Embracing Intersectionality and Risk-Taking in Children’s Books

When it comes to tackling tough, sensitive, or controversial topics, children’s publishing has long blazed the trail. Librarians, booksellers, and teachers have touted the importance of works that offer diversity not only in the portrayal of characters’ races and ethnicities, nationalities, classes, abilities, orientations, etc. but in their life experiences as well, and publishers—from the giant Scholastic to independent presses like Lee & Low—are working to answer the call so all children have the opportunity to “see themselves” and others in books.

Recently, Kirkus Indie’s vice president, Karen Schechner, had the opportunity to interview Caitlyn Morrissey, manager of Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan, for a bookseller’s perspective on diverse books that excite her and books she’d still like to see.

What are some upcoming trends?

I’m really excited about the upcoming picture book It Feels Good to Be Yourself, by Theresa Thorn, about gender identity. It’s important to me that they chose wonderful nonbinary illustrator Noah Grigni to work on this project. In the same season, we’re getting a YA featuring a nonbinary character—Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best. These are books I would have treasured as a kid.

Also, trusting younger children to understand complex topics. I love the book Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan (illustrated by Sarah Walsh).

Kyle Lukoff has a book coming out called When Aidan Became a Brother (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita), about a young trans boy who is about to have a new sibling. I hope we’re starting a trend of stories like this that center on characters from minorities without playing on trauma.

What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?

More intersectional storytelling—it’s not enough just to have one character using a mobility device or some faces of color in the crowd. Give us more books like Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari (illustrated by Patrice Barton) or Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

I want to see publishing double down on #ownvoices titles. Put out calls for illustrators who can speak to the stories they are portraying. Look at who is holding the mic. Think about how you can revamp your processes so that more new perspectives are coming across your desk. There are fewer white than nonwhite children under age 10 in America, so children’s publishing better move with the times.

What don’t you ever want to see again?

Powerful women are awesome, but we keep seeing collections that come out featuring the same 15 to 20 subjects. If nonfiction calls to you, ask yourself if you really have anything new to say about the person you’re portraying!

What is unique about your corner of the industry?

Picture books are often art objects; I’m seeing American publishing catch up to Europe in the risks they are willing to take with illustration. I hope they keep pushing the envelope and expanding the concept of what a picture book can be.

How are you working with self-published writers?

It’s hard—we get multiple submissions every week from self-pubbed writers. That being said, we’ve come across some real gems! It’s easiest when they make their books available through Ingram or Baker & Taylor, so that we can easily test it out in our store. And I would gently remind self-pubbed writers that if they want to be represented in indie bookstores, they should not direct us to order through Amazon! It’s just not going to happen.

If we come across self-pubbed books we really like, we invite the authors to be guest hosts of our regular storytime. Newer authors often bring a great, enthusiastic energy. In order for us to choose a self-pub title for the store, it has to look professional, both in the binding, illustrations, etc. Self-published books are often more expensive than trade titles. So they really have to be unique and wonderful! Working with these teeny companies really sets us apart from the big-box stores. 

What would you like to change about publishing?

In general, all publishers should take a hard look at Lee & Low Books and what they are doing— I love the books they’ve been putting out and the voices they are boosting. Child’s Play is also being quietly subversive in the board-book market; I hope other publishers get onboard!

Also, think about more ways that you can bring booksellers over to the publishing side; we have a lot of firsthand market knowledge that is hard to gain any other way!

Caitlyn Morrissey, the manager of Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan, has been working with children’s books since 2002. A high school job in her local library immersed her in the world of children’s literature, and she’s found a home there ever since. She started working at Bank Street in 2007 and became the manager in 2017. She has several children’s book tattoos, the most recent from Pierre.

 

—Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.

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