When they grow up, today’s kids will look back on childhoods defined by the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and climate change. They’re already struggling to understand these issues now, and one source they turn to is nonfiction books.
“Middle grade readers want the truth, and it’s our job as publishers to help deliver it to them in an engaging and accessible way,” says Lisa Yoskowitz, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “While we live in scary and uncertain times, kids will continue to need to find comfort, escape, and knowledge in books.”
The editors working to meet that need share an understanding about the readers they are trying to reach, but their approaches vary. PW talked with more than a dozen about how they are publishing middle grade nonfiction at a moment of upheaval and uncertainty.
Acquisitions that empower
For Andrews McMeel president and publisher Kirsty Melville, reaching young people means publishing young people. “Our approach to middle grade nonfiction is to amplify young voices already speaking for change,” she says. “The past year has clarified the urgent need for nonfiction that empowers kids to make tomorrow better in whatever way they can.”
That means leading readers by example. This month, senior editor Allison Adler is set to publish one such title, Generation Brave, a collection of illustrated profiles of Gen Z activists. “A lot of these activists started their work when they were in the middle grade age group themselves,” Adler says. “I’m hoping readers will find these activists inspiring, yes, but relatable as well.”
With so many digital demands placed on kids today, editorial assistant Kevin Kotur, who acquired Lucy Bell’s You Can Change the World: The Kids’ Guide to a Better Planet (Oct.), says that the books he is looking for also emphasize screen-free activities. “We’re even more inundated with screens now, given remote work and remote learning, and it’s reached critical mass,” he adds. “Books and hands-on activities provide a more fulfilling, more rewarding alternative to yet another TV show or game.”
At Abrams Children’s Books, acquisitions have taken on a sense of immediacy that can be seen in titles like Don Brown’s A Shot in the Arm! (Mar. 2021), a graphic novel about the history of vaccines, which includes a chapter on efforts to develop one for the coronavirus.
Publishing into the moment is standard practice for Abrams, whether the subject is science, medicine, diversity, or civil rights, but senior v-p and publisher Andrew Smith says that the house’s editorial focus has been aided in recent months by a noticeable uptick in submissions from authors of color. “We are seeing more nonfiction proposals written by and about BIPOC folks as well as members of the LGBTQIA community,” Smith says.
In addition to titles on Black history, in the coming year, Abrams is set to publish multiple middle grade books about Indigenous leaders in history, including Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker, Seneca Sachem and Civil War General (Oct.). And Abrams isn’t limiting itself to history. The publisher is also adding popular culture figures to its First Names biography series, including Beyoncé (2021).
#OwnVoices books are paramount at Delacorte Press, where senior v-p and publisher Beverly Horowitz is focused on adapting adult nonfiction for younger readers. Among the titles are Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which Horowitz just acquired for adaptation, and a young readers edition of The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Jan. 2021). Horowitz has also bought the rights to adapt Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Warmth of Other Suns along with Wilkerson’s 2020 release, Caste. She is also deepening her list of intersectional titles, with adaptations of books such as Alice Wong’s essay collection Disability Visibility.
“The importance of making readers and educators and parents aware of all aspects of the many injustices that our society has accepted and must reshape will be addressed in these books,” Horowitz says. It is a tried-and-true method that reflects one approach publishers are taking: sticking to long-standing practice rather than upending their publishing programs to address the current crises.
Crown has a preexisting partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Mallory Loehr, Random House Children’s Books executive v-p and publisher, says is producing nonfiction middle grade titles that fall squarely within this moment. And her colleague Michelle Nagler, v-p and associate director of publishing, points to History Smashers, a series by author Kate Messner that launched this year, which debunks myths that adults may be passing along to their kids.
Right mission, right time
Staying the course is particularly important for mission-driven companies with long-standing publishing programs, such as Orca Book Publishers, which is finding a new audience. “The focus of our list hasn’t changed,” says editor Kirstie Hudson, “but I think it has expanded and adapted to current events.”
When Covid-19 hit, Hudson had already acquired a title on homelessness, but she has since worked with the author to add sections about people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The same is true for a manuscript on accidental activists, which now includes more recent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though some publishers are reticent to address recent events too directly, Hudson believes there is no reason to avoid them. “I’m always looking at content through the lens of current events and thinking about how the text should be framed based on what’s happening in the world today,” she says. That means revisiting existing texts, too. Orca is updating and expanding the LGBTQ-focused Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle and issuing a newly revised version of Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation, about Indigenous social movements in North America.
Calkins Creek senior editor Carolyn Yoder is also staying the course, with a list dedicated to U.S. history and a long-standing mission to bring overlooked history to light. “If I come across a subject that I feel needs to be brought to the middle grade audience, I encourage an author to pursue it,” she says. One example is a manuscript on the 1965 Watts Riots, which Yoder acquired before the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. “The riots’ parallel to today’s events is significant and inescapable and I knew that young readers should be exposed to the long history of racial injustice through this turning point in our history.”
What has changed for Yoder is her own workflow, which is now substantially more collaborative than it was before the pandemic. “I talk to authors and illustrators and designers and other editors much more now, which makes the book process more of a team effort,” she says. “It also makes it much easier to understand and appreciate what drives an author or illustrator. What the pandemic has taught me is that we need to talk to one another more, to know what makes all people tick. It makes for better books.”
A new audience
Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, has seen a large upswing in submissions of books that highlight overlooked people of significance in American history, from Ella Baker to Frances Perkins. Because of the time lag between acquisition and publication, he says books acquired more than six months ago can look topical but actually reflect shifts that have been underway for some time. These include We Are in This Together (spring 2021), an autobiography by Women’s March cochair and BLM organizer Linda Sarsour, and Rebecca Stefoff’s adaptation of How to Change Everything (Feb. 2021), by environmental activist Naomi Klein.
What is new and surprising for Chanda is the substantial interest from S&S’s retail accounts. “Nonfiction books tend to be labeled ‘institutional’ in nature,” Chanda says. “They thrive in the school and library market, which is, of course, a cornerstone of our business. But we have noticed all accounts, from the smallest indie to the largest chain, seeking out these titles.”
While frontlist sales have dropped off in many areas across the trade, Chanda has noticed “significant buys” from all accounts on titles with connections to the present moment. He says the reasons behind the interest are clear. “There is a need for content that helps contextualize all that is happening, and because of that, these books are getting much wider distribution than ever before.”
Candlewick has seen that uptick in interest from the outset of the pandemic, growing partnerships to produce content that can quickly be transitioned to meet readers’ increasing demand for relevant books. The press rapidly produced a Covid-19 title available for free download earlier this year and is partnering with MIT Press on a new wave of STEM-focused titles that will expand its offerings in nonfiction. Senior publicist Jamie Tan says it is part of a deliberate approach to capture readers’ attention and provide flexibility.
Some forthcoming Candlewick titles address issues that are present in the lives of kids no matter what, like Welcome to Your Period by Yumi Stynes and Melissa Kang (Jan. 2021). Others address adventure, such as Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton (Oct.), and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat (Oct.).
The unifying idea behind the books is that they “allow kids to self-select their level of engagement,” Tan says. “They can read bits and pieces, delve deeply into the material, or focus on one particular aspect that intrigues them. The contemporary and forward-looking titles allow kids to explore new places and concepts from the safety of their own homes. Seeing others handle change and hardship gives readers a blueprint for weathering changes and hardship themselves.”
Knowing their readers
Helping kids deal with adversity is at the core of the mission of Magination Press, where editorial director Kristine Enderle is seeing the same trends that Chanda and Tan have noted. Magination, the children’s publishing division of the American Psychological Association, has long dealt with some of the toughest issues children face. “What’s heartbreaking is that our target audience has increased tremendously in size,” Enderle says. “Extreme and overwhelming uncertainty has really amplified stress and challenged so many kids, including many who didn’t really struggle before.”
To meet their needs, Magination issued two free e-books on coping with Covid-19, in English and Spanish, and donated thousands of backlist titles to kids in need. The press is now evaluating all of its forthcoming titles in order to incorporate relevant information and approaches to dealing with the pandemic and other current issues, while also keeping an eye out for titles that will address a reshaped world after the pandemic subsides.
Similar motives are driving the editorial mission of Free Spirit, a publisher with a longtime commitment to publishing books on social-emotional learning. Acquisitions editor Meg Bratsch says the press is now seeing intersections between the many different crises and movements instead of treating them as discrete. The press has noted an increase in the number of submissions by authors of color about mental health, trauma, and grief.
All of Free Spirit’s books focus on empowering kids. Prior to the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, Bratsch says, “these books lost a bit of steam due to the focus being so heavily on the big topics like gun violence and climate change, which I think some kids feel powerless to do much about, but now with this new civil rights movement moving into schools, I think kids feel freshly empowered to actually make change happen in their own backyards.”
That empowerment is part of a larger recognition that Chronicle editor Taylor Norman says is critical to publishing middle grade nonfiction: “Kids have their normalcy disrupted on a regular basis,” she notes. “They’re subjected to new, often arbitrary rules depending on different parents or school years or classrooms, and they’re constantly learning new things about the world that reconstitute their previous understanding of it. I think we’ve all seen that kids, consequently, are able to handle the mercurial nature of this time better than adults. I hope that awareness of kids’ implacability leads to books with a better understanding of exactly how complex daily existence is as a kid, and how little they complain about how much they cope with.”