As in past years, the PNBA trade show emphasized diversity, not just in the authors it invites and booksellers and librarians who attend the show, but also in its educational programming. The three-day conference, which took place from October 6–8 in Portland, Ore., kicked off with a session on diverse and inclusive kids’ books, called “What’s Next: New Children’s/YA Books to Celebrate Diversity and Empathy.”

Moderated by Melissa Hart, author of a resource guide on 500 diverse books for teens and tweens, Better with Books (Sasquatch), the session highlighted diverse and inclusive titles that are out now or due next spring, which were selected by Madeline Shier, new book buyer at Powell’s Books in Portland, and Sarah Hutton, co-owner of Village Books and Paper Dreams in Bellingham, Wash. “I wrote Better with Books,” said Hart, “because of all the studies showing an increase in children with anxiety and depression.” She was also driven to put together the guide because of studies showing increased empathy from reading books.

Issue and Trauma Books

But the kinds of books that kids need today, Hart said, are different from those popular when many in the room were growing up. “I really feel that the time for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is past,” Hart continued, referring to Judy Blume’s popular novel, which was originally published in 1970. She also said that 1980s issue books, which lack intersectionality, are no longer relevant for today’s kids.

“I am really thrilled that we’re moving away from the capital ‘I’ issue books and capital ‘T’ trauma books,” Shier added. She pointed to books such as Rebecca Kim Wells’s Shatter the Sky (S&S), which the author introduced at Children’s Institute, as her “angry bisexual dragon book,” which follows in the tropes of fantasy books. In a similar vein, Shier singled out Rebecca Roanhorse’s Race to the Sun (Disney/Rick Riordan Presents, Jan. 2020) and Patrice Caldwell’s collection of 16 stories of black girl magic, A Phoenix First Must Burn (Viking, Mar.).

In From the Desk of Zoe Washington (HarperCollins/Tegen, Jan.), Janae Mars is able to “toggle contemporary issues [Zoe’s birth father is incarcerated] without the issue being the main character,” said Shier. The main character in Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely (Bloomsbury), a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,”has cerebral palsy, but it’s not a challenge. This trend, said Shier, is even pushing into graphic novels with [Kat Leyn’s Snapdragon (First Second, Feb.), about a girl who befriends the town witch.

“I do love sports books,” said Hutton. “But I particularly love women’s sports.” She chose Elle of the Ball (S&S) by WNBA MVP and Olympic gold medalist Elena Delle Donne as her first selection because of its “fish out of water feeling.” That’s a sensation that Hutton thinks that anyone can relate to. Similarly, Hutton termed Celia Pérez’s Strange Birds (Kokila), about four kids who form an alternative scout troop, as “pretty darn great.” Also on her list of favorites were: No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen (Random House/Lamb), whom she regards as “one of the most unrecognized authors writing today”; Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (Atheneum), whose son has cerebral palsy; the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins); and Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim (Kokila, Mar.).

Queer Books

Topping the list of Shier’s LGBT titles for kids were Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath (Dial), “a really fabulous book” set largely in Portland, which was originally published independently by the hybrid Riverdale Avenue Books; and Junauda Petrus’s The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (Dutton). Noting that she’s seeing more YA books explore a number of identities, Shier cited Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best (Scholastic/Push) and his upcoming The Ghosts We Keep (Scholastic Press, late 2020).

“We’re also seeing queer scale down to middle grade,” said Shier, adding, “People treat queer as sexual content in a way that we don’t see heterosexual. It’s not inherently true.” Some of the books that skew younger include Maiden & Princess by Daniel Haack and Isabel Galupo (Little Bee), with art by Becca Human; and When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita (Lee & Low), about a transgender boy preparing for the arrival of his younger brother.

On the graphic novel front, Shier recommended the second book in Ngozi Ukazu’s Check Please series, Sticks and Stones (First Second, Apr.), about an openly gay NHL player, as well as Wait, What? (Limerence Press), a comic book guide to changing bodies by Heather Corina and Isabella Rotman, colored by Luke Howard.

“My grandson is the test case for reading picture books,” said Hutton. “I feel it’s my duty to not only give him cis white books.” Among her current favorite picture books are: Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson’s Just in Case You Want to Fly (Holiday House/Porter), which was named the 2019 BuzzBook at the trade show; The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly (Little, Brown); Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival (Bloomsbury); and Sulwe by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (S&S).

A few other titles that Hutton mentioned that didn’t necessarily fit into the categories in the panel, but earned her top accolade of “freakin’ great” include Brittney Morris’s YA debut SLAY (Simon Pulse), an Indies Introduce and a Junior Library Guild selection; Ruta Sepetys’s The Fountains of Silence (Philomel); and A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor (HarperCollins/Tegen, Feb.). “If she rewrote a phone book, I would read it,” said Hutton. She also gave a shout out to Mildred D. Taylor’s All the Days Past, All the Days to Come (Viking, Jan.), the final chapter in the saga of the Logan family.

Picking the Books

In response to an audience question on what tools Hutton and Shier use to evaluate the books, both noted that they read as many reviews as possible. Bur Hutton also talks to friends and family and asks them to read books. For Shier, “It’s sort of where the #OwnVoice hashtag comes from. Does this person belong to the community they’re writing about?” The main problem for both booksellers is the amount of leg work that it can entail.

The audience also called out some of their favorites: Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves (Wednesday Books) and Nicole Panteleakos’s Planet Earth Is Blue (Random House/Lamb). Heather Doss at HarperCollins recommended a book about Pakistani-American teens, Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, which was originally published in hardcover last year and is being reissued in paperback in 2020.

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