U.S. Book Show Editors’ Picks: Picture Books as Poetry and Possibility

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On May 27, PW senior children’s reviews editor Amanda Bruns kicked off the U.S. Book Show’s day of children’s editor picks by moderating a panel of editors, who spoke about their most anticipated picture book titles.

The eight editors were Alessandra Balzer, representing The People Remember by Ibi Zoboi, illustrated by Loveis Wise (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray); Stacey Barney, speaking about Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam); Simon Boughton, discussing Dad Bakes by Katie Yamasaki (Norton Young Readers); Joanna Cárdenas, speaking about My Two Border Towns by David Bowles, illustrated by Erika Meza (Kokila); Denene Millner, offering Carla and the Christmas Cornbread by Carla Hall (Simon & Schuster/Millner); Neal Porter, presenting Bright Star by Yuyi Morales (Holiday House/Porter); Anne Schwartz, talking about Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Random House/Schwartz); and Ginee Seo, spotlighting What Is Love? by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Carson Ellis (Chronicle).

The panel opened with introductions and desired takeaways for each title, starting with Balzer. “I have been fortunate enough to work with Ibi Zoboi since her debut novel,” Balzer shared, noting that Zoboi’s debut picture book is special because a child can start reading it with their family “as young as four or five, and then read it for a lifetime together, [since] I think kids can appreciate different layers of this as they get older.”

On Nina: A Story of Nina Simone, Barney said, “Christian’s art is a perfect match for Traci’s text; it really brings home the power of this woman’s voice. This is an important book because Simone’s life really aligned with a part of our history that remains relevant today.”

Reflecting upon Dad Bakes, Boughton drew attention to author-illustrator Yamasaki’s work as a public artist and muralist who often works with incarcerated people, and how that “brings a sense of social justice” to her storytelling: “What you get is a wonderful, accessible story, but also one that conveys a sense of purpose very weightlessly.”

“Erica and David believe that sharing stories with young people is a pretty big responsibility and it’s also an honor to do that,” Cárdenas said about My Two Border Towns. “[The ending] got us talking about how imagination is an essential ingredient for social justice work, because if you can’t imagine new systems and new ways of being and moving through the world, then we can’t build a society that works for everyone. I think that picture book readers are especially open and equipped to consider this idea.”

Millner shared that one of the reasons she loves Carla and the Christmas Cornbread is because it features a Black Santa. “What I wanted to do was create a moment specifically for Black children to be able to do what our parents have done all along,” Millner said. “I remember my parents would color in Santa, so that I would know that this magical thing looked like me as a child, that I should be able to have that fantasy, just like any other kid.”

Porter took the virtual spotlight next. “At its core, Bright Star is utterly and beguilingly simple, but never simplistic,” he said. “As it’s a work by Yuyi, it’s also a complex, carefully crafted book that touches on immigration, the natural world, and the importance of finding your voice and standing strong.”

Seo concluded by paying tribute to Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis: “There are people that you dream about working with in publishing, and if you’re really lucky, you might actually make that happen.”

A q&a session followed the editor presentations. Editors discussed helping their authors pivot to picture books, choosing a lens for the picture book biography format, editing processes, how they discovered illustrators, appreciation for art directors, and observations about the current landscape of picture books.

“The way that I choose books is literally [asking]: would this be something that I would read to my babies at night?” Millner shared about her acquisition process.

Schwartz spoke about her new eponymous imprint, which will launch this summer. “The impetus is that I wanted to focus entirely on making books rather than going to meetings,” she said. “I started working on Dream Street before this separate imprint idea came together, and it’s certainly one of those books about thinking outside the box of how picture books can be made.”

“So many times when we read picture books, it’s an emotional experience,” Seo commented. “I think one of the great hallmarks of a really strong picture book writer is that they leave room for the illustrator, and Mac does that really well.”

In closing, the editors agreed that the picture book category is currently ripe for exploration. Balzer offered, “I don’t know if I’d call it a trend, but I feel like there are people who make picture books who have always known what an art form it is and how they’ve never talked down to kids, but now there’s been room for picture books that tackle tougher issues with a lot of nuance, like immigration and other languages and othering.”

“I think we’re going through a period of expansion [in picture books],” Boughton agreed, in the kinds of topics covered, in the increase of nonfiction picture books and blending of fiction and nonfiction, and in “more different approaches in storytelling, whether it’s length or voice. There’s an expansion in how editors are thinking about the category and how the market is looking at it, so it’s a great category to be in right now.”

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