As we roll into a second year affected by the ripples of uncertainty caused by the pandemic, one of the consistent bright spots in the children’s book arena has been the performance of titles in the middle grade category. Award winners, works by favorite authors like Rick Riordan and Tui T. Sutherland, and, of course, a slew of popular graphic novel properties (Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid) filled most of the top slots in PW’s “Facts and Figures” accounting of 2020’s bestselling children’s books.
While such analyses provide a snapshot of what has stayed the same in middle grade over the past year, we wanted to learn what’s new and what might be changing in the world of books for readers ages eight to 12. We asked a number of editors to tell us more about the kinds of middle grade projects they are seeing and to share their insights on any shifts they perceive in the category.
More storytellers, more stories
The editors we spoke with unanimously mentioned a distinct uptick in the number of diverse and #OwnVoices manuscripts they are receiving. “So many different voices are telling stories.” says Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “It’s been wonderful to see more underrepresented characters and stories in middle grade, especially with LGBTQIA+ characters.” She mentions Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass as a recent example.
Margaret Raymo, v-p and senior editorial director at HMH Books for Young Readers and Versify, agrees, noting that in her view, “submissions from BIPOC creators are continuing to rise.”
Trisha de Guzman, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, points to a welcome shift in storytelling that is taking place alongside the arrival of more diverse authors and book projects. “I’m seeing a lot of more nuanced and thoughtful representation in middle grade, which is wonderful,” she says. “The success of titles like Merci Suárez Changes Gears and Aru Shah and the End of Time have paved the way for more BIPOC voices across the spectrum of stories, from lighthearted adventure to more introspective, emotional stories. Characters of color aren’t limited to single-issue story lines anymore; they can go on magical adventures while dealing with complicated immigrant family issues and eating their grandma’s pastelitos, like in The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez.”
For Donna Bray, v-p and copublisher of the Balzer + Bray imprint at HarperCollins, the picture is similar. “It’s been exciting to see more and more diversity and intersectionality in middle grade, with stories that center BIPOC, neurodiverse, and LGBTQIA+ characters in all genres,” she says, highlighting such examples as Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland, Elana Arnold’s Bat books, and The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy.
At G.P. Putnam’s Sons, executive editor Stacey Barney also welcomes this development. “I note a diversity of writers coming to the table, and their narratives center on joy and adventure where kids are becoming their own superheroes,” she says.
Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director of her eponymous imprint at Atheneum, says, “I’ve noticed more LGBTQ characters in novels, and not because the novels are driven by some type of torment or sexually related issue. This representation is increasingly just part of the fabric of a story or of a friendship, and that’s incredibly pleasing to see.”
De Guzman says that she has received “more middle grade stories that are comfortable with the exploration of gender and sexuality,” adding, “I love seeing books like King and the Dragonflies and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World succeed.” She draws an important distinction in terms of the content presented within the typical parameters of the middle grade category: “One thing I constantly want to reiterate is that orientation does not automatically equal sex,” she says. “An 11-year-old can know that they are queer without necessarily having it be linked to physical attraction. The fact that middle grade readers can now read about gender expansive and queer characters is awesome. It just further encourages the empathy that we strive to foster in young readers.”
This broadening of perspectives under the middle grade tent has most certainly been influenced by highly regarded grassroots movements like We Need Diverse Books, #DVPit Twitter pitch parties, and other efforts created to address the longstanding lack of diversity in book publishing. And the editors we spoke with are excited to see this work bearing fruit.
“There have been many, many more #OwnVoices manuscripts coming in,” Dlouhy says. “I think with the shift in the past year in how everybody’s looking at literature for kids—and at everything going on in America—more people are recognizing not only the need for more #OwnVoices manuscripts but also the feasibility of them. Agents who are getting the manuscripts to editors are realizing, ‘Wait, yes, we can really do great things with these projects that we have perhaps loved but had worried wouldn’t find the market and now the market is arms wide open.’ I have goosebumps up and down my arms just even saying that. Now we need to just publish faster and get these books out there!”
Graphic novels still booming
Not surprisingly—especially based on many of the top-selling middle grade titles of 2020—the graphic novel format continues to be an area of enormous growth within the middle grade category. “In the past six months, I’ve seen more MG graphic novels come in to acquisition than in my whole career,” Dlouhy says.
That’s largely been the case across the board, with Ling reporting “a huge graphic novel boom in middle grade especially.”
Raymo at HMH also sees middle grade graphic novels “exploding, as are hybrid illustrated novels.”
And Bray notes the same phenomenon. “There’s been an explosion in the graphic novel space, driven by reader tastes but definitely boosted by the groundbreaking Newbery Award winner, Jerry Craft’s New Kid,” she says. In this area, she notes that her list represents a wide variety of titles within the format, including the nonfiction book Unsolved Cases Files by Tom Sullivan; an LGBTQ debut, The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott; and the bestselling Emmie & Friends series by Terri Libenson.
Responding to the current moment
The editors we spoke with did not report an influx of middle grade manuscripts that incorporate aspects of the pandemic. “I haven’t seen a shift or response to the pandemic yet, aside from authors having to decide what year to set their novels, and whether or not to include any references to the pandemic,” Ling says. “We’ve seen many picture books in response, and a few YA novels with ‘love in the time of the pandemic’ themes, but not so much in MG.” The exceptions, she notes, are “a few nonfiction projects that might include a section on pandemics or coronaviruses.”
It may well be that any flurry of middle grade books about the pandemic just aren’t finished yet. “The pandemic is obviously in the zeitgeist as a very high level, and I think, while we’re in it, people are trying to figure out what that looks like on a page,” Dlouhy says. “I had been wondering if the pandemic will lead to more dystopian in middle grade, but I’ve not seen anything that’s come across my desk. Then again, it takes a long time to write a novel.”
Citing another aspect of the pandemic’s ripple effect, Dlouhy adds, “I’ve had authors put aside things they were working on before the pandemic because psychologically they didn’t want to be in that place at this time. And they also wanted kids to be in a different space, hopefully through their work, so they shifted gears.”
In what may be an additional ripple, Raymo says that though she hasn’t received books that specifically address the pandemic, she has “seen increased submissions about kids with anxiety, which might be related.”
On a broader level, Barney says, “I am certainly seeing a lot of middle grade that is responding to the current state of the world. Particularly narratives that center activism, featuring characters getting involved in their communities and understanding how the sociopolitical landscape affects their lives and those of the people they love, and what effect they can in turn have both locally and globally. Middle grade readers are generally very aware of the world and their place in it, and many of the submissions crossing my desk and much of what’s being published reflects that as middle grade readers also parse difficult current events.”
Bray concurs, saying she is seeing “more novels that respond directly to our cultural and political moment.” Titles on her list that fall under that umbrella include A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, about a girl who takes a stand to support the Black Lives Matter movement; The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga, which follows friends coping with the aftermath of a school shooting; and Pax by Sara Pennypacker, which explores a friendship, loss, and grief during wartime. “Kids are grappling with these realities every day,” Bray says. “And writers are responding with stories that honor their ability to process the complexities of difficult topics that in the past might have been considered too tough for this age group.”
Ling has observed a bump in books addressing current events such as wildfires and climate change, and social justice issues, such as Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhodes, as well as contemporary realistic stories involving student activism, such as Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code by Bridget Farr.
In terms of books navigating issues of racial justice and social justice, Dlouhy says, “What’s been interesting is there’s more nonfiction coming out in this regard: more biographies of people who have been overlooked who should never have been, and collections bringing attention to women or barrier breakers. I’ve been getting a number of those types of projects and so have colleagues.”
And Raymo notes that in addition to nonfiction titles focused on current events, middle grade nonfiction in general has been an area of growth.
Fantasies for middle grade readers are ticking up, too, according to Ling. “We’ve been seeing and acquiring more MG fantasies in the vein of Rick Riordan Presents, including Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed, which is coming out this fall,” she says.
At Atheneum, Dlouhy says, “I’ve been getting more MG fantasy submissions that are really strong. Their plotlines are very unique, their plot twists are things you don’t see coming. There’s a different sophistication to the MG fantasy that’s been coming in, which I’m welcoming.”
Another development Dlouhy has observed is in how writers are approaching their content. “I see a little bit more experimenting with form, things that aren’t traditionally told,” she says. “I’ve been having things come in that aren’t typically set up, that are playing around with perspective and voice, trusting that a younger reader is capable of more than just a traditionally told narrative.” She believes this is a sign of the times. “Many kids, because of the influence of being on their smartphones and devices, have shifted the amount of attention they will give to things,” she says. “I think narratives that play around a bit hold their attention.”
De Guzman, too, points to innovative forms and formats as part of a new wave in middle grade. “Now more than ever, there is an emphasis on bridging distances through creative means,” she says. “Letters, postcards, video calls, text messages, and more are all a major part of our lives, and I’m seeing the integration of these means of communication play an increasingly important role in the submissions I receive. It’s an indication of how intertwined technology and storytelling has become.”
On the horizon
When asked to consult the proverbial crystal ball for predictions about the future middle grade landscape, the editors we spoke with indicated that the areas of growth they have spotlighted will still be moving in an upward direction. One reason for that, Bray says, is that “we still have so far to go in making our middle grade offerings truly reflect the incredible diversity of the children reading them.”
Dlouhy’s view picks up that thread with a hopeful note. “Knowing what’s coming up and going to be published in the next two years, there is so much more diversity in every direction, flat out,” she says. “There’s more for all sorts of readers and interests than there ever used to be.”
Middle grade expansion will roll on because “the books have a much longer tail, especially once they get established in the institutional market,” Raymo says. “I love the increase in the number of #OwnVoices authors and the stories they are telling, which will only continue apace.” But she raises one potential change in the middle grade lists to come: “I wonder about the middle grade graphic novel space becoming oversaturated,” she says.
Barney says she believes “there will be a greater diversity of stories and authors, courting many new readers with a true respect for how smart and engaged the middle school readership is. And you’ll start to see more narratives where themes important to the middle grade readership like body positivity, gender, privilege, and more will play out organically in unexpected places—i.e., not stories that are issue-oriented but stories that are really about magicians in outer space.”
When de Guzman envisions the middle grade space of tomorrow, she says, “I think that it will only continue to be more nuanced and intersectional, especially as young readers continue to increase their appetite for books with progressive values. I also think that with the internet’s role in globalization, there will be a greater influx of middle grade books with international settings.” She adds, “This generation is so much more aware, and as time passes, I don’t believe they’ll be satisfied with one-dimensional, single-issue books anymore. They’re smarter, savvier, and have a ton of information at their fingertips. And their books will reflect that!”