"I think we’re in a golden age of books for middle grade readers,” says Charles Kochman, editorial director at Abrams and editor of Jeff Kinney’s popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Sales and industry buzz support his assessment. Seven of the 10 bestselling books of 2018, as tracked by NPD Bookscan, were middle grade titles, and the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid entry, The Meltdown, led the pack. And a number of agents and editors at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair earlier this month cited continued strong international interest in middle grade, too.
Within the vast middle grade category, there are three areas in which publishing activity has notably increased: heavily illustrated middle grade books (distinct from graphic novels, though those are still riding high), titles featuring characters who demonstrate neurodiversity and physical differences, and books containing LGBTQ representation. We asked middle grade editors to share their insights on these particular areas and to highlight some of their new projects that offer fresh approaches to format and/or subject matter.
In the Wake of Wimpy Kid
Middle grade books with plentiful illustrations are not a new phenomenon in children’s publishing. Editors in the middle grade space have frequently tinkered with formats over the decades, with such classics as The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlotte’s Web, and Roald Dahl’s canon coming to mind as early examples. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and James Patterson’s Middle School series and others have been part of a sizeable wave of heavily illustrated books published in the past 15 or so years. But illustrated middle grade continues to evolve, now featuring an even wider variety of art styles and formats. These books are being published more consistently of late, seemingly staking claim to their own subcategory. In the view of many, the latest spate of highly illustrated middle grade works began with a wimpy fictional middle schooler named Greg Heffley.
“As editor of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, I feel confident in saying the trend started in 2007 with the publication of Jeff Kinney’s first book,” says Kochman. Kinney’s work certainly ushered in a spate of “diary fiction,” a realm that includes the Dork Diaries and Big Nate series among many others. The overwhelming success of these books, especially with reluctant readers and boys in particular, caught the industry’s attention.
“My supposition is that we’ve all watched Wimpy Kid across the years and have understood that it’s not a trend but a new type of publishing,” says Taylor Norman, editor of children’s books at Chronicle Books. “Books that tweak that type of interplay between text and image have become their own minigenre, as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago, when we might have thought that it was having a moment,” she adds. “It’s clear it’s not going away.”
The move toward more visual fare for middle graders marks a generational shift, as well. “Kids today are so visually minded and discerning in their tastes for art,” says Christy Ottaviano, publisher of her eponymous imprint at Holt Books for Young Readers. “They are exposed to and interacting with art through gaming, through social media. They crave it, they want it.”
Brian Geffen, an editor at Holt, agrees, and shares his theory about the rise of illustrated middle grade. “I think it’s very much a response to a couple things—one being the surge in graphic novels,” he says. “I think kids are hungry for more visual content as evidenced by the explosion of that category. And, second, as visual entertainment and visual media has really expanded, particularly into the kids’ space, this is the book world’s response to that, to make sure that we’re keeping that audience engaged and we’re keeping up with the visual aesthetic of the age.”
The Look Is a Hook
Kinney’s groundbreaking format “cracked the code of making the reading experience feel manageable for a kid,” Kochman says. He points out that incorporating art into middle grade fiction is “just an evolution from reading picture books as a kid.” He adds, “You go from there to chapter books, and then longer and longer chapter books, and eventually you read books without illustrations. But if you enjoy reading, you never lose that love for the combination of art and text, and you go back to that well with comics and graphic novels throughout your life.”
Many editors agree that the look of these illustrated books has been the key to their appeal to various audiences, noting that the format comfortably rides the coattails of both Wimpy Kid and the still-booming middle grade graphic novel arena. “The hybrid text/graphic format adds a cinematic quality to the read that lends an extra layer of accessibility for kids,” says Dana Leydig, editor at Viking Children’s Books. “With the resurgence of graphic novels, there’s a demand for illustrated narratives in the middle grade space. It’s a perfect blend of prose and art, for kids just dipping their toe into text-only novels, or generally reluctant readers.”
“This is such a sweet spot for kids,” says Katie Cunningham, senior editor at Candlewick. “They can flex the visual literacy muscles that they have toned over years in the picture book world at the same time they strive toward mastery in the foundational literacy space. It feels like a very child-centered format, and we are always looking for that.”
Greenwillow Books executive editor Martha Mihalick notes that Knights vs. Monsters by Matt Phelan (Greenwillow, May), the follow-up to last fall’s Knights vs. Dinosaurs, checks many boxes for her, for readers, and for its author. “I’ve always loved books that play with form, and the interplay of the text and the art in these heavily illustrated books is such fun for readers,” she says. “The art isn’t there simply to enhance the story, but is an integral part of the storytelling. I love that Matt Phelan gets to use the full range of his skills in these books; he employs text, spot illustrations, full-page illustrations, and even comic panels to weave thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny stories.”
Jenny Bak, editorial director at Little, Brown’s Jimmy Patterson Books, adds: “It’s a really natural step going from picture books to chapter books to these heavily illustrated formats that make the transition even easier to nonillustrated novels. I feel like it’s that missing step that we were looking for between chapter books and middle grade novels.”
This new surge of highly illustrated middle grade books includes nonfiction, too. Mekisha Telfer, associate editor at Roaring Brook Press, believes there is plenty of room in the space to accommodate favorite, well-established styles alongside some newer takes—both of which are clearly striking a chord with reluctant readers. “We’re very familiar with National Geographic–type nonfiction chapter books,” she says. “They are photographic, they’re full color, very bright.”
But the Epic Fails series (edited by Telfer), which explores how some of mankind’s greatest successes actually sprung from failures, takes a different, equally effective approach. “Our books give kids real information in fun stories, with hilarious illustrations by Tim Foley,” Telfer says. “I think it’s such an interesting way to look at history.”
Similarly, Emily Daluga, editor of Amelia Earhart and Harry Houdini in the forthcoming First Names nonfiction series (Abrams, Aug.) by Kjartan Poskitt, illustrated by Geraint Ford, believes that the combination of art and text in these books goes a long way toward making learning about the past feel like taking an adventure. “It’s such an approachable format,” she says. “It makes history very unpretentious and fun for young readers. They feel like they’re reading about a new friend, rather than a stuffy figure from history.”
Daluga believes that history and biography provide stories that are inherently cinematic and lend themselves to illustration. “It’s one thing to read about the sorts of tricks that Houdini did or the kinds of flights that Amelia Earhart took, but it’s another to actually see how dangerous and impressive they really were,” she says.
Bringing Down a President (Roaring Brook, Aug.) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy, illustrated by Tim Foley, tells the story of Watergate, “but it uses almost exclusively originally sourced quotes and it reads like a screenplay,” according to editor Emily Feinberg. “It is a subject and story that is very complex.” Because of that she believed that it made sense to bring illustration into the project. “Almost every piece of art features a quote that is folded into the script and incorporated into the telling of the story,” she says.
Not surprisingly, editors working in the illustrated middle grade milieu find that their approach to a project often parallels that of their picture book–focused colleagues, beginning with submissions. Geffen at Holt says projects arrive in a variety of ways and with different expectations. “Some come to us from authors or illustrators who have a vision that they want their stories to be illustrated, because they feel there are strong visual components in there already,” he says. In other cases, separate authors and illustrators are coming to the table with ideas.
“And then there are instances where, for example, with The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner, it did not come illustrated and there wasn’t any indication in the pitch that the author or the agent had any expectation of it being illustrated,” Geffen recalls. Kassner’s debut is a dark fantasy whose main character has been “created by imagination and dust and bones and cobbled together by magic,” he says. “But as I was reading the story and quickly fell in love with this world that feels Tim Burtonesque, and a little Neil Gaiman–esque—think Coraline—I had these visions of a classic fantasy world that also felt very updated for our time. It felt like such a visual world that it needed to come to life.”
Another middle grade debut on Geffen’s plate is Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, which came to him already illustrated. “Remy is an author-illustrator and a graphic novelist, as well,” he says. “She mashed together the graphic novel and prose formats to form this hybrid.” Both of these books “needed to be visual,” he notes. “They are brimming with imagination in very different ways.”
Ottaviano has long been an aficionado of publishing illustrated middle grade works. “I would say most all of my middle grade fiction books are heavily illustrated; it’s something that I really love doing,” she says, referencing a broad range of examples, including Obert Skye’s The Creature from My Closet series to the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman and the Winterhouse trilogy by Ben Guterson. In the case of the forthcoming novel Time Sight by Lynne Jonell (May), Ottaviano says it was an editorial decision to incorporate illustrations. She praises Jonell for being “very inventive in the ways that she bridges realistic fiction with fantasy,” adding, “Fantasy is such a ripe area for copious illustration. There are so many books today that explore alternate worlds or play with fantasy and history, and I think it creates an opportunity for illustrators. They’re able to be imaginative in a whole new way.”
Ottaviano says that because Time Sight involves time travel and is set in the Scottish Highlands, she “tried to get in as much art as I could, including a map and some dramatic spreads.” She ended up with roughly 25 pieces of art in total, and five spreads with full-bleed art and no text paced throughout the novel. “When you’re thumbing through it as a reader, it looks very densely illustrated and I think creates a more visual package.”
With a wide range of art styles appearing in middle grade books these days, Ottaviano says that she has observed “more cross-pollination with animators and cartoonists and crossover in different fields.” She adds, “That’s refreshing. It used to be more compartmentalized.” She mentions a forthcoming fantasy title of hers, King of the Mole People (Aug.) by syndicated cartoonist Paul Gilligan, in that vein. The expansion of new creators into the children’s book space “brings much more to the table,” she says, “and it pushes us all.”
For illustrated projects that involve a creative pairing, “you’ve hit the sweet spot when there’s a symbiosis between the author and illustrator, when they’re pinging ideas off of each other and inspiring each other,” says Erica Finkel, senior editor at Abrams, who works on the Lumberjanes series written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Brooklyn Allen, and various series by Tom Angleberger (the creator of Origami Yoda and Didi Dodo, Future Spy). “The author might see a character in an illustration and start to think about their inner life, or the illustrator might add a joke through the art that the author hadn’t anticipated. The illustrations should serve as an elevation and extension of the story, rather than just a retelling of the text.”
Daluga agrees. “I think that at the heart of it, the illustrations and text really have to work together to tell the story, kind of like how a picture book does,” she says. “There are certain things that are served better being written out and some things that are more impactful when seen, so finding that balance of what’s going to be illustrated vs. what’s not is so important. A good balance of the two mediums really helps to keep the narrative pace up and keep readers engaged.”
For Andrew Karre, executive editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers, the inclusion of interior illustrations is only part of the story of My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi (Aug.), about a sheltered 12-year-old Alabama girl who loves all things sci-fi and outer space and is visiting her father in 1984 Harlem. “When I talk about the book, I describe it as a middle grade novel first and foremost,” he says. “The appearance of the art in the story is organic to the character and the particular way she experiences the world, so I hope that readers will see it as a logical way to depict Ebony-Grace. I’d like to think it will hook readers for seeming like a good storytelling choice—hopefully one of many—rather than simply by being visual art.”
Charlie Ilgunas, associate editor at Little Bee’s Yellow Jacket imprint, shares a similar opinion when talking about Crumbled! by Lisa Harkrader (Aug.). “Illustrations are important in adding detail and interplaying with the text, but I view them more as the icing on the cake,” he says. “The narrator’s voice is always going to be the main draw, and the thing that will get readers hooked for the rest of the books in a series.”
And, with an eye toward the future, Karre hopes that publishers will continue to take various new tacks that best represent their books and their creators. “I’d like to think the trend is larger than heavily illustrated middle grade,” he says. “From where I sit, the trend is an increasing willingness to use all the skills we have as publishers and editors to serve the author and her story.”
Neurodiversity and Physical Differences
Wonder by R.J. Palacio was published by Knopf in 2012 and has been on the New York Times middle grade hardcover bestseller list for 190 weeks. The story of Auggie, a previously homeschooled fifth grader with a facial deformity who attends public school for the first time, has spawned spin-off titles, a feature film, its own merchandise, and a forthcoming Broadway musical. But, most importantly, it inspired the Choose Kind initiative, which has challenged middle school teachers and students (and people of all ages, too) across the country to pledge to embrace empathy, tolerance, and inclusion by performing acts of kindness.
Arguably, Wonder has had a halo effect in several areas. As one example, 2019 looks to be a year that will feature a solid number of middle grade books that bring readers into the spheres of characters who may be neurodivergent or have physical differences. “I think there is a wonderful demand for books featuring neurodiverse characters and characters with physical differences, and some great writers are answering this demand,” says Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director of Walker Books US. “What excites me is that we’re seeing these characters not just in realistic fiction but in genres like fantasy and romance, where the focus is on the entertaining plot.”
Demand for these books is part of the larger clarion call to produce children’s books featuring underrepresented voices. “I’m absolutely seeing a demand in the market for more neurodiversity and disability representation,” says Sarah McCabe, associate editor at Simon Pulse. “People want the diversity of our children’s bookshelves to reflect the diversity of our world’s children. Plus, there’s so much we can learn from the way other people experience the world, especially if it’s outside of our own experiences. I don’t know of a single editor who’s not looking for more books like these. But publishing more books that include underrepresented voices isn’t enough. I also hope that this demand in the market will lead to more people who are neurodiverse or have disabilities being championed for their own stories by major houses and being hired to work in every level of the publishing industry. The push to diversify has to come at all ends.”
Margaret Ferguson, publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House, notes that increasing demand for these books stems from growing societal recognition. “I think there’s more awareness now of neurodiversity and of physical differences among our population, and we’re definitely seeing those [topics] show up more in our field,” she says. “Personally, I’m always glad when more children can see themselves represented in books. And I’m glad that children who may be neurotypical themselves can understand their classmates, friends, and neighbors a little better, too.”
At Scholastic, v-p, publisher, and editorial director David Levithan says, “We are hopefully getting to a place where neurodiversity is embraced and accepted by kids in the same way that other diversities are. We know the important context that novels can give to young readers, whether they are neurodiverse themselves, or whether they are sharing a classroom and friendships and families with kids who are neurodiverse. The more we talk about these things, the less ‘othered’ they become—that’s one of the amazing things fiction can do.”
Many books about neurodiversity and physical differences are informed by the writers’ connection to and passion for their subject matter. Levithan recently edited two titles that address different types of neurodiversity: Focused by Alyson Gerber, in which Clea discovers that she has ADHD, and Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler, about a fifth grader who is managing her sensory processing disorder as she deals with her dad’s new relationship and her anxieties at school. “What excited me about Focused and Not If I Can Help It is that, in both cases, authors I admired decided to write about neurodiversity from a very personal place, in order to bring a specific voice to the conversation about neurodiversity,” he says. “ADHD and sensory processing disorder are largely viewed as experiences that primarily happen to boys, and both Alyson and Carolyn were able to draw these experiences from a girl’s point of view. They’re also both writers who can appreciate the humor of any given situation, and I think that humor is a very important component of conveying something that can be very confusing and scary to kids.”
In Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic Press, out now), neurotypical Emma attends public school for the first time after being homeschooled and becomes friends with Jack, a boy on the autism spectrum, when the two bond over Emma’s rescue rabbit. “As Cynthia is someone who homeschooled her children for many years, is the mother to an autistic son, and has fostered more than two dozen bunnies, there was no question that this was a book straight from her heart and experience, and one that we wanted to publish,” Scholastic senior editor Emily Seife says.
But even if the writing directly reflects an author’s own life experience, author and editor work as a team to ensure that the resulting book is as accurate and authentic as possible. Dusti Bowling’s novel Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling, Sept.) is her second title about Aven Green, a girl born without arms who is now about to begin high school. “It’s helpful to know and understand the author’s personal connection to their story,” says Sterling executive editor Suzy Capozzi. “Oftentimes, as with Momentous Events, the author has already contacted individuals who have firsthand experience with the story’s subject matter, are members of communities depicted in their work, or are specialists in the field. It’s great when an expert reader gives their endorsement, but I think it’s equally satisfying when they point out issues that need to be addressed, because we’re always looking to represent a particular community as accurately as we can.”
The authenticity vetting for Her Own Two Feet by Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze (Scholastic Focus, Oct.)—which tells the true story of young Rebeka’s journey from Rwanda to a host family in Austin, Tex., where she received surgeries to correct her clubfoot—was extensive and bilingual. “In general, I try to hear from as many informed readers as possible because no two perspectives are the same,” says associate editor Amanda Shih, who worked on the book. “Her Own Two Feet is coauthored by Rebeka and her host mother, but Rebeka isn’t fully proficient in written English yet,” she explains. “Meredith worked with Rebeka at length while writing to capture her thoughts and experiences accurately, then had the finished manuscript translated into Kinyarwanda, recorded to CDs, and sent to Rebeka and her family in Rwanda to ensure that they could listen to the translation and provide feedback. The book also went through authenticity reads by a Rwandan man now living in the U.S. and a Rwandan woman who works with children with physical differences in Rwanda, in addition to basic fact-checking.”
Ferguson relied heavily on the author’s expertise when it came to verifying accuracy in The Space We’re In (Oct.), a debut novel by Katya Balen about a 10-year-old boy navigating his relationship with a younger brother who has autism. “I would usually have an expert review the book, but, in this case, I consider the author to be the expert,” Ferguson says. “She has worked in schools with children who are autistic as well as with some who have complex physical needs. She has also worked as part of a social care team for Oxfordshire Council, specializing in helping autistic children and their families. And she is cofounder of Mainspring Arts, a not-for-profit that creates opportunities in the arts industry for neurodivergent people to tell their stories using their own voices.”
Ferguson says that when she spoke with Balen about her portrayal of Max, the author said she would never want to write the story from the perspective of someone who was neurodivergent, but she felt that she had enough context and understanding to make the book inclusive in its characterization of Max.
Most editors express the common hope that books about neurodiversity and physical differences can serve as both mirrors and windows for readers, opening them up to reflection and discussion. “This subject matter is important to represent, for both kids who might have a physical difference, as well as those kids who might have a fellow peer within their school or community who has a physical difference,” says Alyson Heller, editor of Born Just Right (Aladdin/Jeter, June) by Jordan Reeves, a tween advocate for limb difference, and her mother, Jen Lee Reeves. “One of Jordan’s favorite sayings is ‘don’t stare—just ask,’ as many times she has encountered uncomfortable situations where people awkwardly stare at her, rather than attempt to engage,” Heller says. “And one main thing that we hope can happen from this book is to encourage these kinds of conversations.”
Maggie Lehrman, executive editor at Abrams, notes that the forthcoming novel Up for Air by Laurie Morrison (Amulet, May), in which a girl who struggles with a learning disability excels at swimming, offers some powerful messages alongside relatable themes. “I hope readers empathize with and see themselves in Annabelle’s story,” she says. “Laurie weaves in so many beautiful, subtle threads, including toxic friendships, feeling pressure to fit in with older kids, jealousy and insecurity, and, most importantly, how to believe in your own self-worth and what makes you special.”
Ferguson believes that books about differences hold universal truths for anyone. As a case in point, The Space We’re In “isn’t a story about how an autistic child can learn to be ‘typical,’ but more of a celebration of his uniqueness,” she says. “I hope readers will relate to Frank and how he learns to love Max for who he is and take away that this is something that applies to all of us no matter what our situations are.”
LGBTQ Voices in Middle Grade
“There’s absolutely a demand for more books with LGBTQIA+ representation, and I’d love to see more cross my desk,” says Leydig at Viking. “Right now, many publishers are playing catch-up to fill a void in the marketplace for middle grade and YA featuring LGBTQIA+ characters. There aren’t enough, and we’ve got a long way to go before we can feel like we are adequately serving our young audience.”
Norman at Chronicle says she is “definitely” noticing more books with LGBTQ representation. “It’s become part of the pitch,” she says. “Agents will highlight that as a component of a main character. I am also seeing a decreasing number of books that are just about a white, straight girl coming of age. I think that’s become a much smaller proportion of my submissions inbox. The pie chart is devoted more to people of color, of different sexualities or gender preferences, and that has been on the rise, 100%.”
Levithan at Scholastic says expanded awareness and visibility of LBGTQ communities in the United States is one reason there are more books in this area. “To me the question, ‘Do you see more LBGTQIA+ representation in your books?’ is the same question as, ‘Do your books accurately reflect the world we live in?’ ” he says. “The books are emblematic of kids’ experiences in 2019 America: sometimes the LGBTQIA+ experience is central to the identity of the main character of the novel, and other times, the non-LGBTQIA+ main characters have LGBTQIA+ people in their lives. It’s far more normal at this point for a novel to have a LGBTQIA+ character than not, because it’s far more normal at this point for a kid to have a LGBTQIA+ person in their life.”
Calista Brill, editorial director at graphic novel imprint First Second, notes, “A huge portion of the middle grade and teen submissions I’m seeing lately offer really good representation in the LGBTQIA+ space.” Tiffany Liao, editor at Holt, has noticed more of a breadth of representation, too. “Where previously we had been seeing a lot of submissions where that aspect of identity was the central source of conflict, we’re seeing a lot more representation where it’s just an intrinsic and organic part of the character,” she says.
Many books addressing LGBTQ representation are #OwnVoices works, or inspired by the personal experiences of authors. As Joan Powers, group editorial director at Candlewick, puts it, “Those stories are by nature authentic”—so ensuring authenticity and accuracy is “about digging deep into the emotional journey and asking questions—many, many questions.”
Liao adds, “Even if it is an #OwnVoices book, no one author’s experience can encompass everyone’s experience in a community, so we try and stay on guard for blind spots.”
And, as is often also the case with books featuring neurodiversity and physical differences, many editors take great care to additionally vet books with LGBTQ representation by inviting expert assessment. “We’re aiming to have a very diverse and inclusive publishing list,” Brill says. “But we also recognize the limits of our own points of view editorially. First Second works with a very wide range of authenticity readers who we bring on to speak to their own lived experience and read books that include characters who have that lived experience. And we get incredible notes from them. It’s become an indispensable part of our editorial process and one that I think our authors have been very grateful that we provide. For any book that has a character from a marginalized background or with a marginalized identity, we make an effort to have at least one authenticity reader read it twice and work with the author to address any notes they might provide.”
Bringing LGBTQ Stories to the Page
Powers says she wanted to publish Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles because it “has all the qualities that I love about Jo’s work: the characters we trust and believe without reservation; the range of emotion on display from scene to scene—sometimes within a scene; the taking on of issues that haven’t been explored in depth in other novels.”
According to Powers, this particular novel explores the inner life of a girl who is beginning to understand and question her sexuality: “She’s not coming out; she’s wondering, opening herself up to possibility. Nothing is black-and-white, and being 13 means that gray areas may get lighter and darker but are likely to be gray for quite some time. It’s okay not to know who you are or who you might become. I hope readers take away an understanding and appreciation of this notion, which can bring comfort in their own lives, and empathy for others.”
In the graphic novel The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson (First Second, out now), Faith worries about how she will fit in at middle school and soon discovers a new group of friends when she joins the school soccer team—even though they are on the C squad and are so busy with their off-field concerns they can’t win a game. Brill says the book draws directly from Johnson’s experiences as an educator. “She works with middle grade students who come from a really wide variety of backgrounds and are dealing with some of the family and identity issues the kids in this book are dealing with,” Brill says.
Author K.A. Holt wrote Redwood and Ponytail (Chronicle, Oct.) “for the tween she was,” Norman says. “When she was a tween, there were no queer characters in middle grade fiction. Middle grade fiction was romance stories about boys meeting girls and girls having crushes on boys. There’s a real absence of middle grade characters who are having those feelings but having them for someone of the same sex.”
Norman has two big hopes for the book. “One is that a kid who hasn’t seen herself in a book before sees herself in a book,” she says. “The second part of that is that I think it’s great and really important for gay characters to get to have a middle grade romance that is not traumatic; it’s just a girl-meet-girl story. I love the idea of people rooting so hard for these girls to get together because there is love between them, and for the question of their sexuality to kind of disappear.”
Norman shares Holt’s view when she says: “Gay kids read about kids who were not gay falling in love with each other all the time and nothing bad happened. The straight kids can take a little lesson from all those many, many years of gay kids not having gay romances to read.”
Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (Viking, May) explores representation of trans characters. “Zenobia is the new girl in school, desperate to fit in and learning to be comfortable in her own skin,” Leydig says. “We can all agree that’s a common feeling among middle grade readers. Zenobia is also coming to grips with presenting her true gender for the first time. Her anxieties as she wrestles with the challenges of her new school will resonate with trans and cis readers alike, and the added layer of a cybermystery makes Zenobia’s story a novel that’s about much more than her gender identity. Representation of trans characters in middle grade is important for kids who need to see themselves depicted in mainstream media, and for all young readers who need windows into experiences like Zenobia’s.”
On the nonfiction front, Howard Reeves, editor-at-large at Abrams, believes that young readers deserve a book that introduces gay history, and that’s why he wanted to publish The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman (Abrams, May). “When I first started in children’s publishing in the early 1990s, I looked for children’s books about being gay or that had gay characters,” Reeves says. “There weren’t many, and the ones that existed most often had a dark, not-so-happy storyline. There wasn’t a gay history that I recall.”
For this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Reeves says, “It’s important for young readers to understand that a lot happened in the Gay Revolution—made possible by some very brave and persistent women and men—to get us where we are today. But we aren’t out of the water yet. Histories allow people to learn about their own communities, and, just as important, they help people outside one community to understand and appreciate another. I learned a lot editing the book, and I hope it will open the doors of pride, enlightenment, and compassion to both those in the LGBTQ community and those who are not.”
Alessandra Balzer, v-p and copublisher of HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray, speaks for many of her fellow editors and publishers who are pleased that LGBTQ representation in children’s books continues to grow. “Not so long ago, LGBTQ books were pigeonholed as only being for LGBTQ readers and mainly supported in the institutional market,” she says. “Now we are seeing them rightly take their place as mainstream hits. Big successes like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda proved that all readers are interested in reading LGBTQ stories, not just those who identify that way. But more and more kids and teens are now proudly embracing their LGBTQ identities as well.”
Levithan further lauds the move toward more inclusivity. “What’s exciting now is that we’re seeing such an astonishing intersectionality in the LGBTQIA+ stories being told and the LGBTQIA+ characters that appear within various stories for various ages,” he says. “A book like Aida Salazar’s The Moon Within [Scholastic/Levine, out now] is about many different aspects of identity, but Aida manages to show how interconnected they are, and how the rites of passage of gender can become more complicated, but still valuable, when you start to question a rigid notion of gender. We are trying to create an inclusive world outside of the books, and to do that we need to show a thoughtfully inclusive world within the books.”
For a deeper look at new middle grade books on these topics, see our book list.