Apologies for the delay in this post! I was celebrating my Irish pride over the weekend and simply forgot. This week, I’m continuing my journey of reading youth books off the New York Times best seller lists.
As I read through all these books, there were some things that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, if I had thought about them for more than a few minutes. Then there was some stuff that did surprise me. Thankfully, it was usually a pleasant surprise.
Things That Surprised Me (But Shouldn’t Have)
Picture books come in series, too.
When I think of book series, I usually think of YA books and early chapter books, not picture books. I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw more books starring Little Blue Truck, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Pete the cat. I had plenty of different picture books as a child featuring the same characters over and over again (Madeline and Corduroy were my favorites). It just makes sense: kids can get excited to see their favorites again and again, in different stories, and the creator typically has commercial success.
In picture books, the illustrations are not just decorations.
When I read picture books, my focus goes naturally towards the words. This is probably some awful side-effect of being an adult. In some picture books, like ones for older children, this is fine: the illustrations enhance the story, but the story can be understood without it. But in many others, illustrations are as much a part of the story as the text is. If you ignore the illustrations, or only give them a glancing look, you can miss a lot of the story, as well as some of the best jokes. There are also many wonderful wordless (or very nearly wordless) picture books out there that I love. My favorite picture books are the ones where you need text and illustrations to tell a complete story.
Books are cyclical.
This is another one I should have seen coming. It didn’t surprise me to see holiday books top the list when they were in season. But it did surprise me to see the same holiday books come up again in the following year’s list, continuing on until 2023. I found out recently that this is true for YA books, as well as picture books. In 2022, Long Live the Pumpkin Queen, by Shea Ernshaw, made it onto the Best Seller list just before Halloween. Are these new holiday classics? Time will tell.
Things that Surprised Me
Things don’t move around on the Best Seller List as much as you’d think.
With a year of reading books from the New York Time’s Best Seller List, I expected I’d read a lot of things I might never have tried otherwise, as well as well-known books. I did, but found that books didn’t move around on the list as much as I thought they would. Towards the end of my year of reading, I kept having to go further down the list to find a book or author I hadn’t read yet. This was especially true for middle grade fiction. Wimpy Kid and its offshoots and Wonder never seemed to move off the list, though they did move up and down it sometimes.
YA Inexplicably on the Middle-Grade List
When I started this project, I chose to read only from the lists for picture books, children’s middle grade books, and children’s series. I decided not to read anything of the YA Best Sellers list, just because I can’t whizz through a YA novel in a week, and I did want to get this done in a year. Even so, I ended up reading four books that were unquestionably YA (Shadow and Bone, Serpent and Dove, The Cruel Prince, and Part of Your World.) There were also several others that could be either middle-grade or YA. The four YA books were all on the “Children’s Series” list – which is just called “Series” now. So perhaps it’s not that weird, but it was to me at the time.
There’s a decent amount of non-fiction on Best Sellers lists for youth.
It wasn’t until the past ten years or so that I started to enjoy non-fiction, and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I started reading it regularly. As a kid, I always thought non-fiction was boring, just stuff you read for school. In a world where Harry Potter exists, there was no way I was ever choosing an informational text instead of a boy wizard’s adventures. Most of my peers were the same way. I was surprised to see so much non-fiction on the list. I might’ve predicted Becoming: Young Reader’s Edition, but not other books of biographies. Yet the Who Is/Was series is remarkably popular, and I’ve talked to kids at my library who have become interested in history and non-fiction. I don’t see as much demand as the What Is/What Was or the newer Where Is/Was series, but they still get a lot of check-outs. These books turn history into a narrative, and pack a lot of information in each one. As far as other types of non-fiction: I had no idea that I’d see cookbooks on the same Best Sellers list, alongside books with a narrative. I just assumed that cookbooks would be their own thing. But it is cool to see kids taking an interest in non-fiction. At least they won’t have to wait until they’re in their twenties to discover that non-fiction can be fun to read, too.
Empowerment, confidence, and topical issues.
Along with nonfiction, another theme I saw in the books I read was empowerment and confidence. Books like Ambitious Girl, Living the Confidence Code, and Change Sings all focus on building confidence, and encourage kids (often girls) to chase after their dreams. There were also books focusing on topical issues as well. Books like Stamped (For Kids) and We are Water Protectors are the most obvious. The novels also had a lot of topical messages and tackled current events, too. Ground Zero was about 9/11, then jumped ahead twenty years to the war in Afghanistan, and how it affected Afghanis. Ali Cross brought up the topics of policing and race (though not to a deep extent) as well as homelessness. I can’t think of a fictional book I read as a kid that dealt with current events in such a direct way. This may have just been my reading choices; most of my favorite middle-grade books were fantasy and sci-fi, sometimes with a conservation message. Of course, you’re also talking to the person who missed the Aslan-as-Jesus metaphor when I first read The Chronicles of Narnia.
There’s a lot of diversity!
I’ll expand on this in my next post on this project. Suffice it to say, in the past, books in the U.S. have overwhelmingly featured White characters over characters of color. While the majority of characters in these books were White, I was happy to see as much racial diversity in the books as I did. This is something I’ll get into more detail with later. Until then, if that’s something you’re interested in, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center from University of Wisconsin-Madison has a lot of interesting statistics and information about diversity in children’s books (CCBC Diversity Statistics).