Children’s books authors taking stand in stories

Protesters gather at Books Inc. bookstore in San Francisco in this undated photo provided by author Raina Telgemeier via the New York Times.

When photos began circulating of migrant children separated from their parents and placed in what looked like giant cages in detention centers, young adult novelists Melissa de la Cruz and Margaret Stohl had an immediate response. 

After texting nine author friends asking what they could collectively do, de la Cruz and Stohl drafted a statement of protest called “Kidlit Says No Kids in Cages,” denouncing “practices that should be restricted to the pages of dystopian novels.”

Within minutes, they had 94 signatures from “our fellow kidlit authors and supporters,” de la Cruz said.

A day later the statement was posted on Twitter with more than 4,000 signatures. The group has now raised nearly $240,000 for legal services for the migrant families.

Children’s book creators similarly coordinated a response after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, in January. 

Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier and YA novelist Jenny Han set up a group called Kidlit Marches for Kids, rallying colleagues to join the March 24 gun control protest led by the Parkland students, and designing a protest sign for marchers.

“We wanted to boost the signal of the kids,” Telgemeier said. Hundreds of kidlit authors marched under the banner in cities including San Francisco, New York and Pittsburgh.

While conservatives like Bill O’Reilly have had a strong presence in the children’s books landscape, with best-sellers like the young readers’ editions of his Killing series about notorious assassinations and battles, the kidlit community skews to the political left, and no similar movement has emerged among conservative children’s books authors or publishers.

For Neal Porter, vice president and publisher of Neal Porter Books at the children’s publisher Holiday House, the policy of separating families at the border marked a turning point.

“Our life and work revolves around children, so it’s been a galvanizing force in our industry,” he said.

This month, Porter released “Dreamers,” written and illustrated by Mexican-American author Yuyi Morales, which recounts her journey with her infant son to the United States. 

Morales finished the book earlier this year, but it became especially timely as its publication date approached. 

When she appeared at a June meeting of the American Booksellers’ Association, several attendees burst into tears when they saw her.

“We’re getting tons of proposals and manuscripts for both fiction and nonfiction with political themes — immigration, internment, refugees, police brutality and sexual harassment,” said Megan Tingley, executive vice president and publisher of Little, Brown Kids.

She added that children’s books on activism and social justice topics — often beautifully designed — are increasingly considered “retail-friendly. They’re not homework, people want them in their homes.”

Over a dozen new children’s books on the theme of resistance are in bookstores now, such as “We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices,” a collection of poems, essays and art by children’s authors including Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson, and “Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing (Almost) Everything,” by Alexandra Styron.

“We Say #NeverAgain: Reporting by the Parkland Student Journalists” comes out next month.

Young adult fiction with themes of political activism has found a receptive teenage audience, most prominently with Angie Thomas’ Black Lives Matter-inspired novel “The Hate U Give,” now in its second year on the New York Times best-seller list, and soon to be released as a movie, about a 16-year-old girl who sees her childhood friend killed by a police officer. 

The #NeverAgain movement for gun reform will take a turn in the fiction spotlight this fall when best-selling novelist Ellen Hopkins’ “People Kill People” — a novel in verse with a spectral narrator called Violence who weaves together the stories of six people and a gun — is published.

YA readers in particular want authors to do more than just create stories — they are expected to be visible as advocates for issues that affect teenagers.

“I don’t know that a person can write the kind of book I write and not get involved somehow,” said Nic Stone, whose debut novel, “Dear Martin,” included the story of a black teenager killed by a white police officer and another teen who composes letters to the Rev. Martin Luther King, to try to come to terms with contemporary racism.

“With the way social media functions, people have access to me as an author, which means it’s no longer acceptable for me to just sit behind my computer,” Stone said. 

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