When Covid-19 rendered traditional book events impossible this past spring, authors and publishers stepped up to the plate to take those events digital. Several months later, authors and publishers are mastering the fine points of the digital event game and honing their strategies for delivering quality programming as well as book sales. Here we look at some of the efforts in the virtual space that focus on the middle grade category.

“With schools across the country opening in a multitude of ways this fall—all-virtual, all-in-person, and hybrid—it’s been more challenging to schedule the type of middle grade author tours we have found successful in the past,” says Lauren Hoffman, v-p and director of marketing and publicity at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “Therefore, to make the most of virtual events, we have started pairing select middle grade authors for larger interactive conversations. Most recently, for example, we partnered authors Stuart Gibbs and James Ponti for virtual events to discuss their middle grade series [Spy School and City Spies, respectively]. We have also increased author participation in webinars and digital events sponsored by a variety of organizations, such as Junior Library Guild, as well as educational virtual conferences.” Hoffman’s team created a page on the company’s Book Pantry education and library department’s landing page to highlight some recent virtual efforts.

At Fabled Films Press, creative director Tracey Hecht, author of the Nocturnals middle grade series, and debut author Erin Yun, whose middle grade novel Pippa Park Raises Her Game was released in February, have recently teamed up for virtual events. “Our strategy is to try to promote both authors at the same time when we can to the same bookseller, library, or school, as the effort to create a [joint] program can produce double the results,” says Stacey Ashton, head of operations, sales, and marketing.

“We see a lot of value in pairing authors for virtual events, and in some cases, we’ve been able to arrange groupings that never would have been possible—or at least would have been much more challenging—in a physical setting,” says Mary Van Akin, associate director of publicity for Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “One event that comes to mind is a multiauthor Dungeons & Dragons campaign that we are organizing with author Aaron Reynolds and [Denver bookstore] Second Star to the Right for the launch of his Fart Quest series [on September 27]. Young readers will be able to tune in to watch some of the biggest names in children’s literature on a D&D campaign together. In a way, the virtual setting has pushed us to get even more creative with what experiences middle grade readers have at events, and this one is a prime example of that.”

HarperCollins is employing the multiple-author approach with its fall slate of Shelf Stuff virtual events, hosted on the company’s middle grade–centric Shelf Stuff YouTube channel and featuring a different bookstore partner for each event. The first takes place October 6 at 6 p.m. ET and presents authors Lisa Greenwald (13 and 3/4 [Friendship List #4]), Tom O’Donnell (Heroes Level Up [Homerooms and Hall Passes #2]), and Tom Watson (Stick Dog series) pairing with Rediscovered Books in Caldwell, Idaho; the second, on October 19 at 4 p.m. ET, spotlights authors Paula Chase (Turning Point), Kim Ventrella (The Secret Life of Sam), and Saadia Faruqi (A Thousand Questions), joining with R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn.; and the third, on November 4 at 5 p.m. ET, showcases authors Jonathan Messinger (The Accidental Volcano [The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian #2]), Philippe Cousteau (The Endangereds), and David Slavin and Adam Lane (The Oddlympics [The Odd Gods #3]), teaming up with Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Finding what works

Trial and error has helped publishers determine which ideas for virtual events will fly. “We have experimented with new promotional levers, calls to action, and partnerships,” says Noreen Herits, executive director of publicity at Random House Children’s Books. “Key elements of a good multiauthor digital event include an extensive promotion campaign for the event, secure programming channels, an open chat module for community engagement, and a bookselling component including retail partners or book-bundled tickets. We developed a virtual summer camp partnership with [arts education and media company] Story Pirates that was one of our most successful event programs to date and included many of those elements.”

According to Herits, each week of the camp featured virtual visits from RHCB authors and illustrators, as well as interactive livestreamed activities led by the Story Pirates. “Working with an already-established program such as the Story Pirates Creator Camp, which is branded as ‘the world’s silliest online summer camp,’ enabled us to leverage their reach and production capabilities,” she says. Participating RHCB authors included Nic Stone (Clean Getaway), Judd Winick (the Hilo series), Lincoln Peirce (Max and the Midknights), Lucy Knisley (Stepping Stones), and Kate Messner (The Mayflower [History Smashers]).

“Ultimately, the same factors that made for a strong in-person event will make for a strong virtual event,” Van Akin says. “It is as important as ever to put together thoughtful author combinations to ensure a diversity of perspective is represented and that the event format is inviting for young readers. We’ve been working on making the best use of all the bells and whistles of virtual event platforms to give audience members as much opportunity as possible to participate while still keeping the virtual event environment safe for all involved.”

The biggest change involved in moving from in-person to virtual events, according to Van Akin, is that “we’re reaching an audience at a national level. So, while it does take creativity and dedication to build awareness for a virtual event, the potential to reach an even wider audience than was possible in person is huge.”

Hoffman at S&S also cites the national reach of virtual events as a big plus. “It gives kids the opportunity to ‘meet’ authors no matter their location,” she says. “Kids are able to see authors up close and peek into their homes.”

Though the upside of virtual events is appealing, challenges remain. “In-person festivals are more effective in terms of connecting with audiences and selling books, as kids have the opportunity to meet authors in person, ask questions privately on the signing line, and take pictures,” Hoffman says. “In-person festivals also usually take place on weekends, allowing families to make a fun outing of the day, as opposed to more screen time. Attention spans are harder to maintain virtually versus in-person.”

Book sales—obviously a key component of book and author events—can be another challenge in the virtual arena. According to Herits, “While these events bring in large audiences with an opportunity for a wider demographic reach, we tend not to see comparable sales to in-person festivals.”

Authors are vital to the success of digital events. “I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one that authors are incredibly creative when it comes to their approach,” Van Akin says. “After all, many of them have spent years meeting young readers in person across the country and have a great sense of what is going to be engaging to readers and gatekeepers. We work hand in hand with authors to sculpt their virtual events strategies as well as support efforts they are making on their social media channels to provide content for middle grade readers.”

Van Akin cites Susan Tan’s Authors Everywhere! YouTube channel as an example. “She compiled workshops, readalouds, and art demonstrations right at the start of the pandemic,” Van Akin says. “We’ve seen a lot of writers respond just as creatively, and we know we’ll continue to learn from past events to continue finding new ways to reach readers during the pandemic.”

Hoffman has also observed numerous authors focusing their energies on crafting successful digital efforts. “Since the pandemic, authors have been making the most of their virtual appearances, as well as offering fun assets and content online,” she says. “For example, 18 middle grade authors founded the Renegades of Middle Grade, a website dedicated to establishing ‘a new version of our community that allows educators and readers alike to be part of it too.’ ” The site features authors’ book recommendations and their middle school yearbook photos, as well as games and information about hosting school visits. (See “Renegades of Middle Grade”).

Another S&S author, Jason Reynolds, national ambassador for young people’s literature, has also been “connecting with families and educators directly online during the pandemic,” Hoffman says. “He offers weekly creative challenges in his Write. Right. Rite. video series in partnership with the Library of Congress. And every Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET on Instagram, he conducts a live interactive brain game for kids with prizes, called Brain Yoga.”

Event inspiration is everywhere

The huge slate of publisher and author virtual events that children’s book creators produced during the pandemic this sprin and summer included the Everywhere Book Fest (May 1–2), spearheaded by authors Melanie Conklin, Ellen Oh, and Christina Soontornvat and featuring more than 50 other participating authors and illustrators. “A virtual book festival really has the potential to fill a growing need in the kid lit community,” Soontornvat told PW prior to the festival launch. “We need to celebrate stories and uplift each other’s voices now more than ever.”

The organizers recruited volunteers and consulted WriteOnCon and Educator Collaborative Gathering for those organizations’ virtual conference and livestreaming expertise. The festival book sales benefited a number of independent booksellers, and the programming was made accessible to viewers with disabilities, including the deaf community. The overwhelmingly positive response to this successful festival soon inspired others in a variety of ways.

Caitlin Whalen, manager of consumer and educator shows at Random House Children’s Books, and her team were motivated by what they saw during the Everywhere Book Fest to enhance their own virtual event planning. “The author-run Everywhere Book Fest incorporated ASL interpreters into all panels,” she says. “We were able to take this key learning, work with their ASL partners, and provide the same essential service at Penguin Random House’s own Book Your Summer Live event [August 21–22] for our participating authors and viewers.” PRH’s cross-divisional Consumer Conference team created the virtual book festival to “celebrate its authors, illustrators, retail partners, and readers,” according to the company’s website, with a goal of developing “an exceptional experience that will bring our creators and attendees together while being apart.”

YA authors Ismée Williams (This Train Is Being Held) and Mayra Cuevas (Salty, Bitter, Sweet) were both invited to participate in the Everywhere Book Fest, and the experience proved the creative catalyst for their own virtual venture. “We wondered what it would be like to have a similar event for the Latinx community,” Cuevas says. “We wanted to create a space where book lovers everywhere could come together to celebrate Latinx authors, illustrators, and their books. Thanks to the help of Las Musas [a collective of women and nonbinary Latinx children’s and YA debut authors] and dozens of volunteers, the dream quickly became a reality.”

The result of this group effort is the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival, set for December 4–5, streaming on the festival’s YouTube page. The event will feature keynotes, panels, and q&as, as well as a festival store on Bookshop, to support local independent bookstores. Williams, Cuevas, and fellow debut YA author Alexandra Villasante (The Grief Keeper) compose the steering committee of the event.

Describing the mission behind their work, Williams says, “We want to help those who have been hard hit by the pandemic: students, educators, and parents. We want to do what we can to bring joy and light to this uniquely challenging time. And if that is by bringing the gift of story and art to any child and family who is able to tune in—and hopefully there will be many, not just Latinx families but all families—then we will have accomplished our goal.” The steering and planning committees for the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival are “trying to be thoughtful and purposeful in our educational efforts,” and they “hope to provide a virtual field trip experience for classrooms, with programming that spans the ages, including picture books, middle grade, graphic novels, poetry, and young adult.” They are also providing educational materials and contacting students through their teachers and librarians to collect questions for authors and illustrators.

Shining a light on middle grade, Villasante points out, “We have amazing, award-winning middle grade authors in our lineup, like National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi, Newbery Medalist Meg Medina, and Rebecca Barcárcel, author of the Pura Belpré Honor book The Other Half of Happy.” Other authors on the festival’s middle grade roster include Monica Brown, Margarita Engle, Daniel José Older, Lilliam Rivera, and Yamile Saied Méndez. Villasante says that the full programming schedule is being finalized and will be announced in the coming months.

Debut authors take center stage

The inaugural Middle Ground Book Fest was streamed August 1–2 on the festival’s YouTube channel, uniting authors, educators, librarians, and book lovers in the goal of “giving middle grade some love, with an emphasis on diversity!,” as stated on the event’s homepage. Middle Ground is the brainchild of middle grade debut authors Shannon Doleski (Mary Underwater), Tanya Guerrero (How to Make Friends with the Sea), Lorien Lawrence (The Stitchers), and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington).

“We were watching everything switch from in-person to virtual events and we were scrambling to get our debuts noticed,” Doleski says of how the idea for Middle Ground was hatched. She posed the question, “What if we did a virtual panel for debuts?” on Twitter, and members of a Facebook group she and the other festival founders belong to, comprising 65 middle grade debut authors, responded enthusiastically. “I kind of just said it and didn’t think it would go anywhere,” she says with a laugh. “Then Lorien said, ‘What if we really did it, and what if we got teachers involved?’ Because teachers are the backbone of middle grade.”

With interested teachers and librarians on board, planning kicked off in earnest in April. “It came together really fast,” Marks says.

Middle Ground presented 16 panels, each moderated by a teacher or librarian, for a total of more than 100 participants. The four founding authors each took responsibility for four panels and also focused on their personal strengths to pull everything else together. Doleski handled graphics and social media, Lawrence took on communications among all the parties involved, Marks worked on tech elements including finding the best streaming platform and building the website, and Guerrero focused on evaluating submissions and selecting the panels.

“We had two big priorities,” Marks says of the programming. “Number one, we wanted the festival to be diverse and wanted to make sure that every panel had ideally more than one person of color on it. And the other priority was that we would try to find a spot for every debut middle grade author who wanted to be a part of it.”

Marks cites one aspect of the panels that stands out for her: “I’m really happy we made sure that every single panel was diverse. If we saw that there was a panel that just did not seem to reflect enough diversity, we reached out to other authors, in some cases more established authors, and invited them to join.” She was also pleased that “these authors were able to be on panels that were talking about things other than diversity.”

In addition to the panels, Middle Ground presented a series of prerecorded mini-lessons featuring debut middle grade books and authors that can be accessed by educators throughout the 2020–2021 school year. This element was suggested by Lawrence, who is a teacher in Connecticut. “I’m a seventh grade English teacher, and when my district went home in March, we were struggling to find online content that was interesting, bookish, and that had new authors,” she says. “There are so many amazing books out there from the past few years. I have colleagues constantly asking me, ‘What are the hot new books? What books should be on my shelves?’ There just wasn’t a place where debuts were being showcased. I think that’s why all of us jumped on Shannon with this idea.”

The Middle Ground team is already on board to bring the festival back next year. “We were really happy and proud of what we put together,” Doleski says.

Other publishers and authors we spoke with echo that sentiment. “We’ve been thrilled with the response we’ve seen thus far to MG digital events,” Van Akin says. “It’s clear that booksellers, educators, and readers still see value in connecting with authors. We’ve also heard from educators that continuing to connect with authors in a virtual space provides some sense of normalcy in an otherwise very not normal year.”

For our continuing coverage on how children’s publishers and authors are adapting in the coronavirus era, click here.