly about their fears, asking: “Am I going to be able to stay here?” She added that “no one is really taking the time to explain it to them.”

Graphic Novels Going Strong

Beyond the influence of politics on reading choices, the panelists agreed that graphic novels for young readers are dramatically on the rise. Calling it the “fastest growing, best performing category” for McNally Jackson, Stickles is increasingly devoting more shelf and floor space to the titles. Graphic novels are a significant draw for readers at the Francis Martin Library, where Uzan struggles to get potential readers to turn away from the computers and take an interest in the books. Graphic novels, she said, often serve as the “missing link” between on-screen engagement and immersion in a print book.

Uzan, who noted that the graphic novel category is “not going away and is only getting stronger,” still observes resistance among some parents, particularly among some of the immigrant communities she serves, who may not yet associate graphic novels with serious reading. Graphic novels that the panelists observed were of particular interest to readers in 2016 included Hope Larson’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters, the Babysitters Club series, and the Lumberjanes series. With its visual storytelling, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret has also been popular among library patrons. Uzan also noted that “light novels,” which are text-only novels that are based on comics and that expand upon different aspects of the storylines and characters, are a draw for many kids at the library.

In other trend news, Stickles reported that board books continue to sell well, in part, she believes, because “everybody knows a baby, but not everyone knows an eight-year-old.” She also commented that she has been pleasantly surprised to see that there’s “no price resistance for board books” among patrons.

In closing, the panelists addressed how best to draw readers into bookstores and libraries, and ways that publishers, librarians, and booksellers can work together to build community in 2017 and beyond. Berger believes that providing “exclusive, in-store experiences” that can’t be replicated is key to drawing readers to bookstores, adding that nothing beats word of mouth when it comes to building interest in a book or event: “Word of mouth is the magic thing,” she said. Uzan emphasized the importance of having more books and promotional materials that better represent her library’s patrons. There are currently no general-interest bookstores in the Bronx, after the closing of Barnes & Noble last year, making the library all the more critical for the community. In addition to “finding authors who can tell their stories” and publishing them, Uzan hopes that publishers can provide more author visits in the future: “Kids freak out when you send us authors,” she said.