Thursday, March 8, 2018

#KidLitWomen: Best Books of the Year

We're celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry. Join in the conversation here or Twitter #kidlitwomen and access all the #KidLitWomen posts this month on our FaceBook page


Every year in and around November and December, our feeds begin to fill up with "best of" posts: round ups of books deemed THE best, most notable, most worthy of our attention and praise.

But how do the books on these lists get chosen? It’s a subjective business to be sure. Why then, do the lists often seem so similar, featuring the same books again and again?

The easy answer is: certain books are so outstanding they rise to the top and connect with readers, librarians and influencers.

The more complex and nuanced answer? Yes, these titles are often wonderful and deserving — but the playing field isn’t necessarily a level one. Books with greater visibility stand a better chance of landing on a list; and there are many variables that affect visibility: from the arbitrary (trends, timing, luck), to the deliberate (advertising, publicity, book tours, headline conference appearances).

When good books with high visibility are anointed “the best” by key influencers across multiple platforms, it creates an echo chamber. The same titles reverberate through the kid lit universe, and we, the readers, miss out on lesser-known gems flying under the radar.

And then there’s bias.

Recent posts for #kidlitwomen have shined a harsh but much needed light on gender inequity in the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King illustrator awards. Numbers don’t lie. Men win more honors and medals than women. Women of color are left out entirely in the Caldecott equation. The lack of gender parity in the CSK awards is even more pronounced.

What’s more disturbing about the award disparity is it doesn’t reflect the gender breakdown of the children’s book industry at large. In the picture book segment for instance, many more women are publishing than men, and yet, awards go to men in higher numbers.

Image courtesy of Jeanette Bradley
* This is a sample of 490 picture books published in 2016 & 2017
It is not a count of all books published in those years.

When bias enters the echo chamber — it expands. This can lead to lists by key influencers that skew male (and white). Buzzed-about books become best books of the year, and best books on balance have a clearer path to award consideration.

Where does the bias begin? Is it at the front-end with publishers? At the middle point with influencers and gatekeepers? Are readers fed messages that lead them to value books by male authors and illustrators over those by women? Anecdotally, it seems the answer is all of the above. The problem is cyclical: a perpetual disparity loop that results in the appalling numbers we see in award statistics. Not to mention the very practical fact that visibility often translates to book sales. Yes, we do this job because we love it and love our readers, but this is also a business, and gender inequity in kid lit means women's businesses are taking a hit.

Finally, yes, it is about the readers. Highlighting the same books again and again at the expense of other diverse voices limits what they see and read. Period. Our readers deserve better.

So, what can we do? One simple but effective way to help is to AMPLIFY the voices of women that have been drowned out in the echo chamber, not just in March during Women's History Month, or in November before awards season, but ALL YEAR LONG.

In that spirit, here's a round up of some of our favorite under-the-radar picture books and chapter books by women, published in 2017. Many of the titles selected have themes of female empowerment. All are AMAZING BOOKS you should consider buying, reading, discussing, recommending, championing.

2018 is off to an incredible start for books by women kid lit creators. We promise to continue to use our voices — and this blog — to celebrate them.

Please tell us in the comments which books by women creators YOU are reading, sharing and spotlighting!

Picture Books 

Bear and Chicken by Jannie Ho
When Bear finds a chicken frozen in the winter snow, he brings it home to try to defrost it. As Chicken thaws-um, awakens-he fears that Bear is actually prepping to eat him. A sweet and hilarious tale of friendship with a delicious twist. And a soup recipe! Yum!

Dear Girl, A Celebration of Wonderful, Smart, Beautiful You!
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal, illustrated by Holly Hatam
A bestseller featured on the Today show, this one technically isn't an under-the radar title, but it wasn't mentioned much in best of the year round-ups. And we think it should have been. Dear Girl is the picture book version of comfort food. It’s also a cheerleader, shoulder to cry on, and favorite tree trunk for “quiet thoughts to be thunk.” Open it to any page to find witty advice, encouragement, or inspiration. An essential read for dear girls of any age.

Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson
This book is an ideal read-aloud, thanks to its brilliant female author-illustrator team, and a certain salad-loving snail with the most charming French je-ne-sais-quoi.

Mary Had a Little Glam by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Mary is a fierce fashionista who exudes confidence. The rhymes in this book are delightful, the illustrations are exuberant, the main character is diverse, and the message that little girls and boys can be glam and still get their recess on is a great one.

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sims
Growing up in the ocean, Kelp has always assumed he’s a narwhal like the rest of his clan. But he’s always looked and felt a little different. It isn’t until the current sweeps Kelp to the surface that he discovers he’s not quite narwhal, after all — he’s a unicorn! An adorably illustrated picture book about what it means to be a family.

SMALL by Gina Perry
A little girl feels overwhelmed by the world around her — until she realizes that while she may be small, she can still live large.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon 
A lushly painted and engaging picture book biography about performer and civil rights activist Lena Horne. What we love most about this book is how deftly it handles the difficulties of Horne's stardom — in a way kids can digest, but without glossing over the tough stuff.

The Princess and The Peas by Rachel Himes
Ma Sally, famous for her delectable black-eyed peas, plans a cooking contest to find a wife for her son John. A young lady named Princess wins, but she's not quite sure just yet if she and John are two peas in pod. A clever reimagining of a classic, lusciously illustrated, with descriptions of food that made us want to plunk ourselves right down in Ma Sally's kitchen. 

This is Not a Valentine by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
A little boy gives his friend a series of small gifts — a lucky rock, a ring from the gumball machine, and more. But make no mistake: these are NOT Valentines. Or are they? This ode to a best friend is full of love, but in the most un-cornball of ways.

Chapter Books & Middle Grade Novels

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes
A new chapter-book series with an endearing and unconventional heroine — in this story, Beatrice must face some changes in her relationship with her best friend, Lenny. We can’t wait for the next installment!

Chasing Augustus by Kimberly Newton Fusco
Rosie is proud, prickly, rude — and absolutely endearing. She’s on a mission to find her beloved dog, Augustus, who’s missing. Along the way, Rosie must learn how to open her heart to become unsinkable. Even the minor characters will pull at your heartstrings in Kimberly Newton Fusco’s warm tale of grit and compassion.

Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
The first book in a warm, funny chapter-book series about Priscilla “Cilla” Lee-Jenkins, who hopes to become a best-selling author before her baby sister is born. (Look out for the sequel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is a Classic, later this month!)

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2 by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Ravioli
Encourage rebel girls and boys to dream big with this collection of inspiring bedtime stories about 100 extraordinary women from the past and present.

The Jasmine Toguchi series by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
Eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi challenges cultural traditions and gender norms in this delightful new chapter-book series. In Mochi Queen, she yearns to pound mochi with the males in her family. In Super Sleuth, she celebrates Girls Day and does some detective work. Two more stories (Drummer Girl and Flamingo Keeper) are on the way, and we can’t wait to see what Jasmine is up to next!

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez Gómez
A dark, fantastical, gorgeously illustrated graphic novel from the talented Lorena Alvarez Gómez. Every night, tiny lights appear out of the darkness in Sandy's bedroom. She catches them and creates wonderful creatures to play with until she falls asleep, and in the morning she brings them back to life in her whimsical drawings. When a mysterious new girl appears at school, Sandy's drawings are noticed for the first time...but Morfie's fascination with Sandy's talent soon turns into something far more sinister. Perfect for readers who enjoy a dark mystery.

The Zoey and Sassafras series by Asia Citro, illustrated by Marion Lindsay
Another fabulous new chapter book series, this one includes five books so far: Dragons and Marshmallows, Merhorses and Bubbles, Monsters and Mold, Caterflies and Ice, and The Pod and The Bog. Magical animals, science, and mystery mix in these super-fun STEM-inspired chapter books. It's the scientific method wrapped in an adventure featuring a curious little girl, her feline friend, and a cast of fantastical beasts. What's not to love?

The #KidLitWomen project is a solutions-oriented forum, focused on improving the climate for gender equality in the children’s and teen literature industry. While high emotions are a natural part of this ongoing dialogue, the hope is that we can always return to a spirit of problem-solving and remain a celebration of the many women who make up such a large portion of this community. Discussion should be respectful, constructive, and tightly related to our goal. We reserve the right to delete comments that are abusive, inappropriate and/or fall outside the scope of this initiative.


  1. What a great list! Some of these really were off my radar.

    1. Thanks, Anna! Glad we were able to introduce you to some new friends. :) Let us know which books you're enjoying and would like to signal boost!

    2. Wow, this is so great! Well-written, insightful. And thank you for highlighting CHASING AUGUSTUS. It means so much to get a mention like this.