The middle grade years—roughly defined as ages eight to 12 in the children’s book world—are inherently a time of great change. As the world at large grapples with unprecedented change, confronting the ever-shifting realities wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are continuing to monitor the shifts in the children’s book landscape. Here we shine a light on the solidly performing middle grade category, focusing on some of the new territory covered in publishers’ spring 2020 offerings. We’ve picked three topics to highlight within this category: mental health issues, #MeToo trauma, and graphic novel–style memoirs and nonfiction.
Mental health and middle graders
In general terms, the American Psychiatric Association defines a mental illness as “a health condition involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these).” Looking more specifically at children, a 2019 article in JAMA Pediatrics cites data revealing that one in six U.S. youths ages six to 17 experience a mental health disorder in a given year, and that in 2016, 16.5% of U.S. youths ages six to 17 (7.7 million people) experienced a mental health disorder. Such statistics have recently helped bring more attention to these issues in a number of arenas, including books.
“Over the past few years, as discussions about mental health have become more common and open in the wider world, we’re seeing that reflected in books for younger readers as well, with particular growth in middle grade,” says Kristin Rens, executive editor at HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint. “We’re not only seeing a broader array of topics being addressed, but these issues are also being explored more frankly than they have been in the past.”
Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p and executive editor at Scholastic, agrees. “We weren’t talking about mental health as much as we are now, and there’s a beauty and a freedom in the fact that it’s really being addressed in a lot of these novels without judgment.”
Several editors note that the rise in middle grade novels featuring a main character experiencing mental health issues signals a welcome shift. “[MG] books about children with a depressed parent, or a parent suffering from PTSD, have been common for years,” says Wendy Lamb, former v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at Random House Children’s Books, for which she now serves as a freelance editor and creative consultant. “Now, there are more submissions where the child struggles with some kind of issue, not the adult.”
According to Peter Carver, children’s editor at Red Deer Press, this emphasis on young protagonists with mental health concerns is a more accurate reflection of real life. “Young people today face issues and experiences that even their elders find intimidating,” he says. “Whether it’s societal disruption or the coronavirus or the realities of the climate emergency, children and teenagers know that life has hazards they need to deal with.” As a result, he adds, books for young readers “have to offer windows and mirrors that will help them navigate the world. A well-told story provides those windows and mirrors—and encouragement to persevere.”
Sylvie Frank, senior editor at Paula Wiseman Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, says, “In real life, young people are faced with all kinds of difficult life experiences, and that’s what makes it important to feature them in books.” Noting that she is frequently asked how to make books with these themes appropriate for middle grade readers, she says, “My answer is that it’s all about voice and point of view. The most important aspect of any middle grade novel is an authentic protagonist, with the accompanying worldview and life experience. Most often, the protagonist is a peer of the reader’s, and so the protagonist’s account and experience of a difficult life experience are explained in language and context to which the reader can relate.”
In light of the various stressful life experiences kids face, anxiety—spanning a broad range of severity—is, not surprisingly, a frequently occurring emotional theme in middle grade novels. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the U.S., and the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health reports that 7.1% of children ages three to 17 currently have anxiety problems. However, anxiety is also something that all people experience in some form, and the diagnosis of a true anxiety disorder would of course be made by a mental health professional.
In many cases, editors consult experts and mental health professionals and/or sensitivity readers when working on such novels. “We want to make sure that we are depicting, reflecting, and rendering characters accurately,” Pinkney says. “We absolutely rely on sensitivity readers and experts in the field who can talk us through some of the nuances of these situations. There’s going be a kid out there who says, ‘I’ve got this but that’s not how it manifests in me.’ Even if an expert tells us that ‘this is specific to this character,’ it’s good to have that information.”
Editors additionally rely on the research and personal experience of their authors in the pursuit of authenticity. “In Five Things About Ava Andrews by Margaret Dilloway [Balzer + Bray, June], Margaret is writing from her own experience—like Ava, she has both anxiety and noncompaction cardiomyopathy, and has an ICD pacemaker implant,” Rens says. “But we still felt it was important to have an outside reader offer thoughts on the representation of anxiety in the book. And so we wanted to make sure that Ava’s story read as authentically as possible to readers with varying experiences.”
Another development in this area of publishing that editors say they appreciate is the rise of more holistic depictions of a mental health condition as merely one aspect of a character’s life. “More and more, I am seeing authors come into the awareness that mental health issues aren’t and shouldn’t be the singular focus of a piece of work,” says Amanda Ramirez, assistant editor at S&S Books for Young Readers. “Though a good portion of A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg [S&S, out now] is influenced by and has to do with [protagonist] Rob’s anxiety, that’s not what the book is about in its entirety, which is paramount to portraying mental illness in a real and organic way.” Ramirez recalls that when she was growing up, the books she saw featuring mental health issues “tended to be about that and only that, with little plot to balance out the sometimes too-heavy subject matter.”
In a similar vein, Pinkney believes it’s important to remember that MG characters coping with mental health issues are multifaceted, “like all kids.” She adds, “For editors, that’s part of the opportunity to pull off that veil of stigma and present the characters as fully rounded individuals.” She notes that in the novel Flying over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai (Scholastic Press, Oct.), main character Jordyn suffers panic attacks, “but she is a great friend and a talented swimmer; she has many wonderful qualities.”
The spectrum of mental health concerns appearing in the middle grade manuscripts coming across editors’ desks these days continues to broaden. Lamb says that “anxiety, OCD, unexpressed grief, painful shyness, and recovery from abuse or a traumatic event” are among the issues she has seen recently, though, she notes, “I’m not sure the manifestation of these problems would be classified as a mental illness.”
For Ramirez, it’s been “more nuanced stories that include depression and bipolar disorder, and I’m seeing them be presented as a statement of fact, which I believe to be a step in the right direction. It allows readers to see characters like themselves and to see them not as broken individuals needing to be fixed, but as fully realized people who are taking steps to move forward despite their challenges. Every reader can relate to that.”
Frank believes that such novels should also offer encouragement. “I think an important element in any book for young readers that grapples with tough topics is ending with hope,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean a tidy ending, but one that ultimately inspires optimism about finding ways to manage a challenge and connect with other people with similar experiences.”
Carver concurs, adding, “We think it is important to give young readers first-class stories that will assist them in seeing their world and navigating their way through it with courage and thoughtfulness.”
And Pinkney posits that these novels are one of the tools creating a positive ripple effect in the world. “That’s the power of what these books are doing,” she says. “They’re really saying to a kid, ‘It’s okay, you’re not alone, and we’re all in it.’ We’re all living in this world and dealing with it in the ways that we do.”
#MeToo in MG novels
By now, the story behind the hashtag is familiar. The #MeToo movement has roots that stretch back to at least 2006, when activist Tarana Burke began a campaign on social media designed to create solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment. Then in October 2017, reporting by the New York Times and the New Yorker offered accounts from actors and others who spoke on the record about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s inappropriate and abusive behavior. Also in October 2017, actor Alyssa Milano shared her personal story and invited people to respond with “Me Too” to her tweet if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted. From there, the hashtag #MeToo caught fire and an avalanche of media followed. The topic has long been addressed in YA novels, and now editors are seeing more of it in the middle grade category.
“I feel like there’s a desire to explore sexual abuse more in middle grade fiction, but an understandable wariness about how to do it well and responsibly—and a question about whether or not it’s even appropriate for readers as young as nine or 10 to be reading about it,” says Jessica Garrison, executive editor at Dial Books for Young Readers and editor of Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Aug.). “I know what Kim and I would say to that last bit: Who are the victims of child sexual abuse? They are often nine-, 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds. They are middle graders. Certainly kids suffering a thing, and/or seeing their friends suffer a thing, have a right to read about that thing. Certainly those to whom it might happen have a right to understand what it is so they can recognize it and seek help and stop it before it starts.”
Nikki Garcia, editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is the editor of When You Know What I Know, a debut novel in verse for middle graders by Sonja K. Solter, about a girl’s journey through sexual abuse and its fallout, a project she recalls was a standout submission. “When I was first looking to acquire this text, I had a very hard time finding comparable titles,” she says. “From the books I’ve found, it’s usually a friend of the main character who is being abused, and for the majority of the story, the main dilemma is whether or not to keep this secret.” But in Solter’s work, Garcia says, “we’re seeing the aftermath of this harrowing experience firsthand and it’s front and center the entire time.” She adds that this book “is unlike anything I’ve seen or continue to see in the middle grade space.”
Mary Kate Castellani, editorial director at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, had a similarly strong reaction when she first heard about Chirp by Kate Messner. “When Kate mentioned that it was the topic of her newest novel, I knew right away this was one she would tackle exceptionally well,” Castellani says. “Kids of all ages are aware of what is happening in our world—especially when stories get such major media attention as they did when the #MeToo movement began unfolding.”
According to Castellani, she and Messner share a dedication to “addressing these relevant topics in a way that is appropriate for each age level, meeting kids where they are, and ideally preparing them for how to cope with such events. Many adults don’t like to think that kids are aware of such challenging subjects, but they are, and we need to equip them with the right knowledge to protect themselves and each other.”
There are certain sensitivities to consider when tackling this subject for preteens. With last fall’s Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee, S&S senior editor Alyson Heller says she and Dee “were determined to balance the nuance of wanting to portray realistic instances and effects of sexual harassment that would also feel appropriate and accessible for our nine-to-13-year-old readers—and the gatekeepers. We also wanted to make sure that [main character] Mila’s feelings of violation weren’t lessened or cheapened, either.” In terms of drawing the line, Heller says, “Mila definitely was in uncomfortable situations—unwanted hugs, a boy rubbing her sweater, her friends not taking the concerns seriously—which all demonstrated how boundaries and consent were breached, without feeling exploitative or gratuitous within the middle grade space.”
Garrison notes that author Bradley is a survivor of sexual abuse and that her “keen and compassionate understanding of middle grade kids” allowed her to approach Fighting Words “with an intrinsic grasp of the sensitivities and nuances it required to be age-appropriate.” Garrison cites an example: “One thing Kim did from the very first draft was to prepare and warn readers every step of the way. Her heroine, Della, says this in the first chapter: ‘I’m going to tell you the whole story. Some parts are hard, so I’ll leave those for later. I’ll start with the easy stuff.’ And she continues like that all the way through, always letting the reader know when it’s going to get difficult—and that there’s a spectrum of difficult.” Such a device, Garrison says, “allows readers to emotionally gauge what’s to come. This way of checking in with kid readers, and their adults, gives them time to prepare, and time to set the book aside if they need to before coming back to it.”
Overall, Garrison adds, “there was a balance to strike in terms of showing an honest, easily understandable situation that carried weight, but choosing what that situation should be for a 10- or 11-year-old reader with limited knowledge. That was a line we had to walk: how to be clear and honest but also sensitive to readers approaching the story from very different experiences.”
Chirp focuses on the aftermath of a trauma experienced by rising eighth-grader Mia. The novel relates “how it made her feel. How it silenced her as a person. How it kept her from pursuing what she loved,” Castellani says. “These are the effects of sexual harassment and assault at varying levels of seriousness for girls and women of all ages, so it wasn’t too challenging to see where to draw the line in terms of the specific content.”
Garcia lauds her author’s skill in determining parameters for her story. “Sonja did a fantastic job conveying what Tori went through without getting too detailed,” she says. “Your heart still breaks for her, but you don’t need every detail of what happened with her uncle in that basement to feel those emotions.”
According to Garcia, Solter’s writing was guided by her own experience dealing with trauma, though it wasn’t exactly what Tori faces in the book. Her formal writing education focused on this area as well: she received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University with a critical thesis on depicting trauma in middle grade and young adult realistic fiction.
The editors emphasize that though these recent novels address challenging subject matter, they are also firmly forward looking. “It’s important to be honest about the difficult journey ahead for Tori as she heals from the trauma, but still maintain hope throughout,” Garcia says. “We want the reader to know that healing is possible.”
In Chirp, Mia “reclaims her voice and her sense of safety and power, which is more universal than the specific incident and, I hope, offers a helpful blueprint for readers,” Castellani says. The most important goal for this book, she adds, “was balancing the pain of Mia’s experience with the joy, fun, and even silliness that all girls her age deserve to feel. Kate wanted to represent how multifaceted girls and women are—that they carry around these burdens of guilt, shame, or fear, yet still have moments of joy, peace, and healing.”
Castellani notes that this felt especially important in a story for young readers, “to show them that an experience of sexual harassment or assault might change you, but it doesn’t have to define you, and that you still deserve to laugh and try new things and have a fun summer where you solve a strange mystery on a cricket farm with your new friends.”
Graphic novel–style memoirs and nonfiction
Sales of graphic novels for middle graders are still growing impressively, and the format is now increasing its footprint in nonfiction genres. “It’s a golden era for graphic memoir for kids, ushered in by Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Cece Bell’s El Deafo and reaching the highest award heights with Jerry Craft’s New Kid,” says Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director of Walker Books U.S. In fact, most editors we spoke with cite the success of these pioneering titles and a handful of other hits as paving the way for the current uptick in middle grade graphic memoirs and informational nonfiction.
“Since the publication of Smile, the number of submissions for real-life stories has increased dramatically,” says David Saylor, v-p and creative director of Scholastic Trade and founder of Scholastic’s graphic novel imprint Graphix. The success of Smile proved that there is a large audience for that kind of story, he adds. “Raina was a groundbreaker in that sense, and she continues to lead the way with her commitment to exploring those years of her life honestly. If anything, autobiographical comics have perhaps moved rapidly from the adult world into the children’s world. When you think of groundbreaking work like Maus or Persepolis, and then think about Smile, you can see that stories based on real-life experiences are powerful for any age group.”
Calista Brill, editorial director of Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint First Second, agrees that middle grade graphic nonfiction is currently enjoying the spotlight. “I think this trend has been on its way for a long time and it has reached a tipping point; it’s suddenly very visible,” she says. “First Second has been publishing graphic novels for the middle grade reader since 2005, so we’ve had a little time to wrap our heads around the market and around what this reader is looking for, and also to think about the ways in which graphic novels are uniquely suited for nonfiction. Not only do they offer textual information, they reinforce and add nuance and more layers of information with the visuals.”
According to Elise Howard, publisher of Algonquin Young Readers, “the trend has no doubt been fueled by the success of works from authors like Cece Bell and Raina Telgemeier, but what’s also at work is the ability of a medium that feels fresh and art that looks contemporary or timeless to bridge the gap between events of several decades ago and contemporary readers.”
And Sarah Larter, publishing director at DK Children’s, believes that format and content are simultaneously coming into vogue with middle grade readers in the case of graphic nonfiction. “I think the trend for graphic novels is shifting younger,” she says. “The huge popularity of the genre for the older age group has demonstrated that there is a real appetite for well-executed nonfiction in this style—and actually the growth in nonfiction overall has sparked a need for different ways to explain key topics.”
When assessing the factors behind the expansion of middle grade graphic nonfiction, several editors mentioned one of the hallmarks of the graphic novel format in general: its wide-ranging appeal. “I think the age distinctions blur a bit in this category,” Van Metre says. “The books can be set in elementary, middle school, or high school—or all three—and appeal to readers from middle grade through young adult and adult. Comics have always been less age-restricted.”
Dial executive editor Kate Harrison, who edited the memoir When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Apr.), about Mohamed’s childhood years in a refugee camp, has a front-row seat to this phenomenon through the experiences of her seven-year-old son. “I get a firsthand view of the level of passion graphic novels can inspire and how much more willing kids are to read about topics that might be out of their comfort zone when it’s in a graphic novel format,” she says. “I find it fascinating that he gets so into memoirs like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Guts and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends, books that deal with social issues he’s not encountering quite yet at school but that feel really accessible because of the format. He’s more willing to take a leap if the art is inviting, and he loves being able to devour them so quickly.”
Most of the editors list multiple reasons for why the graphic novel format is a particularly good fit for memoir and nonfiction projects. “I think nonfiction really lends itself to pushing the boundaries of what the format can do—and of what historically focused storytelling can do,” says Marisa DiNovis, associate editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers and the in-house editor of the anthology Noisemakers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices & Changed the World, edited by Erin Bried.
Further expanding on this idea, Jill Davis, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, says, “Great storytelling is crucial when we want kids to learn stories from the past, but images register in our brains differently than words do.” She believes the graphic novel format is perfect for nonfiction because “it helps in getting emotion across. And that’s important because most nonfiction has a crucial emotional through-line that is often the ‘way in’ for young readers. Another reason is that for kids, seeing an unfamiliar setting—or period or place—created with sequential art is incredibly effective at helping them imagine it.”
Harrison shares that opinion. “With a book like When Stars Are Scattered, being able to see what the tents looked like in the refugee camp where Omar grew up, to see the clothes everyone was wearing and the classrooms where he went to school made a huge difference in helping me comprehend what his life there was like,” she says. “I think the graphic novel format also forces the author to focus on moving the story forward and developing the characters through their dialogue and expressions, rather than relying too heavily on narration and description, which can stop younger readers.”
Saylor describes some of the mechanics involved when readers interact with the format. “Graphic novels, and comics in general, are an expressive medium in that the combination of words, dialogue, and pictures give clues to context,” he says. “And as the artwork shifts from panel to panel, readers move through time and are decoding the consequences of actions. It’s a very potent way to tell a story. Comics feel full of life and therefore I think children—and adults—have a strong emotional response to them.”
As an editor who admittedly “also loves picture books,” Kate O’Sullivan, senior executive editor at HMH Books for Young Readers, says, “I’m a little biased—but I’ve always felt that the combination of words and pictures captures storytelling at its best. Text can be powerful and engaging while relying on facts on nonfiction, but the art allows for communicating what sometimes can’t be captured by description—or can at least fill in the spaces and convey emotion more economically.” She has edited the nonfiction graphic novels of noted author-illustrator Don Brown, starting with 2013’s The Great American Dust Bowl and most recently 2019’s Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918.
Graphic novel memoirs, especially, create a deep sense of immediacy, according to Brill. “It’s really easy to immerse yourself in a graphic novel memoir and identify very strongly with the main character because of the visual element.”
Along those same lines, Van Metre believes that “there is something inherently relatable about a drawing of a person. The less detailed and realistic the more relatable. Those two dot eyes could be my eyes. That squiggle of a mouth could be my mouth. The drawings put us in the story, and I think there’s also a comfort level for kids in reading an illustrated narrative that makes a graphic memoir less intimidating than a prose one.”
Numerous editors point out the assiduous nature of crafting this type of book. “I will say that nonfiction graphic novels are a whole other level of work!” Harrison says. “The illustrator has to truly know their stuff, to make sure everything they’re drawing is accurate. It involves so much painstaking research and so much thoughtfulness about how everything is portrayed.”
Harrison notes that When Stars Are Scattered was especially challenging because Mohamed doesn’t have photos from his time as a very young boy in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, and the place looks “quite different now than it did while Omar lived there. It was truly a labor of love, with input from so many readers who had spent time in the camp—people Omar knew and people he didn’t. The book’s colorist, Iman Geddy, was also so thoughtful about everything, from showing night scenes when there were no lights at the camp, to making sure there was an accurate variety of skin tones.”
Similarly, Brill praises the collaboration between author Jim Ottaviani and illustrator Maris Wicks on Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, who previously paired up for 2015’s Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. “One of the things that makes Maris and Jim a killer team is that they are both scientists,” Brill says. “Maris isn’t just sort of a hired gun who’s there to provide pretty pictures. She is an equal partner in this creative enterprise—she is an oceanographer and science educator in her own right and it really shows. Maris has a great deal of influence on how Jim’s scripts are crafted and Jim has a great deal of influence on the ways Maris chooses to present the information. I think that that kind of alchemy is really difficult to come by.”
The appetite for graphic nonfiction is increasing and editors are delighted by the variety of what they see as they try to fill that demand. “I think the graphic novel format is such an exciting and engaging way to learn the truths about our past and about the people who helped shape our world,” says Ann Rider, executive editor at HMH Books for Young Readers and editor of Before They Were Authors: Famous Writers as Kids by Elizabeth Haidle (out now).
“Something that particularly excites me about graphic memoir is the tremendous diversity,” Van Metre notes. “Suddenly, we’re seeing girls and kids of color and queer kids and kids with disabilities at the center of the action. That’s hugely empowering and a historic change.”
Saylor looks back on the explosion of comics and graphic novels for young readers since 2005, and imagines a bright future for the category. “The amazingly talented comic creators who are publishing right now are changing the comics world,” he says. “And the range of stories and lives reflected in today’s graphic novels for children are going to spark a whole new generation of storytellers. I can’t wait to see what comes next!”
Click here to see our book list of new and recent middle grade titles on these topics.