If you loved Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny as a parent or child, you’re already familiar with the work of author Margaret Wise Brown. But did you know that Hollins University (her alma mater) hosts a prize in her name? The Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature is awarded to the best picture book text published the previous year, and publishers send their very best picture books for consideration, providing an interesting dataset from which to study changing trends in children’s literature and offering a snapshot of shifting literary values.

Typically, Hollins University hosts a Picture Book Trends workshop for aspiring writers and critics as part of the curation process; however, since the intensive could not take place during the pandemic, three years’ worth of book submissions needed curating. As founder of the workshop, I headed to the Hollins campus this summer to do just that. There were 602 books in total: 222 from 2020, 132 from 2021 (in the thick of the pandemic), and 248 from 2022. I read all 602 books in a week and observed interesting shifts in the categories—some new themes, some growing in popularity, and some diminishing.

Some themes in children’s literature never go out of style, of course, like friendship, nature, new siblings, etc. However, the number of books in each category can noticeably change from year to year. New themes can also emerge, like the LGBTQ+ category (more on that below). Since most picture books take two years to be produced, trends appear on a delayed schedule; however, obvious patterns can’t be denied.

Several themes dominate children’s books with little change in annual numbers, such as anthropomorphized animals. Cute animals are often used as stand-ins for humans, circumventing the need to identify race or gender (although, most animal characters remain male). Child/elder (grandparent) relationships is another longstanding theme, but the sheer number of books in this category increased remarkably—perhaps as our population ages and baby boomer numbers grow. Another prevalent theme is loss, such as the death of an elderly relative or a pet. Stories about losing a grandparent, for instance, are often set in gardens as an analogy for the cycle of life. A notable book about the loss of a pet in this category was the MWB Prize Honor book, The Longest Letsgoboy, written by Derick Wilder, illustrated by Cátia Chien (Chronicle, 2021)—keep your tissues nearby.

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 emerged as a thematic trend in 2021 in books about frontline workers, isolation/lockdown, and online education; a good example was Brian Floca’s Keeping the City Going (Atheneum, 2021). Meanwhile, there was a marked increase in self-help, mindfulness, and mental wellness books in response to our more anxious generation—these topics have moved into the mainstream. Likewise, there was a marked increase in books about home, especially in 2022, as we endured isolation. One novelty book lampooned our home-bound, online buying obsession. The Gift Inside the Box, written by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, illustrated by Diana Schoenbrun (Dial, 2019), features a runaway delivery box—a topic that grew in relevance during the pandemic.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BLM appear to be having a positive impact on publishing, as there was stronger Black representation throughout the submissions. There were several slave histories; however, Black protagonists also starred in a growing number of stories about regular modern life. For example, several books embraced Black hair as a source of connection, empowerment, and love. Meanwhile, there was a remarkable increase in biographies of underrepresented people—primarily women and BIPOC. This category is simply exploding.

Several other categories grew noticeably, such as books with multicultural, transgender, disability, and climate change themes. Multicultural books represent stories from a wide number of countries, religions, and cultures, including refugee experiences, such as the 2022 MWB Prize winner Wishes, written by Vietnamese author Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai (Orchard Books, 2021). Alternatively, it was exciting to create a new LGBTQ+ category for the growing number of transgender-themed books. There were also more books about disabilities and/or neurodivergent characters, normalizing real, lived experiences, while educating readers how to better interact with these individuals. With growing understanding around climate change, there was a noticeable increase each year in nature books, such as the MWB 2020 Honor Book One Dark Bird, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (Beach Lane, 2019). These books promote empathy in our youngest readers who will inherit our changing environment. Meanwhile, books about libraries and books themselves increased—again, perhaps because we turned towards solitary, home-bound activities like reading.

While some categories grew in number, other decreased, such as sports, politics, and transportation. Perhaps there were fewer sports books because children couldn’t play together during the pandemic, while the few there were combined sports with music, dance, or ballet. There was a surprising lack of politically themed books compared to previous years, considering our tumultuous political times. Another missing theme was transportation or things that go vroom. Boy-centric, vehicle books are either dropping in production, were not considered prize-worthy, or are changing. But again, Covid may have affected this category.

Meanwhile, some categories nearly disappeared. “First day of school” books were scarce in 2022, as online learning essentially wiped out the experience. One exception was the Vietnamese tale My First Day, written and illustrated by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên (Make Me a World, 2021), in which a child takes a boat along the Mekong Delta for the first time by himself on his way to school. Alternatively, space-themed books grew with the anniversary of the Mars Rover Perseverance, but nearly disappeared afterwards.

Three years’ worth of book submissions to the MWB Prize was a lot to sort through in one week, but it made the changes in the number of books in each thematic category even more obvious to observe. It will be interesting to see how trends in picture books change going forward.

Dr. e (Elizabeth) Dulemba is an illustrator, author, teacher, and speaker, as well as visiting associate professor in the Children’s Literature and Illustration graduate programs at Hollins University and program director of illustration at Winthrop University.