Last month, Scholastic launched Dav Pilkey’s fifth Dog Man graphic novel, Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas, with a three million–copy first printing. That was big news, dwarfing Scholastic’s initial print run of 500,000 for Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts in 2014, and it shows the growing strength of the middle grade graphic novel category.
Middle grade graphic novels are expanding outward as well as upward: though Pilkey’s Dog Man books and Telgemeier’s middle school tales both rack up sales of well over $10 million per year, readers are snapping up a wide array of graphic novels from diverse creators with a variety of stories to tell.
Diverse Creators, Diverse Stories
Middle grade graphic novels have long been a diverse category, with many types of stories about characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and characters with disabilities. This diversity comes from the grassroots nature of the field: many creators start out by self-publishing their work, either online or as printed minicomics that they sell at festivals.
“It’s hard to go the traditional publishing route—getting an agent, having them pitch major publishers—and webcomics and minicomics are a way to get your work in front of an audience,” says Andrea Colvin, v-p and editor-in-chief of Lion Forge Comics. “I think this is an especially compelling model for anyone who is making work that is unique or doesn’t fit into what is happening in mainstream publishing right now. It’s also a way to build an audience. There are some really amazing stories out there. Of course publishers have figured that out, so now we’re falling over each other to get to the best webcomics.”
Crowdfunding—the use of platforms such as Kickstarter to raise funding from fans online—has helped new creators enter the field as well, says Gina Gagliano, who left her position as marketing director at First Second in May to become publishing director of the new Random House Graphic imprint. “I feel like Kickstarter and Patreon are giving people the ability to support the careers they are passionate about on a grassroots, micro level,” she says.
Though the Dog Man books are the top-selling middle grade graphic novels at the moment, they are outnumbered by the more realistic, contemporary stories first popularized by Telgemeier’s Smile in 2010.
Smile set the template for slice-of-middle-school-life stories pitched at girls 10 and up—a group that, until manga came along, had been underserved by comics publishers in the U.S. As it turns out, they can’t get enough. “There are, like, three books in the genre coming out this year,” Gagliano says, ticking off Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared, Svetlana Chmakova’s Crush, and Hope Larson’s All Summer Long. “That’s not a sufficient amount if you have a person who likes contemporary middle grade and goes to the bookstore every month.”
Readers playing catch-up might check out Chmakova’s Brave and Awkward, Shannon Hale’s Real Friends, Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s Sunny Side Up and Swing It, Sunny, or Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl and All’s Faire in Middle School, all of which were published in the past few years.
“I do think we are still in a place where the work itself, or at least the work that is finding a big mainstream audience, is a little homogenized,” Colvin says. “It’s really the Raina model—what she’s done has obviously worked really well and so publishers are looking for the next Raina, and creators are bending toward memoir and, in many cases, that kind of clean-lined style that is so easy to immediately visually parse. There are obvious exceptions, and I don’t think anyone is imitating Raina, but we’re all looking at what has worked to see if we can get in on it.”
It’s not unusual for readers, especially children, to want more of the same—that’s what makes series such as Goosebumps so popular. “I think comics make that even easier than prose books,” Gagliano says, “because any time you have a comics author you can just look at the book and you can tell it’s by the author because the art looks the same as the other books.”
Still, Colvin wants to see new types of books as well. “What I try to remember is that everything that’s really, really worked has been unique,” she says. “The Raina model didn’t exist before Raina. So I’m trying to cast a wide net and keep an open mind.”
Indeed, while contemporary slice-of-life stories are the most common genre, they are by no means the only one. The top-selling graphic novels also include Dana Simpson’s humor series Phoebe and Her Unicorn; Kazu Kibuishi’s fantasy series Amulet; and Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, which offers irreverent takes on real historical events. Crossovers from other media are popular, especially the Minecraft video game franchise, which is the center of a thriving subgenre that includes graphic novels such as DanTDM: Trayvaurus and the Enchanted Crystal and PopularMMOs Presents A Hole New World.
Children Lead the Charge
Booksellers say the graphic novel traffic in bookstores is largely driven by the kids themselves, who often hear about new books by word of mouth. “I swear, I feel like these kids read Publishers Weekly, because they’ll tell me when there’s a new Dav Pilkey or Jeff Kinney book weeks before I know about it,” says Jesse Post, operations manager of Postmark Books in Rosendale, N.Y. “I literally have nine-year-old kids coming in to preorder stuff.”
“This summer, we’ve been all about Be Prepared, ” says Meghan Dietsche Goel, children’s book buyer and programming director for BookPeople in Austin, Tex. “Outside of Raina Telgemeier, we’ve also—in recent memory—had huge success with Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, Nathan Hale, Real Friends, El Deafo, Positively Izzy, Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School series, Jennifer Holm’s Sunny series, and the Baby-Sitters Club, of course.”
Richard Corbett, new book buyer for Powell’s in Portland, Ore., describes his customers’ tastes as leaning toward “realistic graphic novels dealing with kids’ issues as opposed to fantasy.”
“Ours seem to go in two tracks,” Post says. “Either fantasy/adventure books like Nimona, Lumberjanes, and Bone, or more true-to-life stories about kids doing kid things, like Drama, Real Friends, and Making Friends—though that has some magic.” And Dog Man. “The Dav Pilkey force of nature is strong here, just like everywhere,” he notes. “Dog Man might be our bestselling series in the whole store, in any category.” On the other hand, he doesn’t see a lot of interest in other genres, such as superheroes and mystery.
Diversity: Following Many Paths to Publication
Encouraging diversity is a core value for many publishers of graphic novels for children. “Our job as publishers is to publish books that all kinds of kids can relate to, and seeing the real world reflected in our books is always part of our mission,” says David Saylor, v-p and publisher of Scholastic’s Graphix graphic novel imprint.
“Diversity is something I am thinking about every day while I’m building this structure of Random House Graphic,” Gagliano says. “It’s something that’s important to me, and it’s something that’s important to the industry.” She recently attended Flame Con, an LGBTQ-focused comics convention with an attendance of 7,000—comparable to some of the larger small-press shows. This community is well represented in middle grade graphic novels, in books such as Melanie Gillman’s As the Crow Flies, Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, Natalie Reiss’s Space Battle Lunchtime, and the Lumberjanes and Backstagers series.
Most middle grade graphic novels feature a varied cast of characters, whether in supporting roles or in the lead: the heroine of Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared struggles with her identity as the daughter of a Russian immigrant; Cece Bell’s memoir El Deafo deals with her experiences as a deaf child going to hearing schools; the upcoming Sanity and Tallulah by Molly Brooks features two female leads—one black, one white; and Alina Chau’s Marshmallow and Jordan, due out in winter from First Second, is a story about a girl in a wheelchair competing in a basketball tournament.
“I think there’s probably always been a good bit of diversity in the comics community, or at least in pockets of it,” Colvin says. “Maybe what’s different is that a more diverse group of creators sees the possibility of getting their work picked up by a mainstream publisher.”
“One way that Graphix sought out new talent was to host a publishing contest that specifically reached out to unpublished authors who weren’t familiar with the publishing world or might have felt it was an unreachable goal,” Saylor says. “Beyond that, we travel to comics shows across the country to find new talent.”
When Oni Press held open submissions in 2015, the editors emphasized that they wanted to see “new stories from new creators, featuring characters that reflect the diversity of the world around us.” That open call yielded a number of graphic novels, including Riess’s Space Battle Lunchtime, a story about an intergalactic cooking competition with a lesbian lead, and Mai K. Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods, which will be published next April.
The demand seems to be there: “Some of our bestselling graphic novels in the section are El Deafo and Real Friends, books that definitely reflect diverse perspectives, background, and points of view,” Goel says. “I think that people are looking for graphic novels to tell all kinds of stories. The more diversity the better, across all genres.”
And there’s still room for more. “I’d like to see more memoir from a perspective that’s not straight white female,” Colvin says. “I’d like to see more immigrant stories. I’d like to see more fantasy with characters of color.”
Just the Facts
Though fiction dominates the middle grade graphic novel market, the nonfiction category is growing. Hale’s Hazardous Tales series of history comics is a huge hit with middle grade readers. First Second introduced its Science Comics in 2016, and last year it announced a new series of Maker Comics that will debut in winter 2019. Gagliano says that schools and libraries are a big part of this market.
“Nonfiction does very well in my library,” says Eva Volin, supervising children’s librarian for the Alameda Free Library in Alameda, Calif. “Graphic novel nonfiction has a reputation for being extremely pedantic, very homework-focused, very utilitarian. That’s no longer true. Even publishers that are aiming at the library and school market are coming up with really good stuff, stuff kids would read recreationally and not just for a report.” Popular nonfiction titles in Volin’s library include George O’Connor’s Olympians series on Greek mythology (“I have to buy multiple copies because we can’t keep it on the shelf,” she says), First Second’s Science Comics, Udon’s Manga Classics, and all sorts of memoirs.
Post sees a lot of potential in nonfiction. “We’ve identified this as a big growth area that we need to improve on,” he says. “Our selection is too slim right now, but parents ask for these, and they sell—we do a brisk business with Hazardous Tales and books by Chris Schweizer and Jim Ottaviani, because those are pretty much all we have. We’re bringing in First Second’s Science Comics next week, and we’re planning to add a new title every week or so until we have a more impressive middle grade nonfiction section, including graphic novels.”
For Readers of All Ages
Middle grade readers are not all the same, obviously, and neither are the graphic novels being made for them. The Dog Man books and Lincoln Peirce’s perennially popular Big Nate titles are pitched at readers seven and up, while most of the slice-of-life stories are aimed at readers 10 and up.
Post sees readers stretching the boundaries of the recommended ages. “The more advanced younger readers will dabble in older graphic novels once they’re done with something more their speed, and they’re actually the main driver for sales of 10 and up books, like Raina Telgemeier,” he says.
Beyond that, Gagliano sees the potential to expand the range even further. “I think that one of the things that’s happening in middle grade graphic novels is that the attention focused on it is creating a spillover audience for both older and younger readers, which is amazing,” she says.
Lion Forge recently created a new imprint, Caracal, which targets the center of the middle grade age range, while its CubHouse imprint is now for readers eight and under. “The idea behind CubHouse is to start kids out reading words and pictures and then bridge the gap between picture books and graphic novels with more comics-style content,” Colvin says. “I think when kids reach self-reading age they are generally steered toward prose, and it takes them a little while to realize there are still stories out there told with words and pictures that aren’t ‘baby books.’ ”
“We are also seeing a gap in the market for teen graphic novels, particularly in the teen-friendly genres of romance, dystopia, and realism,” Colvin says. “Given how huge the teen prose category is, and of course how huge the middle grade graphic novel category is becoming, we think this might be the next big growth area.”
There’s still room for growth within the middle grade category itself. Volin says she would like to see more tween romances and relationship stories, which are driving the popularity of manga but are less common in American graphic novels.
Telgemeier, in a recent Facebook post, made it clear that there’s still plenty of room for more—and more diverse—graphic novels: “From the amount of fanmail I get that begs me to write a book about ‘a kid who is _____,’ I want to see more memoirs from creators who are LGTBQIA+, immigrants, bad at sports, differently abled, non-white, good at sports, neurodiverse, in school band, have pets, have divorced parents, have married parents, are only children, have siblings, step-siblings, half-siblings, have a physical or mental illness, speak different languages, practice religion, don’t believe in religion, wear a corrective device.... Whoever you are, however you identify, whatever you felt separated you from the crowd during your youth... get writing. The kids need your stories.”
Brigid Alverson writes about comics and graphic novels for a variety of publications.