Children’s publishing luminaries gathered for “Market Trends—Middle Grade and YA,” a New York Rights Fair panel held on May 31, the final day of BookExpo. The panelists were Jenny Bent, president of the Bent Agency; Stacey Barney, executive editor at Putnam Books for Young Readers; David Levithan, v-p/publisher and editorial director of Scholastic; and Rosemary Stimola, president and founder of Stimola Literary Studio. Moderator Amy Gordon, v-p/children’s and YA literary scout at Bettina Schrewe Literary Scouting, guided the wide-ranging discussion that looked beyond temporary trends to the more substantive shifts in the YA and middle grade publishing landscape.
Gordon set the tone by observing that no singular genre or series currently dominates the industry in the same way that The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson did in their prime. Stimola warned against using those zeitgeist franchises as the only barometer of success, and falling into the trap of publishing on trend. She recalled reading the manuscript of a novel told in verse with a middle grade Vietnamese protagonist, “If I had just thought about it in terms of trend and market, I would have turned away from it.” The book, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, went on to win the 2011 National Book Award as well as a Newbery Honor. “If you’re going to think about trend,” Stimola said, “be a trendsetter.”
Barnes reiterated the futility of chasing trends as a success strategy, reminding the audience that titles being published this year entered the pipeline two or three years ago; predicting the hot trends years in advance is hard. It does not surprise her, however, when big franchises with similar themes appear at the same time, because “writers write about what is happening presently in the world and filter it through all sorts of genres.”
On the readers’ side of the equation, Levithan noted it “doesn’t take a brain surgeon” to understand why kids are gravitating to thrillers and horror, citing the fear and uncertainty young people are seeing on television and other news outlets. He was particularly enthusiastic about the emergence of middle grade horror that is scary without being explicit and depicts ways to navigate the terror, as kids “want to be afraid, but then they want the book to make them unafraid at the end.”
Gordon introduced the topic of narrative nonfiction, which provoked a passionate discussion around necessity, relevance, and hope. “It’s scary,” Levithan stated. “Facts and truth are more important now than ever.” He pointed to Scholastic Focus, the publisher’s narrative nonfiction imprint launched in 2018, as a platform for established and emerging voices to help young readers understand their own history as well as the history of the people around them, “in this era where there is plenty of information and no context.”
Stimola also endorsed contextualizing historical stories in ways that are relevant to the lives of young people today. By way of example, when Claire Hartfield’s manuscript of future Coretta Scott King Award winner A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 crossed her desk, she was struck by how familiar it sounded once she peeled back the historical curtain. “One hundred years later, we’re still talking about many of the same issues.”
On a contemporary note, Barney spotlighted My Corner of the Ring, the middle grade memoir of 12-year-old female boxer and Olympic hopeful Jesselyn Silva due out this month, as an example of nonfiction as a tool of empowerment. Barney, whose nonfiction acquisitions are primarily memoir, explained that with the advent of social media, young people today have unprecedented access to information and tools to pursue their dreams. “They are doing extraordinary things,” Barney remarked, “and they are their own source of inspiration.”
The conversation turned to graphic novels, which Stimola described as having “absolutely exploded across publishers” in the United States but not yet internationally, “with the exception of a few territories.” Bent was quick to point out the potential of graphic novels as a “gateway into reading” for young people who “experience life so much more visually” than previous generations.
Moderator Gordon segued from graphic storytelling to screen storytelling by noting the proliferation of streaming services and their seemingly insatiable appetite for literary-based content. According to Bent, it is an exciting time as streaming services more than ever are “open to all kinds of voices.” And not only is more material being optioned, but “things are getting made,” Bent said, a reference to Hollywood’s notoriously slow moving development process. Stimola joked that a new streaming service is being announced “every other minute,” which she celebrated for opening up opportunities for books not well-suited for the big screen. “Film people are starting to mine backlist” for material adaptable for episodic and binge viewing.
When asked if Hollywood potential impacts their decision-making process, the panelists answered with a resounding “no.” Barney added she has seen an increase in submissions “somehow attached to Amazon or Netflix” which she considers a bonus, but “first it has to work in the YA or middle grade market, and I have to love it.”
The next topic for discussion was audiobooks. Bent, whose agency represents both adult and children’s authors, said they have adult titles doing brilliantly in audio to the point where “audio is outselling print,” but she is not seeing the same level of audio success in YA and middle grade. For Stimola, “It’s a title by title story.” Barney concurred, saying, “Audio follows the life of the book itself,” and she noted that her company is “really thinking of audio as a place of growth.”
The session closed with a robust discussion about diversity. Barney credited We Need Diverse Books for its “clarion call” that “all publishers are behind.” Levithan also praised WNDB for articulating “something that needed a very sharp articulation and focus that everybody could use to effect change.”
The moderator asked if there is more progress on diversity in children’s publishing than adult, and why. Bent provided a succinct response, “In children’s we have greater responsibility to our readers.” Levithan added, “We are an activist community,” and despite publishers competing with one another in the marketplace, “we are all on the same side.” For Stimola, even as children’s publishers take action on inclusion and prove audience appetite for diverse stories, “the larger conversation still has to do with gatekeepers,” and instances of “soft censorship.”
Levithan emphasized publishing still has a way to go, “but it is incredible how much has changed in five years.” He reiterated this point during the audience q&a, in which he highlighted the upcoming wave of #OwnVoices fiction debuts, saying, “The shelves are not going to look like they did 10 years ago.”