The middle grade category has been battling some market headwinds of late. Changes in readership demographics as well as intensified discoverability challenges in the wake of pandemic disruptions are just some of the issues that may have led to declines in middle grade book sales over the past year. But bright spots remain, as new works from powerhouse authors like Aaron Blabey, Jeff Kinney, and Dav Pilkey still boast instant bestseller status, and the demand for—and supply of—graphic novels continues at a strong pace. So, what’s on the horizon? We spoke with a number of editors to learn more about the seeming proliferation of three genres within middle grade: heists and horror and illustrated humor, oh my!

Heists Deliver the Goods

"Who doesn’t love a great heist story?” asks Kaylan Adair, executive editor at Candlewick. Indeed, tales following the exploits of schemers, thieves, and sometimes mobsters and spies, have long appealed to middle grade readers. The heist—typically the orchestrated theft of something valuable from a business or institution—is frequently a key component of books in other genres like humor, fantasy, and mystery. And some editors are now seeing more heist-centric stories on offer that contain some fresh elements.

For Adair, cleverness is the mark of a standout heist story. “Just as it takes a clever mind to pull off a successful heist, so too does it take a clever mind to pull off a successful fictional heist,” she says. “The reader should be swept along on the ride, fully convinced that the stakes are as perilously high as our author is claiming them to be, with no pesky plot holes puncturing the fantasy.”

She found those qualities in V Is for Victorine by Anne Nesbet (Candlewick, Nov.), the sequel to 2020’s Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen. “The richly detailed historical setting and the two strong female leads definitely hooked me,” Adair notes. Nesbet’s background as a film studies professor at UC Berkeley is integral to the book, in which Victorine, a young heiress in hiding, and her best friend are caught up in a caper involving stolen artifacts and eluding nefarious characters. “She knows so much about the early days of Hollywood, which adds an undeniable layer of verisimilitude to her work,” Adair says of the author.

At Viking Books for Young Readers, senior executive editor Jenny Bak is looking for “the unexpected” when she’s sizing up heist stories. “Even though you as a reader may be privy to all the planning, the preparing, and the executing of the heist, being surprised by a clever twist or an unforeseen betrayal at a crucial moment is part of the nail-biting thrill of it all,” she says.

Bak is the editor of Champions of the Fox by Kevin Sands (Nov.), the conclusion to the Thieves of Shadow series, in which five young thieves who have pulled off a string of heists, including stealing magical artifacts from wizards, devise a prison break from the empire’s most impenetrable island fortress. “There’s just enough magic to create an amazing world that will delight readers, but magic is never used for easy stealing or escapes in the heist because... well, what’s the fun in that?”

Julie Strauss-Gabel, president of Dutton Children’s Books, offers her view on the draw of this type of story. “A great heist blends together many favorite story elements—including action, mystery, and codebreaking—into a single adventure,” she says. “These books offer readers a high-stakes problem that can only be solved by combining individual talents and team collaboration.”

She points to The Swifts: A Gallery of Rogues by Beth Lincoln (Feb. 2024), which she is editing for U.S. publication, as a standout. In the book, Shenanigan Swift, her sister Phenomena, and their uncle Maelstrom—introduced in Lincoln’s debut, The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels, chosen as a fall 2022 PW Flying Start—arrive in Paris to unravel the mystery of a series of elaborately staged art museum heists.

A proliferation of heist stories dovetails with a few other trends in Random House Books for Young Readers senior editor Tricia Lin’s estimation. “We’re seeing a growing desire for stories that cater to reluctant readers—due in part to the popularity of middle grade graphic novels, which are a reluctant reader’s dream,” she says. For those kids, she adds, “a heist hook, specifically, tends to offer a great cast of characters for readers to befriend, as well as a naturally streamlined plot. Give readers a fresh aspect to sink into—a vibrant voice, an irresistible recruitment method, or a quirky premise—and you have a heist that starts to shine.”

Lin believes a new project on her list, the series launch The Misfits: A Royal Conundrum by Lisa Yee and Dan Santat (Jan. 2024), fits the bill. “When Lisa said she had an idea for a wacky, irreverent series about crime-fighting underdogs, I was immediately obsessed with the concept,” Lin says. She was especially taken with Yee’s vision for the Misfits, “a charmingly awkward band of outcasts” that readers can relate to.

“It’s great to see increasingly diverse representation within the category,” says Adair at Candlewick, sharing another development she has observed about the latest heist entries. “All kids deserve to see themselves in a heart-pounding adventure—whether as the ones pulling off the heist or the ones trying to save the day,” she adds. As examples on her company’s list, Adair cites Untraceable by Aya de León (Oct.), the companion/prequel to last year’s Undercover Latina. Andrea Tompa, executive editor at Candlewick, edited both titles.

Untraceable is the story of a girl who discovers that her parents have been hiding a secret from her and has to figure out how to navigate her new life while keeping one step ahead of the bad guys,” Tompa says. “I love the way de León integrates urgent social issues into a page-turning plot populated by believable teen characters.”

Tompa expands on other characteristics of this kind of book that help attract a following. “Readers love stories that are action-packed and that put the main character in the driver’s seat,” she says. “The best part of a heist is watching the characters put together a team and a plan and then seeing how it all unfolds. For any age, I think that having a mix of things going according to plan and things going wrong—forcing characters to think on their feet—builds the tension and makes for a page-turner.”

Heists in middle grade look to be holding steady as a genre, according to Lin. “I’ve been seeing a trend toward the high-concept and contemporary, with a particular focus on capturing reluctant readers,” she says. “There’s a clear kid-friendliness to this category, and it’s been exciting to see this generation of young readers respond so avidly.”

Horror Stories Slay

"Kids love getting scared,” says Anna Bloom, senior editor at Scholastic, assessing why the horror genre is seeing a bump—and not the kind that one hears in the night. “Horror is one of those evergreen categories because it feels exciting and even a little bit dangerous to directly confront the things that scare us,” she adds.

At Delacorte, senior editor Kelsey Horton notes that kids love scary entertainment across a variety of forms. “From roller coasters to horror stories—it is the adrenaline rush,” she says.

Jordan Brown, executive editor for Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray, recalls what first drew him to scary books. “Horror produces a visceral reaction in a reader—the best horror books actually make your pulse quicken, your hands sweat, etc.,” he says. “I was a pretty hyper kid who had a hard time sitting quietly and focusing, and that sort of acute physical reaction helped keep me glued to the page,” he says.

Author R.L. Stine is widely heralded as the godfather of middle grade horror. His beloved Goosebumps series, which debuted in 1992 and has more than 400 million copies in print worldwide in 32 languages, according to Scholastic, spawned a slew of spinoffs and media adaptations, and celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. He has not slowed down after reaching that milestone, either. Stine’s Stinetinglers 2 (Feiwel and Friends), a volume of 10 short stories, hit shelves in August, and this month Scholastic launches the new Goosebumps House of Shivers series, and Blackstone releases Stine’s standalone novel Slime Doesn’t Pay!

Though Stine and other writers like Mary Downing Hahn have been working in the space for a while, editors attribute middle grade horror’s most recent uptick in popularity to a number of factors, including the current zeitgeist and the fact that horror books provide readers an opportunity to walk through fear vicariously.

“Scary books for scary times” is how Tiffany Liao, executive editor at Zando, helps explain the trend.

HarperCollins executive editor David Linker offers a similar take. “Horror has a long history of reflecting the concerns of our times—and right now, for us all, but particularly for young readers, it can feel like there’s a lot happening in the world to be scared of,” he says. “Horror helps kids indulge and then release their fears, at least for a little while.”

Books provide an ideal medium for middle graders who want to dip—or dive—into scary stories. “Middle grade horror is a perfect place to experience fear in an environment a reader can control—you can skip to the end, put the book down, or hide it in a drawer if things get too overwhelming,” Bloom says.

And Annette Pollert-Morgan, executive editor at Sourcebooks, says, “Would I ever want to be a character in a horror novel? Nope! But as a reader, one feels braver, stronger reaching ‘The End.’ You survived. And sometimes that makes whatever real-life events are unfolding around you feel more manageable.”

Quill Tree Books executive editor Karen Chaplin says, “I think horror helps us explore things that we may be afraid of, things that we don’t understand and want to figure out.” She believes that Deephaven by Ethan M. Aldridge—a gothic tale due out this month that follows nonbinary student Nev, who is drawn to their boarding school’s forbidden, shadowy corridors—addresses themes of discovery exceptionally well.

Not surprisingly, the editors we spoke with rank the pandemic high on the list of frightening things in the world and believe it has played a role in the expansion of the middle-grade horror genre. “The past few years of the pandemic have been weird, and difficult, and scary for a lot of people, including kids,” Bloom says. “Now more than ever, it’s super important to discuss topics like fear and grief with young people, and to read about fictional characters dealing with these kinds of complex emotions.”

In Brown’s view, “We have been living in a time in which we have to deal with existential threats to our society and our lives that feel closer than ever—and also one in which we are always looking for ways to set those fears aside, for at least part of the day.” He notes that the horror genre embraces both of those paradigms and cites Anne Ursu’s Not Quite a Ghost (Walden Pond, Jan. 2024) as an example. “It’s a classic haunted house story on one hand, and on the other, a story that explores the mental and physical toll that the pandemic has taken on all of us,” he says.

Jump scares are fun, but the editors we spoke with contend that there are more layers to a successful spinetingling tale for middle grade readers than just thrills and chills. “The best horror writers know that they need to balance out moments of fear with other feelings so that the scary moments don’t lose their impact,” Horton says. “Classic writers like R.L. Stine and now writers like Jennifer Killick are great at weaving in moments of comedic relief so that readers experience a roller-coaster ride of emotions.” Killick’s Dread Detention, described by the publisher as “The Breakfast Club meets Stranger Things” and featuring classmates at Saturday school detention, begins the Creatures and Teachers series, arriving from Delacorte in February 2024.

“Strong plotting, atmospheric settings, and high-interest hooks” are on Bloom’s list of key ingredients of a satisfying scary story. “And ghosts,” she adds. “All the ghosts.” These elements stood out for her in The Cursed Moon by Angela Cervantes (Scholastic Press), out this month. In the book, Rafael makes up scary stories to cope with his mother’s release from jail and soon finds an evil ghost character he created has come to life. “Angela is using the ghost story genre to explore themes of family and forgiveness that the haunting elements amplify,” Bloom says.

For Liao, the “kids on their own against evil” scenario is tried-and-true. “It’s terrifying but also empowering, as they have to figure out a plan to defeat the evil with little to no help from the adults,” she says. In the series starter The Doomsday Archives: The Wandering Hour by Zack Loren Clark and Nick Eliopulos (Jan. 2024), for example, “there are clear parallels between how the adults ignore the monsters in their midst and how they ignore real-world threats like climate change,” she says.

Linker names “great, creepy, scary monster stories” as an important nook of middle grade horror and cites Monster Club: Monsters Take Manhattan by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and Lance Rubin (Jan. 2024) as a case in point. The follow-up to Monster Club finds Eric “Doodles” King and his friends in an epic battle to prevent King Neptune’s new class of creatures from putting New York City underwater.

Another favorite hallmark of horror that editors laud is the experience that readers derive from what doesn’t appear in black-and-white. “Some of the best books in the category are wonderfully suggestive,” Linker says. “The things that happen off-page, unsaid, in the reader’s mind are probably the scariest part.”

The rise in middle grade horror genre growth has legs, according to the editors we contacted. “I’m enjoying seeing horror that pulls from a diverse range of cultures to tap into universal fears,” Liao says. “Horror tropes like ghosts, witches, vampires, and zombies appear in cultures around the world, and it’s fun and fascinating to discover the commonalities and differences.”

At Quill Tree, Chaplin observes additional areas of expansion. “I’m seeing fantasy elements within this category, which is a fun crossover,” she says. “And there’s excitement for psychological-based horror, which I personally love, as well as suspense and horror based in folklore or myth.”

Linker predicts the genre’s momentum will hold. “There’s a lot of energy right now in middle grade and YA horror,” he says, “and I fully expect we’ll see it continue to produce surprising new books that’ll ruin kids’ sleep for years to come.”

LOL @ Illustrated Humor

Another bumper crop of heavily illustrated/graphic novel humor books for middle graders is headed to market. We asked editors what attracts them to a new project in this category, and hands down they want something that tickles their funny bone. “I need to laugh out loud!” says Marisa DiNovis, editor at Knopf.

The same goes for Celia Lee, executive editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s nothing like letting out a huge guffaw in the middle of a quiet office!” And it seems laughter is ringing through publishing corridors—or editors’ home offices—more than ever these days as more humorous graphic novels and heavily illustrated titles hit the shelves and bestseller lists.

The Stupendous Switcheroo by Mary Winn Heid and Chad Sell was my biggest pick-me-up during the pandemic,” DiNovis says. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed quite so hard while working on a project.”

Of course, readers are flocking to this genre looking for a good laugh, too. “Kids come to books for all sorts of reasons, but a big one is that they want to have fun, and getting a kid to laugh is guaranteed fun,” says Maggie Lehrman, editorial director at Abrams.

Abrams is home to Jeff Kinney’s hit Wimpy Kid franchise—a pillar of the heavily illustrated humor genre for nearly two decades. According to editor-in-chief Charles Kochman, Kinney’s books inspired a “diary fiction” category to sit alongside the burgeoning number of graphic novels coming to market. “Everything about Wimpy Kid is unique—the voice, the intermingling of text and art and word balloons, the design, and the simple line drawings,” he says. “Jeff peels back the layers of our universal, shared experiences, revealing the awkwardness, the hypocrisy, the absurdity, and the wonder of what it is like to grow up and navigate childhood. Readers can easily relate.”

As Sean Tulien, editorial director of Graphic Universe, observes, “Things are trending toward slice-of-life humor in middle grade comics in particular; additionally, character-centric narratives. Whether it was the pandemic disrupting normal social rhythms over the past few years or something else entirely, middle graders seem more interested than ever in reading about other kids’ lives—and oftentimes finding the humor therein.”

Emily Seife, senior editor at Scholastic Press, echoes that view. “Humor’s always been a way to explore the difficult parts of life—a way for young readers to work through things they might be struggling with or are afraid of—and even more so with heavily illustrated books,” she says. She sees the category expanding “to include even tougher stories, like how Betty C. Tang’s Parachute Kids uses bright, kid-friendly art to tell a needed story about a painful coming-of-age experience.”

Lehrman finds that another reason these books have such appeal is that humor provides instant gratification. “You don’t have to wait for an emotional or plot-based payoff when the jokes keep you hooked on the book,” she says.

Editors agree that the middle grade illustrated humor category is exceptionally wide-ranging. “There are so many different styles—deadpan, highbrow, slapstick, quippy, wisecrack, quick, clever, droll, wry, sarcastic,” Lee says. “I’m always drawn to super silly stories and characters, and The Racc Pack by Stephanie Cooke and illustrated by Whitney Gardner [Jan. 2024] is a heaping trash pile of goofs, puns, heists, and visual gags—not to mention raccoons, and a possum who thinks he’s a raccoon.”

Books in this genre often dig a bit deeper than any surface silliness. “Humor is a way to deliver unexpected truths, and the best books of all kinds tell the truth,” Lehrman says. “Sometimes it’s easier to hear those truths when they’re wrapped up in a gag.”

Tulien agrees, stating that what most excites him about two forthcoming titles, Timothy Dinoman and the Attack of the Dancing Machines by Steve Thueson and Strikers: A Graphic Novel by Kiel Phegley, both due next month, is the strong emotional undercurrent. “While Timothy Dinoman is a half-dino, half-human secret agent, he also has a soft side when he goes out of his way to save a supervillain’s cat or makes a genuine effort to connect with his friends and colleagues,” Tulien says. “And Strikers floors me after every reading due to the way the comedy makes the characters more relatable.”

For Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at Atheneum, “the absurdity is delicious” in The Expets by Mark Tatulli [Apr. 2024], first in a graphic novel series about a gassy dog recruited for a team of superhero pets. But beyond that, “the telling is very, very smart,” she says. “He turns typical tropes upside down, which I found really refreshing.”

Many aspects of comedy are timeless, but some of what readers deem funny does change with the times. “My primary sources for what middle schoolers find funny are my wife’s younger cousins, who are in the sixth and eighth grades,” DiNovis says, noting that she’s fascinated by how their senses of humor have changed in the past couple of years. “I have to give the rise of TikTok challenges a nod—social media undoubtedly influences what middle schoolers find funny.”

In Lehrman’s view, “Kids respond to irreverence—they like to be in on a joke that grown-ups don’t understand,” she says. “I’ve been noticing more absurdist humor coming through, and in a book like Billie Blaster and the Robot Army from Outer Space by Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo [out now], we see characters go on wild, big journeys, full of wordplay and also the unexpected, like a spaceship without a bathroom.”

Illustrations add a whole new layer of humor to these books, according to the editors we spoke with. As Lee describes it, “It’s similar to picture books, actually: that delicious, tense space between what the text is saying and what the art is showing. You can cover a lot of ground, story-wise, and cut to the jokes a little faster because all that background is right there in the art.”

DiNovis offers, “In graphic novels especially, art can add peripheral or simultaneous humor that can’t always be achieved in prose. There’s nothing quite like spotting a hilarious secondary visual narrative—those are often my favorite parts, because they feel like a hysterical little secret between the illustrator and the reader.”

Tulien notes that art can attract readers to books in a variety of ways. “Illustrations help break things up, signpost difficult concepts, and maintain focus for those who, like me, apprehend the world visually first and foremost. Comics are fantastic for less confident readers, too, as the paneled structure sort of ‘chunks’ the storytelling into digestible nuggets.”

The consensus of the editors we spoke with is that the supply of illustrated humor books and graphic novels for middle graders will stay strong for the foreseeable future. “Illustrations can make even the weightiest topics feel accessible and even silly at times, which allows for so much room to explore in this category and tell different kinds of stories,” Seife says. “I don’t think this category is going anywhere any time soon—it’s only getting more interesting.”