In the late spring and summer of 1999, it did not take a wizard to see that something unprecedented was afoot in the rarified precincts of American publishing bestsellerdom. After an unremarkable run of Sundays in which New York Times fiction list stalwarts Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwall, and Mary Higgins Clark vied for the top position, the June 20 list delivered an eye-opening surprise when a newcomer to the club, a young Scottish fantasy writer named J.K. Rowling, ascended to the #1 spot with the release of her second children’s book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Following Chamber’s debut just days after Thomas Harris’s latest horror novel, the Guardian chortled: “Hannibal [Lecter] eaten for breakfast by [a] 13-year-old.” By mid-September, Rowling had emerged as her own stiffest competition and scored the hat trick of having had all three of her then-published Potter books reach the summit of the list within three months. Less than a year later, the New York Times announced the introduction of a separate children’s bestseller list. As the Book Review’s editor, Charles McGrath, commented: “The time has come when we need to clear some room.”

Coast-to-coast midnight book-release parties; worldwide paper shortages; tales of hijacked delivery trucks; cover stories in Time, Newsweek, and Vanity Fair: these were just a few of the jaw-dropping indicators of a phenomenon. (By 2003, Rowling had already amassed a fortune greater than that of the Queen of England.) In July 2000, the series’ fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, became the fastest selling book in publishing history, burning through an initial 3.8-million-copy print run over a weekend. Even Harold Bloom weighed in. The Yale professor, writing in the Wall Street Journal, derided the cross-generational infatuation with the Potter books as dire confirmation of the “dumbing down” of Western culture.

[An] article of faith that fell by the wayside was the belief that young readers outgrew their affection for illustrated books.

But as the series swept the globe, countless other, more sympathetic observers noted the extraordinary impact the books were having on children’s reading habits and felt compelled to rethink the common wisdom on the subject. Tech-enamored preteens, Potter-mania revealed, still read books avidly when the right books came into their hands. Fantasy fiction, far from being passé, still had broad appeal—for boys as well as girls. In a time of supposedly shrinking attention spans, a long book was not an automatic nonstarter and might even be welcomed as a wizard-worthy challenge.

Proof that the Potter craze was not a one-off lightning strike lay about everywhere. The massive popularity of Daniel Handler’s verbally adroit, faux macabre Lemony Snicket series, which debuted in 1999 and served in part as a tide-me-over for Potter fans in the Rowling off years, and of Philip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials saga and Rick Riordan’s mythology-laced Percy Jackson page-turners, all demonstrated that young readers enjoyed venturing outside the box of their own everyday concerns and that they wished to be stretched while doing so.

Fearful of missing out on the mega-trend altogether, publishers who had only recently shunned fantasy as unmarketable now mustered a seemingly insatiable appetite for the genre. Trilogy upon trilogy, and the longer the better! Just how many other worlds could there be? Not surprisingly, post-Y2K and 9/11, dystopian fantasies like the Hunger Games and Divergent struck a particularly resonant chord with teens who, having discovered what still looked like the hangout of their dreams on new social media like Facebook and Twitter, took to gathering at all hours to fervently chat about the dark futures that awaited their favorite heroes.

What, though, about books for toddlers, preschoolers, and beginning readers? On Oct. 7, 2010, a rare front-page publishing industry story in the New York Times announced that the picture book—for a century and more the cornerstone of library story hour and bedtime at home—was “No Longer a Staple for Children.” According to the Times, digital versions of Make Way for Ducklings, The Snowy Day, and countless other old and new readalouds would soon consign the traditional print versions to the dustheap of outmoded technologies. Accelerating the trend, ambitious parents were reportedly pressing their children to take up chapter books and other more advanced reading fare at an earlier and earlier age on the road to Harvard.

Within a year or so, it was clear that the Times, while on to something when it came to the overzealousness of parents, had misjudged the appeal of e-books for children. E-picture books, the buildup to which had required a substantial front-end investment by publishers, failed to catch on, in a replay of the CD-ROM muddle of a decade earlier. Touted as the future-forward alternative to print-on-paper, screen-based picture books never rose much above 3% in overall sales. Young children—for whom “sensory learning” is a well-documented cornerstone of early cognitive and motor development—still wanted books they could touch, hold, and page through, and which came in a beguiling array of trim sizes ranging from teeny-tiny to elephantine.

Digital apps, a kind of book/animation hybrid, encountered headwinds of their own by proving to be too costly to produce for the price consumers were willing to pay for them and for being not all that “discoverable.” Sensing that digital overload was the real issue, publishers pivoted to making their traditional print-on-paper picture books collectible objects decked out with die-cuts, spot color printing, and other design and production bells and whistles. As digital technology advanced over the following decade, the long-term prospects for e-books for children and teens remained uncertain, in 2019 accounting for only about 4% in sales across all age categories, according to the Pew Research Center.

Publishers’ renewed commitment to the traditional picture book coincided with the growing visibility of three young museums dedicated to the genre—the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Mass.; the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, in Abilene, Tex.; and the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum, in Findlay, Ohio. Collectively, they welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, introducing them to the rich history and underlying artistry of children’s first books. A half century earlier, a children’s-book art museum would have seemed unimaginable. The change in attitude that made these jewel-box repositories possible reflected the cultural upgrade from “marginal” to “cool” of the children’s book field at every level: from art schools and university literature departments to bookstores, libraries, and the publishing houses themselves.

Another industry article of faith that fell by the wayside was the once unshakable belief that young readers outgrew their affection for illustrated books. An early indicator that this might no longer be so—if it ever had been—came in 1992 with the surprise cult popularity among college students of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s hip fairy tale mash-up, The Stinky Cheese Man. The special Pulitzer awarded to Art Spiegelman that same year for Maus served to validate the dreams of an entire generation of young comics artists who, without any prospect of earning a living from their efforts, had been swapping their photocopied homemade zines at comics shops and conventions for years and posting their work online for the fun of it.

Taking note of the groundswell and of the healthy chain-store sales of Japanese manga in translation, children’s publishers sensed a promising market in the making. Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, launched in 2005, and Roaring Brook’s First Second Books, in 2006, swiftly staked out a place in the mainstream for comics creators like Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier, and Gene Luen Yang, who just recently had been among those for whom self-publishing seemed the only viable option. The kinetic, often deliberately scruffy journal-style drawings the books featured might be action-driven or emotionally raw. Either way, they spoke in an intensely intimate shorthand language to which teens and preteens easily related. Booksellers and librarians, many of whom had long resisted comics material of any description, now scrambled to find the best place to shelve the new high-demand books, even as the format continued to morph to accommodate younger and younger audiences.

In 2008, Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman introduced Toon Books as an art- and educational research–driven indie house specializing in comics-style beginning readers. The success of this venture and of imprints like Graphix and First Second came wrapped in the delicious irony that a format long reviled by educators was now proving its worth as the single most effective tool ever devised for turning chronically “reluctant” readers into passionately committed ones.

The key role played by online comics in bringing graphic novelists to trade editors’ attention was just one of the many ways in which, e-books aside, new digital technology was having a transformative impact on publishing for children and teens. For many illustrators working in the field, the advent of computer-based drawing and design tools prompted fundamental changes in their creative process, and the internet gave freelance illustrators an unprecedented chance to share their portfolios across the world market. The ease of digital communication and art transmission removed a traditional barrier to the hiring of artists across national borders and contributed to American publishers’ newfound openness to bringing straight imports to their lists as well, especially of picture books. The new media also gave authors, especially of teen fiction, powerful new tools for connecting directly with their readers.

Meanwhile, as online gaming became a huge cross-generational entertainment phenomenon, publishers had to wonder about the potential for cross-pollination with what was, after all, essentially another narrative medium. In 2008 Scholastic introduced its hybrid 39 Clues series of middle grade adventure novels and a companion interactive internet game. The model did not become a trend, however, and publishers instead chose to build on their longtime film industry relationships, especially after realizing in the wake of the box-office success of Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs that a 32-page picture book could have the same high-value interest as grist for the Hollywood mill as Little Women or even the Potter series. In a related development that underscored the growing dominance of the sector’s marketing-driven mentality, novels based on A-list licensed characters like Batman and the Jedi Knights acquired newfound cachet. Long pigeonholed as ancillary promotional vehicles, books of this kind now assumed the aura of passion projects for a range of the field’s award-winning literary authors. The chances of such a book winning the Newbery Medal were small, but in the increasingly retail-centric, multimedia environment that defined a significant subset of publishing for young readers, librarians, it seemed, no longer had all the plummiest prizes to confer.

During the early 2000s, national print outlets long known for thoughtful coverage of the genre shuttered their operations—the Washington Post Book World and the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Books section, among others—and professional journals cut back on review space. While a handful of serious bloggers made an effort to fill the void, earning the trust of a loyal readership along the way, too many new-media reviewers displayed a breathtaking lack of concern for historical context or critical nuance, and many were content either to tweet out an opinion without bothering to state the case for it or simply to repost a publisher’s own flap or catalog copy, thereby further blurring the already fuzzy line between commentary and echo-chamber promotion.

The consolidation of publishing alongside that of bookselling served to fuel a star system that funneled marketing dollars overwhelmingly to the short list of the larger houses’ most surefire sellers, to magnify the overall influence of agents, and favor celebrity and licensed character–driven projects while also keeping aloft the weekly sales numbers of a core group of tried-and-true classics like Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The rush toward bigness led to carving out a modest countervailing space for well-conceived upstart ventures capable of publishing in a hyperfocused and more personalized way. Perhaps the most admired instance of this over the past two decades has been Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, which released its first list in 2003 and has gone on to publish an array of picture books at a consistently high level, including many in translation, and to launch the Unruly imprint, to advance the illustrated book into uncharted territory for older readers.

As the first quarter-century mark of the new millennium approached, the children’s and teen sector showed other signs of resilience and of adapting to life in an increasingly interconnected global industry. A fresh wave of indie publishers—the nutrition and sustainability-focused Readers to Eaters (2009) and diversity-driven Levine Querido (2019), among others—set up shop and an array of high-profile imprints were introduced within the big and mid-size houses as creative incubators. Several of the new imprints, including Random House’s Make Me a World (2016) and Kokila (2019), HMH’s Versify (2019), HarperCollins’s Heartdrum (2021), and Delacorte’s Joy Revolution (2022), were expressly formed to address the need for greater racial and cultural inclusiveness in books. Other new imprints with a signature focus included Macmillan’s Neon Squid (2021) for nonfiction, Random’s Labyrinth Road (2020) for “high concept” fiction, and Astra’s minedition US (2020) for international perspective and Hippo Park (2021) for humor.

On the expanding roster of countries whose books—especially picture books—were finding their way onto U.S. publishers’ lists were Mexico, Argentina, Portugal, and China. By 2015, the intensive push by Chinese publishers to introduce a Western-style children’s literature at home had begun to move past the foreign rights acquisition stage to also include the creation of original titles with strong export potential such as the landmark picture book A New Year’s Reunion. At that time, all but one of the “big six” U.S. trade publishers with children’s divisions were European owned. A few years later, the trend toward foreign ownership took a new turn as two privately owned media enterprises based in China, Trustbridge Global Media and Thinkingdom Media, acquired a handful of mid-size American and European children’s publishing companies including Holiday House, Peachtree Publishers, Walker UK, and Candlewick Press (all Trustbridge); Boyds Mills Press/Kane Press, minedition, and Toon Books (Thinkingdom). The latter company also created Astra Publishing House as its American base.

Narrative nonfiction flourished as the National Governors’ Association’s Common Core State Standards initiative of 2010 highlighted the importance of history and science study at every grade level. Spurred on in part by this concentrated fresh demand, the picture book biography emerged as a newly vibrant genre, especially after the once sparsely populated list of acceptable subjects was cracked wide open to embrace the stories of a variety of accomplished but little-known women and unsung heroes from America’s minority communities. Books in this category met curriculum requirements, provided young children with much needed role models at a time when the newsmakers they glimpsed on television were rarely up to the task, and gave publishers a handy way to expand representation on their lists. As the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books, founded in 2015, was helping to make clear, however, the historic, persistent lack of inclusiveness in American publishing for children and teens could never be fully redressed by mere adjustments to publishers’ frontlist offerings. Staff populations, from the highest levels on down, needed to become more diverse as well, alongside the writers and illustrators they published and the people who reviewed and sold the books. By 2021, with a corrosive national political landscape for a backdrop, industry leaders seemed finally to have grasped the scope and urgency of the problem.

As more preteen readers ventured into YA territory and more adults also gravitated to the genre, YA fiction unofficially split off into two subgenres: “clean teen”—a term popularized by publishers and librarians to describe stories unlikely to cause controversy—and, well, everything else, the harder-edged narratives that might indeed raise a ruckus. The label itself soon became a matter of controversy for implying that the books not in the “clean” column must somehow qualify as “unclean,” and thus fair game for the censors. Meanwhile, a dedicated corps of YA writers, including many with extensive social media communities, have continued their fearless examination of questions relating to gender identity and race in America, the two concerns that, not surprisingly, have in recent years also dominated the American Library Association’s annual list of the most frequently challenged and banned books.

In 2021, children’s and teen books were most likely to make national headlines in stories about culture war battles over freedom of expression. This happened when, after critics called attention to objectionable stereotypes in some of Dr. Seuss’s decades-old books, Random House put six Seuss titles out of print, and politicians on the conservative right disingenuously decried the publisher’s decision as censorship. It happened again a few months later when conservatives attempted to yank critically acclaimed books by Toni Morrison, YA writers Angie Thomas and George M. Johnson, and others from school libraries because of their frank discussions of gender and race, and even threatened to burn the books.

During the pandemic, housebound Americans turned their attention to books for children and teens for more constructive reasons. Consumers purchased books across all age categories in substantial numbers, not only as homeschooling supplements but also as a reliable source of solace, enjoyment, and understanding. The parents of an earlier generation had done much the same during the Great Depression, even when money for other household items was scarce. The quarter-century that began with the heady rise of Harry Potter and the proof it gave that children’s book publishers were in fact more than capable of holding their own in the contemporary media landscape, has ended in a strange time of reflection. As Americans sheltering in place learned not to take any of their future plans for granted, many, it seems, with young people in their care have also learned to see “juveniles”—as the genre had once been patronizingly called—as worth the money, not just as nursery frills or stepping-stones to the Ivies but as an indispensable lifeline for young people in profoundly uncertain times.

Leonard S. Marcus is an award-winning biographer and historian and an editor-at-large at Astra Books for Young Readers.

Correction: This story initially referred to the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum by its prior name, the Mazza Museum of International Art Picture Books.