Middle grade books are having a moment, again. By most accounts, sales of and enthusiasm for these titles are riding high. The category has seen bullish and even heady times before; the early Harry Potter years and their vast ripple effect, the emergence of authors such as Rick Riordan and Lemony Snicket, and standout books like Wonder by R.J. Palacio are among some of the more recent highlights. And historically, the prestigious John Newbery Medal, awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, is most frequently given to the author of a middle grade book, even though the awards criteria cover an audience range of “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.” That shiny gold Newbery sticker has propelled many middle grade books into the classics column for decades.
In order to take a closer look at the middle grade category today, we spoke with a number of editors, agents, booksellers, and librarians to get their views on everything from how they define middle grade and how it sells to trends in the market and which new titles they are most excited about.
What’s in a Name?
When talking about book categories or genres, a name or label serves as one type of shorthand for where a book might be shelved in libraries and bookstores and how it will be marketed to readers. For a book described as “middle grade,” publishers, librarians, booksellers, and teachers widely embrace the basic definition: books intended for readers eight to 12 years old. But as with most things pertaining to children’s books, there are gray areas to consider and oft-debated exceptions.
“To my mind, there’s a little more nuance, especially at the older end of the age range, where some kids could certainly read YA if they chose but prefer middle grade books because those more closely mirror their own experiences or emotions,” says Reka Simonsen, executive editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers. “Middle grade fiction deals with the things kids are going through at those ages: friendships made and lost, family relationships changing, physical changes, a wide range of school experiences, and a growing awareness of the wide world outside of oneself and the injustices it often contains.”
Jennifer Hubert Swan, middle school librarian and director of library services for Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, offers, “I always think of ‘middle grade’ as books that feature a 10-, 12-, or 13-year-old protagonist. For me, it’s really based on the age of the characters.” Beyond that, she explains that a book can be of any genre, whether it be realistic, fantasy, historical, or anything else, “but the main characters are developmentally moving out of childhood with true adolescence hovering on the horizon.”
One of the trickier considerations with the middle grade category is that it covers a broad range of reading and maturity levels. Scholastic associate publisher Abby McAden speaks about some of the reading skill distinctions within the age span: “Middle grade is for truly independent, confident readers, whereas chapter books are all about building that confidence.” For her, hallmarks of the category include “stories that often revolve around friendship and deeper exploration of themes and emotions.” She points to a developmental gap in the middle grade age span. “Kids’ abilities to articulate their inner lives develop over time and are at least somewhat built on experiences they have had or are having.” McAden continues, “There’s a frame of reference a 10-year-old has that a seven-year-old doesn’t yet. Year over year, kids become ready to look around and explore alternate experiences, and I think middle grade is a giant leap forward in that process.”
The word “middle” is particularly apt in some publishers’ interpretations of the middle grade book. “Middle grade is the space between chapter books and teen fare,” says Liz Szabla, associate publisher at Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint. “The ‘definition’ also comes to me as a vision of an eight-, nine-, or 10-year-old buried in a book while surrounded by activity. I love seeing kids that age reading on a noisy subway train or in a classroom, while their friends or siblings are squirming all around them. When middle grade works, it captures that age group in ways that a lot of media can’t.”
For children’s librarian Robin Howe at the Kent (Wash.) Library, middle grade readers are “old enough to be independent readers, but young enough to enjoy some illustrations in a text, especially in those humorous series like Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. Humor seems to be a key element of appeal, but not the ‘gross stuff’; there’s little discussion of puberty, or interest in sexual/social interaction, but [protagonists are] still figuring out their own personalities and having definite opinions and styles.”
For Chronicle Books editor Taylor Norman, more than most other categories of children’s books, “middle grade” really just refers to an age range: “books for kids older than eight, usually.” But as a genre, she observes, “I find it to be the most experimental of all long fiction for kids—a middle grade book doesn’t have to be about a middle grade kid, or even a kid at all. Middle grade books can be told from the first person plural, or be about an old man, or be in the voice of a dog. That’s why I love middle grade. It allows for any kind of experimentation you’d find in any other genre: Russian literature, poetry, drama, anything. And it’s so important that it allows for that experimentation: these are the books that kids are reading on their own for the first time, so it’s crucial that they get exposed to as many ways to tell a story as possible.”
When considering how to describe “middle grade” to customers, bookseller Summer Dawn Laurie of Books Inc. in San Francisco tends to use the age designation that publishers do: ages eight to 12. “Typically that will be third to sixth grades,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is to catch parents of those 11- to 12-year-olds who are reading ‘above grade level’ and assume their child should be reading YA. Usually when I ask whether they are comfortable with ‘sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,’ they will follow my lead back into middle grade.”
Changing with the Times
Though the eight-to-12 age range holds up well as a common denominator for categorizing a book as middle grade, the edges are still fuzzy. Rosemary Brosnan, v-p and editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, recalls some of the category’s growing pains. “When I started working in publishing—and I’m dating myself—there were two middle grade categories: eight to 12 and 10 to 14,” she says. “The 10-to-14 age category has disappeared, so all middle grade books are slotted into the eight-to-12 category. However, many [readers] are ready for the 10-to-14 age group, which is the older end of middle grade.”
Stacey Barney, executive editor at Putnam, has published books that fit into those blurry middle grade edges and says, “Boundaries can certainly be pushed depending on the subject matter. We’ve had this experience with Tara Sullivan’s first two novels, Golden Boy and The Bitter Side of Sweet, where the perspectives were broad enough in appeal that we could see both middle grade and young adult audiences really reading and not only enjoying but identifying with each of Tara’s main characters, who were respectively 13 and 15 years of age. Traditionally for middle grade, characters tend to top out at 12.”
And though neither title was quite YA, Barney says that The Bitter Side of Sweet was published as YA “because of certain necessary content.” In a similar vein, the early Harry Potter books are firmly rooted in middle grade, while the later of the seven volumes—which contain darker, more complex material—often shift up to the YA category in stores and libraries.
Howe has refined her view of the category over time, noting that like many people not yet familiar with publishing terminology, she thought that middle grade was simply a parallel to readers in middle school. “In the past, I considered this ‘middle school,’ fifth to eighth grade, but the titles being marketed as middle grade definitely skew younger than my original take on the category,” she says. “These kids aren’t beginning readers and don’t want to be lumped with the ‘little kids,’ but they aren’t considering themselves teenagers yet. They’re not too jaded and are still willing to take advice from librarians and teachers while expanding their awareness of the world.”
And she’s seen some consistency among the middle grade readership she encounters through her library work. “There’s that fourth grade magic that happens in a kid’s brain at about nine years old, when they realize there’s a big, fat, jumbled world around them, and they stand up to take notice. That hasn’t changed.”
In the estimation of Ben Rosenthal, senior editor at Katherine Tegen Books, periodic change in how a term like “middle grade” is defined can be expected. “The definition and the canon evolve as the audience does—it should always be fluid,” he notes. “Whereas in the past we didn’t see middle grade novels featuring characters discovering their sexual identity, we are seeing them more and more now—and thankfully, given that this is an age where kids are discovering that part of themselves. It is to their detriment to ignore it in middle grade literature.”
Rosenthal explains that in addition to themes in middle grade, formats evolve too. “Written content is competing with a lot more media and social media (YouTube, Snapchat, etc.), and how do you reach kids who have so much noise competing for their attention?” he asks. “Lisa Greenwald is writing a series called TBH written entirely in text messages that does an incredible job of capturing an authentic middle school voice, and it’s not something you would have seen five or 10 years ago. But at the heart of it, there is a story that appeals to kids, that speaks to them and matters to them. Some things are constant.”
At her school, Swan says she has witnessed some evolution of the term as well. “Sure, middle grade was just included with juvenile literature, then it was called ‘tween’ for a while, and now we’re using ‘middle grade,’ which seems to be the vaguest of the three.”
Scaling Slippery Slopes
Few things start a Twitter kerfuffle faster than a reporter mistakenly slapping a YA label on a book that kid lit professionals widely accept as a middle grade work. Why do people get it wrong? “Perhaps because it’s such a wide market and audience in terms of age, maturity, interests, subject matter, format, and reading ability,” says Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books. “There is a lot of overlapping too. Middle grade readers read books published for teens, and they read graphic novels and nonfiction and chapter books and picture books too,” she points out. “Middle grade readers are open and curious and smart and willing to try new things. They also know when a book is too scary or not right—they know how to set it aside for now. And when they love a book or character or story, they embrace it, or them, in an all-consuming way.”
According to Namrata Tripathi, former associate publisher and editorial director of Dial Books for Young Readers and now publisher of the recently launched Penguin Young Readers imprint Kokila, one potential answer is that “middle grade” is an industry term that the general public doesn’t know or really need to learn. “Another answer,” she offers, “could be that perhaps it’s not important. Certainly it’s helpful for parents and other caregivers, teachers, librarians, and kids to be able to find books that are age-appropriate, but wouldn’t many readers—young adults and adults—benefit from not being excluded from this rich trove of storytelling?”
Swan is of the opinion that mix-ups on this topic are probably inevitable. “I think so many folks are confused because the term is so indeterminate!” she says. “Also, there are many middle grade books that revolve around issues that sometimes people think belong more in YA, like abuse (Rain Reign), parent death (Counting by 7s), or sibling death (See You at Harry’s).”
Simonsen believes some amount of disrespect plays a role in how people misidentify middle grade. “I think there’s still a lot of condescension toward children’s books from the world at large and even from within the book industry,” she says. “So for those people who don’t take our entire category of books seriously, it’s not surprising that they can’t be bothered to figure out the differences between middle grade and YA.” But as Simonsen notes, within the children’s book world, confusion can occur when an author or agent believes something is YA that most editors would say is middle grade, or the other way around. “I think sometimes people don’t clearly remember what it felt like to be nine, for example, vs. what it felt like to be 14, and how vastly different their emotions and experiences and abilities were at those ages.”
For Norman, the confusion is a case of inside baseball, or inside publishing as it were. “I think most people know as much about the intricacies of children’s publishing as I know about the intricacies of animated movies,” she says. “Which is to say, the basics. The big titles that someone outside publishing could name—Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, The Golden Compass—blur the boundaries of middle grade and YA. Harry Potter started as middle grade, but those last books are really for an older reader; the Hunger Games is technically YA but is read by younger kids because kids ‘read up.’ See how confusing this explanation was? Can you name any animated movies from last year that weren’t either Disney or Pixar?”
Barring some exceptions, Barney doesn’t think the matter of differentiating the categories has to be so complicated. “While there are some hard-and-fast rules regarding what is middle grade vs. what is YA, like the ages of characters—though even those hard-and-fast rules can be malleable—the real distinction between middle grade and YA to my mind is about perspective,” she says. “In the middle grade years, readers, and thus characters, are often looking outside of themselves for the first time, questioning why things are the way they are. And during the YA years, readers, and thus characters, are often looking within, questioning, ‘Who am I, and what does that mean?’ ”
In terms of writing, Barney notes that perspective can be an easy thing to forget for adults who are no longer in the thick of those years and come to middle grade or YA with a particular story they want to tell, yet they haven’t yet considered the perspective from which they want to tell it. She posits that the point of view, and how it informs or changes the story, is essential to keep in mind in determining what’s best for a particular book.
Duncan ponders how assumptions about middle grade material and its audience might create some speed bumps in the pipeline from editor to reader. “I wonder if we sometimes make decisions and choices because we assume that a middle grade reader won’t be interested in, say, historical fiction or a quiet character-driven story or science fiction or a life experience completely unlike their own,” she says. “I wish we could celebrate childhood more—naive, I know—and let these readers linger in picture books or graphic novels until they decide for themselves to move on.”
Finding Viable Projects
As is the case in any area of publishing, editors and agents have distinct tastes and goals in mind when they consider taking on new talent. Several editors stress the burgeoning emotional growth and newfound independence of middle grade readers and how that fits into their thinking about acquiring and editing middle grade books.
Barney says, “To me, the middle grade experience has always been a very singular and special experience. It’s the first time kids are wondering about the world and their place in it.”
Barney recalls how her personal experience helped shape the adult she has become, noting that the ideals and passions she holds today were beginning to form during those middle grade years. “I was influenced not only by my family but my friends and their outlook and what was happening in the world at large. I was at my most impressionable and vulnerable. That’s how I see the middle grade experience, and that viewpoint is what informs my acquisitions and how I edit middle grade novels. It’s with the mantra of ‘handle with extreme care.’ ”
Barney adds that in her role as editor, she looks for what she’s always sought out as a reader: “Really memorable and affecting writing, for one. I remember as a kid poring over the lines a writer had written and posting the ones that had really affected me on the walls of my bedroom in the way that some kids posted pictures of their idols. I really love it when authors take chances in their writing and take on brave subject matter, topics that other writers just aren’t engaging, especially if it’s personal to them.”
As an example, Barney points to Kristin Levine, an author she’s worked with since 2007. “The Jigsaw Jungle [due out in June], her fourth novel, is a deeply personal book to her, dealing with the dissolution of her marriage because her husband came out as gay, and the impact that had on her and her two young daughters.” Barney considers it an “extremely brave and frankly necessary” story. “I’m looking for stories that readers will be able to connect to in real time, that reflect what’s happening in their world today but are written in such a way that they will become the classics of tomorrow,” she says.
At Albert Whitman, editor Annie Nybo is looking for stories that feature characters who are doing some soul searching. “To me, the heart of middle grade lies in the exploration of loneliness, whether it’s due to social isolation, loss, or a lack of understanding of oneself,” she explains. “It’s such an awkward time when you’re testing your identity against the universe and searching for your place in the world, and I think the best middle grade understands that.”
Nybo sets a high bar for how she hopes a title will affect her. “When I finish a middle grade novel, I want to feel good about being a human being,” she says. “To me, middle grade can have unadulterated moments of mercy and gentleness that the more plot-heavy YA cannot, and a good middle grade makes me feel proud of my fellow humans.”
A memorable voice was mentioned several times by editors and agents as one of the most sought-after attributes of a strong middle grade project. “I love voice- and character-driven middle grade,” Duncan says. “Stories that celebrate the themes that are so important during these years—friendship, family, belonging, loss, joy, sense of self, community, responsibility. Having a lot of fun. I love middle grade stories that open the world for readers.”
Szabla shares a similar affinity for voice, noting that “a strong and appealing voice” is the first thing about a middle grade novel that grabs her. She cites last fall’s Greetings from Witness Protection! (which was author Jake Burt’s middle grade debut) as a good example from her list. “It didn’t come in perfectly formed,” she says, “but the voice was the scaffolding that held the book together as we worked on revisions.”
An expanded variety of storytelling voices is something that Tripathi plans to offer readers via her new imprint (see “Diversifying Middle Grade,” p. 34). “At Kokila, we’re keen on opening the door a bit wider when it comes to the stories we let in,” she says. “I loved so many of the novels I got to read as a child, but how might our lives and our society have been shaped differently if the books we’d had reflected the actual world we live in, with all of us who are a part of it? Where would we be if we’d had access to stories celebrating a full range of experiences—not just the stories we expected to see? There are spaces and narratives from which storytellers have traditionally been excluded, and we want our authors to be free to tell those stories too.”
Rosenthal offers a broad mental wish list he refers to when on the hunt for a new acquisition. “I love epic adventures, comedy, and mysteries,” he says. “I love stories that play with format or that use artwork to move the narrative, whether that’s traditional graphic or highly illustrated novels, or something hybrid or innovative. I’m looking for books that are not centered on whiteness, stories told from underrepresented points of view that are specific and distinct, set in contemporary or fantastical worlds.”
When evaluating a potential project, Writers House literary agent Brianne Johnson says she wants to see “a fresh perspective on old wisdom, conveyed in an engaging, specific, voice-driven execution for a modern audience.” For McAden, the gold standard is humor. “I really love a book that makes me laugh. There are so many earnest, laudable books out there. So many people want them. I am just not one of them.”
Simonsen looks for writing that has humor but ups the emotional ante a bit, particularly novels with “that perfect blend of humor and heart; stories with a character I can fall in love with and root for, even when she’s going through some rough times, and even if she’s not handling them well.” As she explains, “I love stories about offbeat outsider kids—the artistic ones, the smart ones, the ones with a smart mouth, the ones dealing with some hard situations but strong enough to make it through. As long as the character and voice grab me, the genre can range widely.”
The Booming Market
The major book sales-tracking companies and, subsequently, many bestseller lists do not break out middle grade as a category, so it’s difficult to get a precise handle on how many books are being purchased. But sales of children’s books in the U.S. in 2017 were up 3% from 2016, according to NPD BookScan, with middle grade books Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The Getaway (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #12) by Jeff Kinney leading the charge. In fact, Wonder was the overall top-selling children’s book of 2017 in Publishers Weekly’s annual tally of bestsellers, and The Getaway was in the top spot in the hardcover frontlist category of that same PW feature, with Rachel Renée Russell’s Tales from a Not-So-Secret Crush Catastrophe (Dork Diaries #12) not far behind at #5.
“In America and abroad, publishers seem most excited about middle grade,” says literary agent Brent Taylor of TriadaUS. “I hear from publishers that their strongest sales are happening here. I have never seen middle grade flourish as much as it is right now.” PW’s reporting from this year’s recent Bologna Children’s Book Fair bears this out as well, with a number of U.S. literary agents and editors commenting on the strong international appetite for their middle grade fare.
On the bookstore front, Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., says that middle grade does very well in her store: “It’s our third bestselling category by unit, after board books and early chapter books.” She characterizes the store’s middle grade section as a special one: “Middle grade is a magical department for a lot of reasons. It’s the deepest backlist, it sells to a wide age range, it has strong sales in both series and individual standalone titles, and it’s the first real category that kids pick out for themselves.”
Laurie at Books Inc. tells a similar story, noting that middle grade sales are a strong second only to the stalwart board book category in her store.
In assessing the buying patterns and requests from her middle grade crowd, Compton notes, “I love to sell new titles, because eight- to 12-year-olds are very interested in new. They are the demographic that is most invested in trends, peer referral, and the independence that comes with reading things that their parents are not familiar with.” She says that apart from peer recommendations, her middle grade customers’ purchases are strongly influenced by their school library collections as well as social media forums such as YouTube and other media channels that are directed right to them.
Graphic novels continue to be stellar performers in the middle grade market (see “Middle Grade Storytelling Goes Graphic,” p. 50), and that’s certainly the case at 4 Kids. “There has been a continuous double-digit growth in graphic novel sales at this reading level for the last three years,” Compton says. “That is largely peer driven; most parents of nine- to 13-year-olds did not grow up reading graphic novels.”
The patrons of Howe’s library are frequent consumers of heavily illustrated books and graphic novels. “We have a very multicultural community with something like 49 languages spoken locally,” she says. “Anything with pictures to help the story along is a hit, especially Dork Diaries, Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, and Wimpy Kid. And I can’t keep most graphic novels for kids on the shelves, especially Kibuishi’s Amulet series, with its fabulous fantastical illustrations and creepy scenarios. There’s a little bit of excitement and fear that his titles instill in kids.”
Compton notes a growing sophistication in the middle grade category as well. “Kids are more interested than they used to be in diverse story lines, foreign settings, and social/economic diversity in plot and character.” Literary agent Johnson has observed a similar shift, and though she calls the middle grade market “great” right now, she also thinks it could be still more reflective of its readership. “There’s a real need for fresh stories that embrace new elements of modern life,” she explains. “The world is far from perfect, but in some ways, our culture is also the most awesomely diverse it’s ever been, and our stories for kids need to reflect that. We need stories that include all kinds of diversity—families with gay parents or single parents, different races and ethnic backgrounds, neurodiversity, and the differently abled.”
Though she lauds books that have featured some of these issues front and center, Johnson says, “My personal favorite is when they are normalized into part of a larger, richer tapestry and not directly focused on. I think it’s exciting to reflect just how wonderfully different families—and people—can be.” Along those lines, Johnson stresses that “middle grade fiction can be a tremendous empathy-building tool at a very developmentally significant time. What I want for the middle grade books I represent is to leave readers a little kinder and more understanding toward anyone who may seem different.”
In today’s robust middle grade market, trends are all over the map, encompassing brand-new—and some tried-and-true—genres, viewpoints, themes, and formats. “I’ve been happy to see the resurgence of realistic fiction and the renewed interest in books by [diverse authors] and inclusive of a diverse audience, something that I have always focused on,” Simonsen says. “Books with a hint of magical realism have also been popular lately, and fantasy, which is a middle grade mainstay, seems to be starting to gather steam again.”
In Brosnan’s purview, “Realistic standalone contemporary fiction with themes that resonate is quite popular these days. It’s becoming harder to launch new series.” And Nybo notes, “We’ve seen a big resurgence in literary middle grade over the past few years. I’ve also seen an increasing number of books that have some STEM influence.”
McAden has noticed a tendency toward darker, more complex subject matter in middle grade works. “I’ve seen a move toward subject matter that was previously cordoned off in YA or adult novels,” she says. “As if teenagers are the only ones aware of, or experiencing, the opioid epidemic or gender fluidity. There’s also been a remarkable sea change within the publishing industry regarding diversity. There is still a long way to go, but it is amazing and encouraging to see how quickly priorities are shifting and how open and eager we are.”
Barney echoes the sentiments of many colleagues when she says, “While I hope it’s not a trend and is just the norm of the market going forward, I’ve been buoyed to see many more middle grade novels featuring characters of color being published.” She notes that the children’s book industry has always published diverse voices, “though certainly not enough,” adding, “And I don’t know that we’ve consistently published these books well.” In today’s middle grade market, she points out that “these voices are not only being amplified but in some instances are truly dominating the bestseller lists and directing general conversations about culture and diversity even outside our industry, and that’s a really great thing to see.”
Taylor reports seeing “a lot of fantastic fantasy from underrepresented cultures and realistic fiction that feels more socially aware.” He observes that young readers in 2018 “feel incredibly articulate, so it is wonderful to see middle grade fiction with characters who represent the rich, diverse world in which we live.” Taylor says he hopes to see an uptick in paranormal fiction for young readers and adds, “Graphic novels are doing incredibly well, as well as unconventional and out-of-the-box projects: heavily illustrated, graphic novel-prose hybrids, novels-in-verse.”
Laurie notes that the boom in popularity for graphic novels extends beyond middle grade into “almost every category” as a trend. And she is personally searching for middle grade “works in translation and of course underrepresented voices” to put on the shelves.
Citing as an example the novel Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee (Aladdin, 2017), about a young cancer survivor who returns to middle school after being away for treatment, Red Chair Press publisher Keith Garton has noticed that “more books are respecting the sense of empathy that middle grade readers have.” Some of what Compton has seen at her bookstore dovetails with that idea. “The themes of diversity, kindness, and political activism and response to actual world events have been strong in the past year,” she says, surmising, “This is the Wonder effect at work.”
Expanding on her desire to see more inclusiveness in the market, Johnson says that she is happy that a “focus on fresh perspectives of all stripes” is what she’s getting in her slush pile, and it is also what editors seem to be looking for. “It’s always been important for middle grade fiction, but especially in the current cultural and political climate, I think many are realizing that we need modern empathy-building stories now more than ever.”
For more of the latest developments in the middle grade category, see our 2018 Spotlight on Middle Grade.