The inaugural Middle Ground Book Fest came to a close on Sunday, August 2, with Back to the Future: What to Expect After 2020 in Middle Grade Publishing, a panel featuring Kaitlyn Johnson, literary agent at BelCastro Agency; Shelly Romero, assistant editor at Scholastic; Patrice Caldwell, literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary; Mabel Hsu, editor at HarperCollins/Tegen; and Megan Manzano, literary agent at D4EO Literary.

After the introductions, moderator Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington, HarperCollins/Tegen), one of the festival’s cofounders, asked the panelists to describe their respective roles. Hsu explained how editors read through agented submissions, taking acquired manuscripts through the approximately two-year publication process. “A lot of it is communicating with the authors,” Romero added, as well as communicating with the other departments involved in bringing a book to fruition.

Johnson described agenting as being the middleman between the writer and editor. Agents work with writers to polish their manuscripts and then send those manuscripts to editors, helping to negotiate contracts if a match is made, she said. Caldwell added her perspective as a former editor: “I don’t really think an agent’s role ends when we sell the book,” she said, speculating that she’s “very hands on,” as she brings up marketing plans and blurb-seeking and uses her own contacts to bolster the process. While Caldwell formally represents the author, it’s also “a partnership between me and the editor,” she concluded. “I want them to know that I’m their first resource.” Manzano agreed, saying that ideally, agents help their authors develop books and ideas for a long-term career.

Marks then asked why the panelists loved middle grade and why they choose to work with it.

“A lot of change is happening,” Manzano answered, identifying middle grade as a “crucial time period” and admiring the “first discovery aspect” and “whimsical atmosphere” endemic to middle grade novels.

“It’s a time when authors really start talking up to kids, and that’s really important,” Hsu said, appreciating the way that middle grade authors balance tough topics.

Caldwell said that for her, “it’s all about that grand adventure,” calling middle grade, especially contemporary fantasy, particularly memorable and “magical.”

Romero agreed with Caldwell’s assessment, asserting that middle grade books were “foundational” when she was learning English as a second language as a child. “I feel like you really do grow through your middle grade reading,” she mused. “It can just make kids have that long-lasting love of reading.”

“It’s that time of your life where that anything-can-happen persona clashes with the reality of life,” Johnson said. “There’s just so much potential behind it.”

Next, Marks asked the panelists for middle grade recommendations for projects they’ve worked on.

“I have two that are coming out next year,” Johnson shared: a sci-fi novel by Rebecca Thorne called The Secrets of Star Whales (North Star Editions), which she termed Dr. Who meets The Magic School Bus plus whales in space, and a contemporary novel by Jaime Berry called Hope Springs (Little, Brown), about a girl and her grandmother finding their forever home.

Romero named three from Scholastic Press: Keep It Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence, which deals with microaggressions, toxicity, friendship dissolution, and first crushes; Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo, a “voice-y and magical” debut about two witches from rival families in the Appalachians; and Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon, a horror novel featuring a Slenderman-esque figure called the Seeker.

Caldwell selected Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic Press), an Indian-American contemporary fantasy that was her first acquisition as an editor; Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad (Scholastic Press), a “heartfelt and spooky” novel; Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Disney/Rick Riordan Presents), “a book of my heart.” Caldwell also called out two forthcoming books: Nina Varela’s Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom (Little, Brown), a contemporary fantasy that centers a queer girl who goes through a chase through parallel worlds; and Julian Randall’s Pilar Ramirez and the Prison of Zafa (Holt), which features Dominican folklore and fantasy.

Hsu praised moderator Janae Marks’s From the Desk of Zoe Washington, which features “a voice that’s so true,” as well as the forthcoming One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu, a book about magic and expectations and the complicated feelings of family, and Filipino American artist Ken Lamug’s humorous graphic novel about a villainess named Mischief and her sidekick cat Mayhem.

Manzano named two books still in the midst of the submission process: a contemporary novel featuring “the sassiest 12-year-old” figuring out herself, her family, and her queerness when she’s sent to Scotland to live with her aunt; and a tough but ultimately hopeful novel featuring parental abuse, magic, and imaginary friends.

The panelists then shared their perspectives on why middle grade is experiencing a lot of growth.

Caldwell spoke on the early 2000s boom of young adult; “people in the industry are now looking for a new avenue.” The success of imprints like Rick Riordan Presents has also contributed to a flourishing contemporary fantasy middle grade scene. Ultimately, fewer authors are writing middle grade than YA, Caldwell said, so the area currently “has a lot more space.”

Moreover, the versatility of middle grade—lower and upper divisions—adds to the range, Romero reported, especially since middle grade can also attract reluctant readers through illustrations.

Manzano commented that because of the recent boom in darker YA and YA titles with adult crossover potential, “there’s more of a demand for that younger voice that we’ve kind of neglected for a few years.”

Caldwell noted that foreign markets, as well as school and educational markets, have been affected by the U.S. market pushing mostly YA and not enough middle grade-YA crossover titles.

Johnson added that historical middle grade narratives are becoming more popular because “we’re actually trusting those readers a lot more than we used to.” She concluded, “We’re at a point in our history right now where a unity and understanding in the younger generations is going to be pivotal moving forward in general.”

As for what each panelist hopes for what is on the horizon for middle grade, Romero requested more spooky stories and horror books, especially with diverse casts of characters, as well as middle grade supernatural tales.

Caldwell seconded the latter request, and added that nonfiction and graphic novels will continue being “a really healthy market.”

Manzano called for more diverse middle grade featuring identity exploration, from queerness to protagonists just “not being white,” as well as series that have the potential to grow with their readership.

Johnson re-emphasized her desire for more historical, as well as “deeper, more encompassing fantasies” and queer first-crush narratives.

Hsu hopes for a resurgence in kids’ sci-fi, as well as nonfiction about “random topics” that are “not just young readers editions” of adult titles.

The panel concluded with brief discussions on middle grade cover art, the middle grade-YA crossover market, and advice for aspiring middle grade authors.