Workman and its Algonquin Young Readers imprint are welcoming 2016 with iLoveMG, an initiative encouraging booksellers, librarians, teachers, bloggers, and other children’s publishers to celebrate middle-grade books and authors. The iLOVEmg campaign will have its major kickoff on Twitter, featuring the hashtag #ILoveMG, during the week of January 25. In late December, a targeted mailing to booksellers, educational experts, and bloggers announced the initiative and supplied those champions of middle-grade literature with iLoveMG signage, tote bags, and stickers. Also integral to the campaign is a free monthly email newsletter.

The campaign was the brainchild of Trevor Ingerson, head of children’s educational and library marketing and sales at Workman, who began spreading word of iLoveMG during its “soft launch” at NCTE in November. In addition to distributing the logo-touting swag, Ingerson had white boards on hand at Workman’s booth, on which conference attendees were invited to complete the sentence: “I love MG because….”

Ingerson, who is working closely on the initiative with Eileen Lawrence, director of marketing at Algonquin Young Readers, and Jessica Wiener, Workman’s director of integrated marketing, was gratified by the reaction to the white-board testimonials. “We really had a terrific response, and we saw some poignant messages from teachers who were very excited to share their sentiments,” he recalled. “And I was so impressed by the range of statements – throughout the conference, not one response was repeated.”

Fittingly, the iLoveMG campaign was largely inspired by Ingerson’s own affection for the genre. “It’s such a formative category that shapes readers as they come into reading independently and figuring out how they fit in with the world, and what kinds of books they want to read,” he said. “I started my publishing career working at what was then Scholastic Book Clubs, and quickly fell in love with middle grade, given the quality and range of the titles. And through my current work with teachers and librarians, I’ve come to appreciate the power of the category.”

Ingerson also shared his concern that MG at times gets overlooked – perhaps middle-child syndrome – on the marketing side, given the more difficult-to-nab consumer base. “Picture books you can market to parents, and YA you can market directly to teens, but in middle grade, such a critical time for readers, it can be more difficult to reach your audience. So with this campaign, we want to elevate the awareness and importance of books at this age level.”

Lawrence at Algonquin Young Readers noted that her appreciation of MG stems from the message books often send to readers and the choices it opens for them. “Middle-grade titles can show kids that there are kids like them and they are not the only ones feeling lonely, or worrying that they aren’t cool, or thinking their parents are weird,” she explained. “And at this age, readers are realizing the breadth of choices they have, and discovering book subjects and authors they never knew existed.”

Ingerson and Lawrence both underscored the collaborative mission of the campaign, in which they hope other children’s publishers will participate. “Anytime we can come together as an industry to support our books is wonderful,” said Lawrence. “We kids’ publishers have big mouths, and like to rally to help promote each other’s titles when possible.”

To that end, Workman is encouraging fellow publishers to contribute book news and other content to the iLoveMG newsletter, and to feature the initiative’s logo in their social media platforms. “We don’t want to pigeonhole the newsletter, but make it fluid and responsive to what subscribers are interested in,” said Ingerson. “We’d like it to be a mix of things, including pieces surrounding industry events and awards, and perhaps eventually original contributions from authors.” The publisher plans to promote the newsletter and the other components of the iLoveMG initiative at ALA Midwinter, January 8–12, and at TLA in Houston, April 19–22.

MG Devotees Climb on Board

Though still in its formative stages, iLoveMG has attracted the attention of an array of middle-grade fans. Several shared their thoughts about the genre and Workman’s effort to spark and share enthusiasm for it.

Colby Sharp, third-grade teacher at Parma Elementary School in Parma, Mich., wrote on his white board at NCTE that he loves middle grade because “It saves lives.” He added, “I believe that this genre offers kids the best books at the best time in their lives to read. It’s such a time of transition for readers as they delve into depths of fantasy universes and encounter narrative nonfiction and graphic novels – all for the first time – and find their identities as readers. Middle grade is one of the most precious times in our reading lives, when books can shape who we become as adults. It blows my mind that this category isn’t appreciated by everyone as much as it should be. To me, middle grade is everything, and I think it’s great that the Workman campaign is focusing on it. As I see it, it’s all about the kids.”

"...We’re all still figuring it out!!” wrote Tracey Baptiste, author of Angel’s Grace (S&S/Wiseman, 2005) and The Jumbies (Algonquin Young Readers, 2015), on her white board. “I think I never did grow up – my childhood in Trinidad was so rich with stories and good feelings, that when I write I automatically go back to that point in my life. Middle grade is a breakthrough time for readers – they are making their own reading choices, and finding the books that connect with them in a special way can be so impactful. I think it’s really lovely that kids can say, through their reading choices, ‘This is what I like to read – this is my personality.’ I think the iLoveMG initiative is a lot of fun, and – though it may sound a little self-serving – I love that it is bringing attention to middle grade. People talk a lot about picture books and YA, but middle grade is just starting to get some love, and I’m happy that this initiative is helping.”

Cathy Berner, children’s and YA specialist at Blue Willow in Houston, told PW, “I don’t think there’s any disagreement that if you hook young readers in middle grade, you hook them for life. I also think it’s one of the richest and must critical categories we have, and covers such a huge swath of development time for kids. Readers are ready for more sophisticated story lines and books with more background knowledge. At the same time, middle-grade books make wonderful read-alouds, and it’s so important for kids who are reading on their own to also hear the language spoken. I think Workman’s campaign is a great idea. I like to think that it will bring more attention to middle-grade books, and help kids and parents realize how vibrant and varied this category is.”

Another bookseller, Sara Hines, co-owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., also weighed in for this piece: “No section in a bookstore is one-size-fits-all, but this is especially true in middle-grade, since it’s such a transition period and kids transition at such different rates. We have lots of conversations in the store about whether these kids are 12 going on 13 or 12 going on 18! It is so important for kids to continue reading at this stage, and so important for us to provide them with books that are just theirs. We do see people skipping the middle-grade section and moving from early readers into younger YA, thinking that middle grade isn’t challenging enough. Of course that is not the case – the category has so many beautifully written books with complicated narratives and interesting characters. Our job is to make sure that our customers know that they are there, and iLoveMG campaign is a great reminder to kids and parents: ‘Don’t skip over these great books – enjoy them!’ ”