For our latest look at the middle grade category of children’s books, we turn to the professionals who work in, well, the middle of it all: the literary agents who serve as intermediaries between authors and publishers. A handful of agents revealed some of the middle grade trends they are observing from their unique vantage point.

“This is a rich and wonderful time to be working in middle grade,” according to Laura Rennert, executive agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. “I am definitely receiving submissions from a wider variety of voices than I have in the past,” she says, “and that is part of what is making this such an exciting time for middle grade. There are so many voices, points of view, and stories that haven’t previously been represented in middle grade. I think many authors are trying to write books they wish they had when they were young, and these stories are giving so many more readers the chance to feel seen and understood.”

Asked whether she sees a broader assortment of viewpoints in the projects that are coming her way, Emily Van Beek, partner and agent at Folio Literary Management/Folio Jr., says, “Yes, absolutely, and I love it! I want so much more of that and want to remind writers that agents are looking for you. We want your story, your perspective, and your talent. In fact, we need it, so we can move the dial on what lands on the bookshelves.” She adds that it’s “incredibly inspiring” to receive a wide range of material from a wide range of authors. “My hope is that submissions will continue to be more and more diverse and that we’ll have the opportunity to tell more, different, better stories.”

Regina Brooks, president of the Serendipity Literary Agency, has noticed a shift in the quantity of new voices in her query queue. “In 2020, I received a number of books from the previously termed #OwnVoices category,” she says. “This wasn’t necessarily new for my agency, but a recognizable increase in the number of submissions. I was pleased to see it.”

At Full Circle Literary, agency cofounder Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel says, “I have a long commitment to discovering, developing, and successfully representing BIPOC and underrepresented authors. More than half of our agents, authors, and illustrators at Full Circle Literary identify as people of color.” In the last year, Von Borstel adds, “I’ve seen more submissions from international authors and/or authors writing stories set in different countries around the world. It’s great to see this expansion, when five years ago authors were often told by editors that U.S. readers will only read stories set in the United States. Happily, we’ve had some wonderful success stories like Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, set in a Pakistani village; Angela Cervantes’s Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, set in Mexico City; and Ruth Behar’s Letters from Cuba.”

Van Beek pointed out a wider geographical range for queries, too. “I’ve noticed an increase in submissions from around the globe: Australia, Canada, all over Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K., Venezuela, even Patagonia, as well as from coast to coast in the U.S.,” she says. “I love to receive stories from all over.”

Genres run the gamut

Several genres and themes have been standing out in recent MG submissions, according to the agents PW contacted. “Years ago, I represented a picture book called Grandfather Gandhi, and it came with a pledge for young people to accept the things that angered them and to live their life as light,” Brooks says. “Fast forward, I’m now seeing stories that feature protagonists as reformers and change agents in their communities, whether real or magical. I’m seeing characters who are drawn to movements of all types: social, animal, environmental, and political.”

Brooks says she has also been pitched projects “that give voice to the voiceless both on the page and off. I’m receiving books with protagonists who are trying to find their place in two worlds.” She notes that her agency has long been home to historical middle grade, and offered two recent examples. “Sundee Frazier’s new novel, Mighty Inside, tells the story of how a boy finds his way to be as strong on the outside as he is on the inside,” she says. “It was inspired by the author’s family, who defied the historical practice of restrictive [racial] covenants [a type of housing/neighborhood segregation] in the Pacific Northwest. And Derrick Barnes’s forthcoming graphic novel, Victory Stand, tells the story of civil rights and sports activist Tommie Smith.”

Peter Knapp, agent at Park & Fine Literary and Media, has noticed “a lot more middle grade with queer stories where the character’s queer identity isn’t the point of the story. Instead, it is just a facet of a character’s identity as they go on whatever adventure they may be on,” he says. “I’ve also noted a lot of stories about mental health, and in particular about characters grappling with anxiety. Finally, in general, I’m seeing more authors writing sweeping, humorous adventure series—an evergreen genre, but one with particular appeal at the current moment.”

The lighter side of things is showing up in Von Borstel’s inbox as well. “It’s great to see the success of joyful and funny books on bestsellers and award lists this year,” she says. “I love seeing the merging of categories in middle grade like The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas. It’s an adventure story with themes of military deployment and immigration mixed with hilarious talking animals and a haunting tule vieja [a shape-shifting witch from Central American folklore].”

According to Van Beek, “Bullying still has a place in many middle grade submissions, as does anxiety. Tending to the hard truths of the world has always been one of the challenges of middle grade, and I see those coming in frequently, though in my opinion they’re very difficult to execute. That’s a tightrope walk for sure!”

Thao Le, an agent at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, has been receiving some similarly serious fare. “I feel like there’s been more openness to depict previously considered ‘sensitive’ or ‘mature’ topics,” she says. In addition, she notes that she has been pitched “more fantasy adventures that are set in non-American places than before.”

Rennert concurs: “I’m seeing a lot of fantasy and magical realism drawing on non-Western mythologies, and also more middle grade that is set outside the U.S.” Similarly, Van Beek notes that she and the other agents at Folio “continue to see magical realism trend in a major way.”

Brooks is actively seeking projects drawing from non-Western traditions, noting, “At the top of the year I put out a call for African fantasy and Afrofuturism. My colleagues and I are still on the hunt for a standout project in that category.”

And Knapp says, “I’ve noticed an uptick of high fantasy middle grade—big sweeping fantasy worlds, as opposed to more grounded fantasy that starts out in our world or otherwise feels rooted in our world. I wonder if this could be the result in part of the high popularity of high fantasy in young adult finding its way into other categories.”

The YA–MG changeup

Apart from any potential YA influence on middle grade themes, many agents have remarked that YA authors are now trying their hand at writing for a younger audience. “In terms of YA novelists making a pivot to middle grade, I am seeing this happen more and more—and it’s exciting!” Van Beek says. She points to bestselling authors Morgan Matson and Julie Murphy as examples. “I fully support authors spreading their wings and exploring different areas,” she adds. “No author is exclusively one thing or another, and when authors have long careers it’s important to keep it fresh and exciting, and still have license to be artistically fulfilled and free. I have no doubt some of the YA authors writing in the middle grade space will bring fresh tones and perspectives along with them, as well as new passion, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

“It does seem that more YA authors are turning to middle grade because of a new openness and breadth in the category,” Rennert notes. Among recent titles illuminating this trend, in her view, are What About Will by Ellen Hopkins (a client of Rennert) and Justina Ireland’s Ophie’s Ghosts.

“I have noticed quite a few YA authors turning to middle grade in recent years as they want to explore the sense of adventure and youthfulness of that specific age,” Le says. “Especially as so much of YA is becoming more and more crossover into adult. So, for the YA writers who don’t want to have a strong romantic subplot and would rather focus more on the adventure element or the friendship element, they are turning to middle grade.”

A flurry of formats

In terms of format, agents indicate that the graphic novel is as hot as ever in middle grade. “I’m seeing a lot more desire for graphic novel formats,” Le says, “which is great for reluctant readers.”

At Serendipity, “The graphic novel was prevalent in my inbox,” Brooks says. “Our agency now reps the Black Comics Collective, which is made up of more than 40 writers and illustrators, and they are aggressively developing books for the middle grade market.” She adds, “Not to be overlooked are novels in verse: lyrical, literary, and bounce-to-the-beat rhyme.”

In addition to graphic novels, Von Borstel says, “We’re also seeing tons of interest in illustrated middle grade fiction and nonfiction, like Celia C. Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, which is filled with handmade zines. Just out this summer, Lisa Congdon’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Elements combines scientific information with a visually stunning tour of the periodic table.”

Another format on the upswing for Von Borstel involves language. “Full Circle has championed Spanish-language books for many of our authors, and we’re finally beginning to see more Spanish-language middle grade from U.S. publishers, making these books affordable and accessible to students in the U.S., rather than needing to license Spanish-language editions with limited distribution in U.S. sales channels,” she explains. Among her examples of new titles in Spanish from U.S. publishers are Me dicen güero by David Bowles (Vintage Español) and Latinitas: Una celebración de 40 soñadores audaces by Juliet Menéndez (Holt).

“I’m receiving more middle grade novels-in-verse,” Von Borstel adds. “In the last six months I’ve sold novels-in-verse by poets Carmen Tafolla and Jasminne Mendez. Writers like Jacqueline Woodson, Margarita Engle, and Kwame Alexander have built the foundation for middle grade novels-in-verse, and it is exciting to see brand-new voices in this format, like Rukhsanna Guidroz’s Samira Surfs, illustrated by Fahmida Azim, just out this summer.”

Pandemic impact?

According to our pool of agents, the pandemic is shaping some of the current MG trends in different ways. “I suspect the increase in stories that are tackling themes around mental health may be in part informed by the increased spotlight on the subject as kids grapple with life during the pandemic,” Knapp says. “Interestingly, I’ve seen very few submissions that actually address the pandemic head-on or even mention it: I suspect that it’s hard to write about a pandemic without knowing how things will play out or what the world will look like by the time the book publishes. In the other direction, I do wonder if much of the high fantasy I’m seeing may partly be the result of some much-needed escapism.”

Le has noticed a rise in nonfiction and significantly more STEM topics during the pandemic. She speculates that this development is driven by “parents spending a lot of time with their kids at home because of school closures.”

At Folio, Van Beek says, “I see more of a desire to tell uplifting stories, and I have a desire to read them—please bring me hope, light, humor! I don’t think we ever want to lie to kids about the state of things, but sometimes it’s overwhelming for everyone, so I am seeing more authors bringing hope and joy along with any deep emotional struggles.”

Rennert notes, “We’re all eager for books that bring us joy, make us feel deeply, and are immersive, even in this time of great distraction. I think many editors and agents are also on the hunt for funny middle grade because laughter is the best medicine, particularly in these difficult times.”

Von Borstel cites another way that the MG market is being influenced by the current climate. “The huge boost in audiobook sales during the pandemic has spurred more interest in middle grade audiobooks,” she says. “While we always saw simultaneous audio releases for adult/YA, middle grade audiobooks would follow after the print book established a sales/awards history. Now we’re seeing interest in simultaneous release of print and audio for middle grade books.”

Brooks believes that the era of Covid-19 has altered some authors’ mindset and, in some cases, their skill set. “During the pandemic, for writers, every month became NaNoWRiMo,” she says. “Writers who were parents saw their protagonist upfront and personal daily. They heard their jargon- and slang-filled voices, saw their awkward and sometimes clumsy gestures, and recognized their fears and anxieties. For writers who had created a schedule and a rhythm to their writing, they saw it shift. No writing in cafés, no more writing early morning. Those writers now write throughout the day. And [during the pandemic] writers had time to read more from their MG wish list. So, I’d say authors took a quantum leap toward understanding the middle grade audience, while also activating their courage to create and submit.”

Von Borstel has also seen the quality of MG submissions ratchet up recently, though not necessarily because of the pandemic. “Middle grade submissions coming through this year are much more polished than in years before,” she says. “I believe this is thanks to the grassroots mentorships, events, and programs within the writing communities working to support each other. I’ve seen authors who have been mentored through Las Musas, Kweli, We Need Diverse Books, LatinxinPublishing, LatinxPitch, PitchWars, DiverseVoices Inc., and other programs that have produced polished, high-quality submissions. These organizations are doing great work, and I always encourage emerging writers to apply to these valuable programs.”

She says the logistics for authors and agents has changed, too. “The submission process moves much faster with all of the various pitch contests and efficiency of QueryTracker/QueryManager,” Von Borstel observes. “This is fantastic since publishing is such a slow-moving industry, yet I have to admit it’s an ongoing challenge to keep up with reading submissions on the weekends in between soccer tournaments and band practices, when notifications of representation come through so quickly!”

Rennert has also noticed improvement. “I’ve been getting many more middle grade submissions and am impressed with the talent I’m seeing—the quality is top-notch!”

Editors’ wish list

Editor-to-agent feedback is one barometer for assessing the marketplace. In the case of MG, Knapp notes, “Editors remain highly interested in finding stories featuring underrepresented protagonists where the character’s identity is not the basis for the central conflict. The other thing editors are asking for a lot is more middle grade horror—both series and standalones.” In addition to those trends, Knapp says editors “seem particularly eager to find smart mysteries with a puzzle-like aspect similar to The Mysterious Benedict Society or Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. In general, editors seem excited for escapism in middle grade—of course, middle grade contemporary coming-of-age stories that handle difficult topics with sensitivity remain important, too.”

In conversations with editors, Le offers that she is “really happy to see more requests for neurodiversity and queer representation, which was a lot rarer several years ago, when it seemed like those representations were more accepted at the YA age range than the middle grade age range.”

Van Beek senses some “sick lit” fatigue among editors. “Fantasy, too, seems a crowded place at the moment,” she says. “I am actively looking for—and editors are passionate about—bringing more LGBTQIA2+ and BIPOC stories to readers.”

Several people mentioned a revived interest in scary books for MG readers. “I’ve been hearing editors ask for submissions around spooky themes and monsters of all kinds,” Von Borstel says. “A group of middle grade authors formed the group Spooky Middle Grade, which is popular with teachers for middle grade events/readings/book clubs,” she notes. “I’m very excited about a soon-to-be-announced spooky middle grade coming from Adrianna Cuevas, a member of @spookymgbooks; Diana López’s Los Monstruos; and graphic novel Saving Chupie by Amparo Ortiz.” Von Borstel also reports: “Themes about family and friendship are always in demand. To me, the internal conflicts and all the details of the external community, culture, and characters surrounding the story make a middle grade submission stand out and resonate with editors.”

Looking down the road

Several agents turned their thoughts to the future of the MG category and shared their forecast for what it might look like. “I think we’re reaching a point where issue books, while important, are becoming less the norm,” Le says. “There’s definitely a desire from readers and the community to start seeing more stories where the author, the story, and characters are from diverse backgrounds without need for explanation, and the messages are less didactic.”

Knapp echoes some of that. “I think we will see increasingly diverse casts, where the characters’ identities are critical for character development, but not necessarily the primary focus of the central conflict,” he notes. “I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition, and books that do take issues around identity head-on as a central theme will continue to be an important part of publishers’ lists and an important offering for young readers.”

He also offers a prediction about genre and format. “I think that publishers will eventually catch on to the importance of the amorphous ‘upper middle grade/lower YA’ readership: books for 12–14-year-olds,” Knapp says. “I suspect that part of the massive success of graphic novels in the middle grade and YA space is that they fill that underserved niche—books like New Kid, Best Friends, and Drama capture that transitory period, whereas publishers seem to be more wary of prose novels for that age group because they struggle to know how to shelve them. It’s a problem worth solving, and I hope publishers will see the importance and opportunity that exists in publishing for that age group, as the graphic novel category has proven.”

Van Beek believes that the middle grade landscape “will continue to expand and embrace stories from a full spectrum of voices and places,” she says. “I suspect action/adventure and fantasy will continue to be a major player. I predict middle grade series—and humor!—will continue to be sticky, too!”

In Rennert’s look ahead, “I think we’ll continue to see more openness to middle grade that blurs the lines between traditional formats and categories, and more flexibility when it comes to unconventional storytelling that uses text and images in interesting ways,” she says. “It feels to me like some of the focus on fantasy in YA is shifting to middle grade, and I believe we’ll see more sophisticated fantasy and magical realism that highlights strong regional voices and draws on underrepresented cultures. As ever, I think fresh, vivid, poignant, and beautifully written contemporary middle grade is here to stay.”

In step with her counterparts, Von Borstel sees growth for MG in the cards. “I’m excited to see middle grade continue to expand in new and creative ways,” she says. “I’m a middle child and have often felt that middle grade has to work harder being in the middle. My older sister is like YA: bold and confident in any crowd. My little brother is like picture books, always getting the oohs and aahs, the hugs and kisses, always the center of attention. Middle grade has to work harder to stand out and make its mark, yet when it hits, it’s so exciting to see middle grade readers connect with a favorite book.”