By Dr. Elizabeth Dulemba
Once again, this summer I hosted our annual Picture Book Trends workshop at Hollins University. The workshop is built around examining, sorting, and curating books submitted for the annual Margaret Wise Brown Prize, also hosted by the university. The prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year, 2022. (You can see previous winners HERE. If you feel your book would be a strong contender for the prize, please ask your publisher to submit it!) A set of books is sent to each judge, while a separate set goes directly to Hollins for the workshop. (Note, Hollins has no impact on judges’ choices).
The workshop is a rare opportunity to experience complete immersion in the vast array of picture books that are published each year, while they also provide an excellent dataset from which to evaluate trends in children’s publishing and follow how the industry might be responding to our social zeitgeist. During the workshop, all the books are read and sorted into categories (stacks) based on themes such as friendship, biography, nature, multicultural, etc. This allows us to examine rising and falling numbers in the various categories while adding new categories or deleting some. Listing books this way helps our budding creators in our M.F.A. in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating or our Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration programs, who may not be familiar with author/illustrator names, to easily examine comparable titles. For instance, if a student wants to write a book on friendship, they can look at the plethora of books in our “friendship” category to get an idea of what’s already been done and how they might approach the topic anew.
Last year’s research involved three years’ worth of books that had collected during the pandemic—over 600 titles. For 2023, there were 211 books to evaluate. It helps to contextualize how the number of books in each category relate to previous years to form an overview of trends as they are growing or diminishing. Indeed, last year’s observations were published in the article “Covid, Inclusivity, and Mindfulness: Three Years of Picture Book Trends” in Publisher’s Weekly. And while Hollins can’t control which titles are submitted for the prize, examining each year’s book submissions can reveal interesting patterns.
For instance, several beautifully illustrated books showcased Asian Americans returning to their cultural origins in countries such as China, Taiwan, and Korea. Some notable titles included Ten Blocks to the Big Wok: A Chinatown Counting Book by Ying Hwa Hu (Children’s Book Press), and The Best Kind of Mooncake by Pearh Au Yeung (Page). These titles were part of a marked increase in Asian representation. Indeed, this was part of a marked increase in multicultural books overall. There were also quite a few books from India, with our favorite being Namaste is a Greeting by Suma Subramaniam and illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (Candlewick), and My Bindi by Gita Varadarajan, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan (Orchard Books). We were also happy to see an Eastern European book from Ukraine titled I Hate Borsch! by Yevgenia Nayberg (Eerdmans BFYR).
Last year, I wondered if an increase in multicultural human representation might correspond with a diminishing number of anthropomorphized animal representation, as animals are often used as human proxies rather than displaying true diversity. Certainly, specificity seems to be increasing. Within growing BIPOC representation, we saw more specific cultural and geographic population designators, rather than a simplified lumping of “Hispanic” or “Asian” labeling. Of course, it’s impossible to know if this drop in anthropomorphized animals was indeed a causal relationship with the uptick in BIPOC representation, but it was interesting to observe!
The multicultural category consisted of books where culture was the primary theme of the book. Nearby were stacks on Black Lives Matter (BLM), DEI representation, and Native American stories. Happily, there were considerably more books with Native American representation in this year’s submissions. Publishers of these books tended to be smaller houses, so there’s evidently still work to be done to make representation more standard practice. The BLM category was also considerable—these are books about the Black experience and Black pride specifically. Add in the DEI books (books about diversity) and together, there was an enormous increase in books about typically underrepresented experiences.
Physical disabilities and neurodivergent representation also rose. There were more images representing wheelchairs, crutches, and missing limbs in stories that didn’t talk about these differences as specific issues—they just were. Of the two books that represented disabilities specifically, one showed autism and another was about Down Syndrome: Up and Adam by Debbie Zapata and Yong Ling Kang (Kids Can Press).
One of the largest stacks of books was the category of “Mental wellness and feelings” (16); although, despite all the talk about this more anxious generation, only two titles addressed anxiety directly. (If one considers it takes about two years for books to hit the market and Covid began in 2019, perhaps we’ll see more books in this category next year; although surprisingly, there were no books about Covid in particular.) We also saw a lot of fear, joy, and love strongly represented alongside, and in, “Be Yourself” themed books. It was nice to see a book about different body shapes called FRANCIS Discovers Possible by Ashlee Latimer and illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani (Abrams). “Inspirational” was a newly designated category this year with five titles that stood out with inspiration as their main premise; although there were MANY books that we categorized with inspirational themes as a secondary category listing. This was especially true in the three “adventure” themed books.
Ironically, one of the books about anxiety was told through the eyes of a rather advanced robot – perhaps the result of AI (Artificial Intelligence) which is creating a lot of human anxiety right now! (A Case of the Zaps, written by Alex Boniello, April LaValle, illustrated by James Kwan, Abrams.) In fact, there were several books about sentient robots intended to be regarded as friends. Whether this is a result of a growing awareness of AI can’t be determined, but it is interesting.
Surprisingly, there were only three books on climate change, although there were twelve nature-themed books. Both stacks were smaller from the previous three years when nature-themed books were one of the largest categories. This year’s titles also tended to take place closer to home, covering topics back-yard nature such as bees, birds, and flowers. We liked Flowers are Pretty Weird! by Rosemary Mosco and illustrated by Jacon Souva (Tundra).
Meanwhile, “Biographies” was one of the largest categories this year that also showed strong representation of previously underrepresented voices. Many historical biographies shared themes of triumph over adversity and perseverance—especially stories that pushed back on the idea that “women can’t do that.” Of 19 biographies, seven were about Black people of note (of those, six were about Black women), one Hispanic, one Asian, one Jewish, and the rest were white European. That said, we listed some books with biographies as a secondary theme, such as a music-themed book on Blind Willie Johnson: A Song for the Cosmos (Creative Editions) and a book titled Yellow Dog Blues by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Chris Raschka (Eerdmans), which featured several Black musicians.
Among the large selection of “family” themed books across categories (including multicultural) were quite a few featuring father-daughter relationships. Closely related to this category were books on “Friendship” with thirteen titles in total—a rather strong representation this year.
We had four books with LGBTQ+ families and characters at their center, although the books themselves were not about the LGBTQ+ experience specifically. The Sublime Ms. Stacks: This legendary librarian is serving story time realness, written by Robb Pearlman, and illustrated by Dani Jones (Bloomsbury) was a colorful celebration that featured Drag Queens performing for children at a library. Another favorite was Bathe the Cat, written by Alice B. McGinty and illustrated by David Roberts (Chronicle) that shared a typical, chaotic, and loving family.
Meanwhile, there was only one title in the “Politics” category, Seen and Unseen by Elizabeth Partridge, illustrated by Lauren Tamaki (Chronicle Books)—a stack that has previously shown stronger numbers. I personally found it interesting that the only political book submitted this year pertained to the Japanese experience in US Concentration camps during World War II, Seen and Unseen created by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki (Chronicle)—our judges really loved this book!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no First Day of School books. This seemed an obvious result of the pandemic and the resulting need for home-schooling which nearly wiped out the first day experience for so many children.
Only three holiday books were submitted. The first was about Rosh Hashana, which could have also been categorized in the Multicultural stack; the second was a Halloween book about ghosts in the White House; and the third was about Christmas ornaments on an adventure.
This year’s Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner, The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, written by Chana Stiefel and illustrated by Susan Gal (Scholastic Press) reached across categories under “Biography” and “Multicultural (Jewish),” while the honor title, Too Early, written by Nora Ericson and illustrated by Elly MacKay (Harry N. Abrams), fit nicely under “Family” as one of our father/daughter books.
Loss is always a well-represented category, and when combined with grandparent-themed books (that often also discuss loss in some form), made a strong showing with eight titles.
Meme books about books made strong showings in the past, but there was only one this year; however, it was a good one: How to Eat a Book by Mrs. and Mr. Macleod (UNSQ Kids).
I was happy to see two books on the refugee experience, picking up from last year’s MWB Prize winner, Wishes, written by Muon Thi Van (Author), one of this year’s judges, and illustrated by Victo Ngai (Illustrator). It would have been nice to see more as this topic remains relevant.
Surprisingly, there were only six titles in the humorous category, and only three sports-themed books on tennis, surfing, and skateboarding. Both categories showed much stronger numbers in the past.
Stylistically, digitally rendered illustrations dominated; however, a sad failing that seemed quite common was a lack of understanding of resolution (images that are fuzzy vs. in focus) or what constitutes "finished” art. Several books displayed what would generally be considered storyboard-level artwork rather than completed artwork. (I’ll be writing about these topics in my forthcoming book on picture book design for Bloomsbury UK, October 2025.) Digital collage also appeared to be quite popular. While there weren’t as many simple cartoon-like books overall, the ones we did see dominated the “Humor” category. Meanwhile, Tundra Books made an especially strong showing this year and it was exciting to see the stylistic risks they are taking. This is a house to watch going forward.
There were two books about adoption this year, which was nice to see. Our favorite was The Family Tree written by Sean Dixon and illustrated by Lily Snowden-Fine (Tundra).
There didn’t seem to be as many bedtime books this year as in the past, which was puzzling. (Maybe everyone was so exhausted with Covid, they didn’t need help getting to sleep!)
After reading all the books, some are added to our excellent and growing children’s book collection at Hollins University, while the rest are donated to local schools and libraries. All said, it was a lovely crop of books this year. When reading so many books at one time, a few titles leap out as obvious stars. We all agreed that our Margaret Wise Brown Prize judges made excellent choices! Meanwhile, there are already a few titles on my radar for next year—I do hope they are submitted! Publishers, please reach out to me for 2023 submission information.
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Dr. Elizabeth Dulemba is an author, illustrator, and academic, as well as Director of Graduate Programs in Children’s Literature and Illustration at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Learn more at https://www.hollins.edu/academics/graduate-studies/programs-in-childrens-literature-and-illustration/ and https://dulemba.com and subscribe to her newsletter.