Anyone familiar with children’s literature will know that it contains a diverse and fascinating range of characters, ideas, and themes — and that, contrary to popular belief, new trends crop up in kid lit all the time. Though there are some evergreen topics that children will always adore (dinosaurs, candy, and poop jokes, to name a few), kids’ books are just like any other sort of literature in that they reflect what people like to read — and what they believe is important — in a given era.
To that end, we wanted to analyze five of the biggest kid lit trends of 2019 and why they might be having such a “moment.” Aspiring children’s authors, take note: these are the stories that kids, parents, and school librarians are crazy about right now.
1. Stories grappling with sadness
Surprising as it might sound, some of the most popular (and beautifully illustrated) children’s books last year revolved around topics like grief, loneliness, and general ennui. Eva Eland's WHEN SADNESS IS AT YOUR DOOR tackles this with particular aplomb, noting that it’s normal to feel sad for no reason, and better to sit with that sadness awhile than trying to push it away. Jin Xiaojing’s I MISS MY GRANDPA contains a similar message — the main character has never met her grandfather, but rather than diminishing her feelings, her parents help her work through them. MY HEART, by Corinna Luyken, is another strong example of this trend; it focuses less on sadness specifically than on the nuances of overall human emotion, but it’s still quite a sensitive work to which children can deeply relate.
This noticeable increase in books about sadness (a category distinct from “sad books,” for the record) may be due to our collectively improving grasp of children as psychological beings. As a result, though there have long been great children’s books about coping with negative emotions, these 2019 books go above and beyond: acknowledging that sadness is a part of life, and emphasizing that it’s just as important to unpack the causes as it is to find solutions.
2. Confidence-boosting books
Another trend that may stem from our better psychological understanding of children is the recent rise in confidence-boosting kids’ books. After all, it’s easy to look at children — with all their energy, short attention spans, etc. — and think they’re impervious to low confidence, but the truth is that kids struggle with anxiety and self-doubt just as much as adults do.
To combat this, a number of children’s authors in 2019 penned wonderfully confidence-boosting books for children with insecurities. There is Lupita Nyong’o’s SULWE, a deeply moving story about a young black girl who feels self-conscious in her skin before realizing how magical she truly is. (Vashti Harrison’s luminous illustrations leave no doubt for the reader, either — every image of Sulwe in this book is a wonder to behold). There’s also CLICK by Kayla Miller, a stellar middle-grade graphic novel about a girl struggling to find her “talent” for her school’s variety show… until it dawns on her that she’d be the perfect emcee. Finally, there’s Jerry Craft’s NEW KID for those struggling to adapt to a new school, and Michael A. Brown’s WHAT I TELL MYSELF FIRST for all the kids out there who love their self-affirming mantras (or whose parents do, at least).
3. Specific cultural stories
Another encouraging trend we’ve seen recently is children’s literature that details different cultural stories and experiences — therefore enabling kids to engage with these cultures in age-appropriate yet highly meaningful ways. This trend of diverse storytelling certainly emerged earlier than 2019, but continued on a strong note throughout last year with children’s books like BETWEEN US AND ABUELA by Mitali Perkins, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? by Yamile Saied Méndez, and SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS by Renée Watson.
Each of these addresses a specific issue of race, ethnicity, and/or class to enlighten the reader about something they may not have known — from the intrusive questions faced by Mexican immigrants in the U.S. to the long history of the African-American community in Harlem, New York. But make no mistake, these stories aren’t just informative; they’re also richly textured, gorgeously illustrated, and often delightful to read. For a quintessential example of this, check out FRY BREAD by Kevin Noble Maillard, a sweet (no pun intended) picture book about the traditional Native American treat.
4. Female role models
Here’s another children’s lit trend we’ve been seeing for a while, but which really picked up in 2019: kids’ books about female role models, both over the course of history and today. While GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS may have kick-started this trend, last year was a record-breaking one in terms of children’s stories about amazing and accomplished women.
One of the most touching contributions to this corner of books was PARKER LOOKS UP, a picture book based on two-year-old Parker Curry’s awestruck reaction to a gallery portrait of Michelle Obama — demonstrating how vital it is to find role models who look like us, in whom we can literally see ourselves. It was also great to see recognition for some lesser-known women of history, such as surgeon and abolitionist Mary Edwards Walker (MARY WEARS WHAT SHE WANTS, by Keith Negley) and Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in NYC (PLANTING STORIES, by Anika Aldamuy Denise).
But perhaps most heartening of all was RAISE YOUR HAND by Alice Tapper, an eleven-year-old so determined to overcome school shyness that she wrote a whole book for girls just like her. Indeed, it’s a testament to the marvelous impact of all female role models that girls today not only recognize their potential, but also strive to make a difference as soon as they possibly can. With any luck, we’ll see even more work from such promising young women in 2020.
5. Itty-bitty beasties
Let’s end on a fun one: for some reason, 2019 was The Year of Tiny Animals! To be fair, animals (especially of the talking variety) are always popular, but last year seemed to particularly spotlight miniaturized versions of already-adorable critters.
Perhaps most adorable was the titular character of Jonathan Stutzman's TINY T. REX AND THE IMPOSSIBLE HUG, whose arms are tragically too short to share a warm embrace with another dino. (Worry not, reader, he finds a way in the end!) Another teensy star of his own eponymous book, Jean Reidy's TRUMAN is a turtle who must venture into the dangerous city streets after his young owner disappears. There’s also Benji Davies' TAD (releasing in June 2020) a book about an undersized tadpole who can’t wait for her leaping legs to grow in, and WILD HONEY FROM THE MOON, by Kenneth Kraegel, in which a small-but-fearless mother shrew embarks on a fantastical adventure to help her ailing son.
Come to think of it, all these Lilliputian heroes have something crucial in common, something which no doubt appeals to readers of similar stature: strong spirits that allow them to overcome their tiny vessels and accomplish great things. In that sense, our little friends are just as much role models as any of the other characters on this list, even if they might not seem it at first. But after all, such is the nature of children’s books, both in 2019 and beyond: what may seem simple on the surface can convey very powerful ideas that young readers will carry with them forever.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with top-notch self-publishing resources and professionals to help them achieve their dreams. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading, writing, and babysitting — especially when the kids are in the mood to read!
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