For children’s and YA titles, sales through May 2022 were up 17% over 2019’s pre-pandemic benchmark, according to Brenna Connor, industry insights manager at the NPD Group. For a talk during the recent Children’s Institute called “Understanding Trends in the Kids’ Book Market,” Connor reviewed BookScan analytics and put data points in perspective. Rebuilding the kids’ frontlist market poses a challenge, Connor said (“since 2020, there are young children who have not even been in a physical bookstore”), yet “the outlook for this area remains positive because many parents continue to worry that their children fell behind in the classroom.” She projects a “strong need well into 2023” for children’s and YA fare.

Across the industry, comics and graphic novels are leading the gains, with manga and children’s comics charting on overall bestseller lists. Year-to-date through May 28, Dav Pilkey’s Cat Kid Comic Club: On Purpose was the #10 overall bestselling title on BookScan, Connor said, following on the heels of Pilkey’s Dog Man: Mothering Heights, 2021’s #1 overall title across the entire book market. It’s not all Pilkey and Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid, though. Connor confirmed that Adam Wallace and Andy Elkerton’s How to Catch picture book series is in high demand, as are graphic novel editions of Baby-Sitters Club titles, with their TV tie-in. Connor made note of Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series, eliciting a collective bemused groan from an audience all too familiar with the dragon series. The Official Wings of Fire Coloring Book, published in April, is getting lots of love from Sutherland fans.

Connor led her presentation with a discussion of general trends across the entire book market, explaining that year-to-date in 2022, “adult fiction is the only supercategory that has posted year-over-year gains.” Adult nonfiction, which Connor called “the largest and most valuable supercategory,” is down 13%. “Interestingly, travel is the only category [within adult nonfiction] posting year-over-year gains,” said Connor, who added that people are buying books on European destinations, likely due to a correlation between Covid vaccination rates in particular countries along with a lessening of pandemic restrictions.

Even if the top-line market is down by about 7% in 2022, that’s in comparison to the startling peaks of 2020 and 2021, “a plus year on top of a plus year,” Connor said. As of May 2022, “unit sales are up 15% past the 2019 benchmark. A usual good year is up 3%, and a stellar year is up 5%. Over 8% is historic.”

In 2021, the industry passed the threshold of 800 million print book sales for the first time in BookScan history. (Connor’s data showed print book sales at 687 million in 2017, 703 million in 2018, and 701 million in 2019. They shot to 757 million in 2020 and 827 million in 2021.)

Connor looked at BookScan numbers by age range, demonstrating that sales ticked down in 2022 but are robust nevertheless. As of May 2022, Young Readers (ages 4–8) account for 43% of sales this year, down 6%. Middle Readers (ages 9–12) account for 30% of sales, down 11%, and relying on series like Baby-Sitters Club and Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys books. Teens (ages 13–22) make up 14% of sales so far this year, down 8%. Connor spotlighted Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone books (boosted by Netflix’s release of Shadow and Bone), Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper books (which were also adapted for Netflix), and Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s The Inheritance Games trilogy. Infant books for ages up to 3, like You’re My Little Cuddlebug and I Love You Like No Otter, are 9% of the sales market, down 5% YTD. (According to Connor, “Kids’ digital audio sales declined 15% over 2020, but are up 12% over 2019’s pre-pandemic benchmark.”)

“Series account for two out of every three kids’ books sold,” Connor said, even though “series as a whole are down 6%.” She flagged the My Little Golden Book About series, which features biographies of icons Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Betty White, and Dolly Parton. More than 4,000 kids’ series in BookScan’s data are posting year-over-year gains, and Connor sees “more opportunity for selling kids’ series” in the months ahead. Further, licensed books account for one in every four kids’ books sold in the U.S.; Connor listed Bluey, Spider-Man, Little Blue Truck, Encanto, CoComelon, and Harry Potter as top examples. “It’s no longer about major movie events driving licensed sales in the kids book market,” Connor said. “Now it’s released streaming licenses that are competing head-to-head with major players like Disney.”

BookScan also tracks sales by season, and Connor underscored evidence of early holiday shopping in both 2020 and 2021. “This is a trend we are watching across industries other than kids’ books,” Connor said, urging the audience to think well ahead of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Hanukkah/Christmas (or whatever a regional audience celebrates). Between 2019 and 2021, year-over-year sales in the month of October doubled, indicating that even the procrastinators among us are buying presents ahead of time.

The BookTok Bump and Other Trends

Word of mouth is boosting YA sales in particular. From 8 million unit sales in 2018, 7 million in 2019, and 7 million in 2020, YA sales leaped to 12 million unit sales in 2021 and 11 million already in 2022. Connor credits peer-to-peer discovery: “YA fiction made up 40% of BookTok sales in 2021,” she told the audience. “BookTok author sales reached 20 million units in 2021, and grew six times faster than what we saw in the rest of the adult fiction market.” BookTok authors saw their sales climb more than 50% over the same time last year, “which shows how this social media format is resonating with younger readers.”

In YA, growth topics all land in the fiction category, dominated by Oseman, Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder trilogy, and Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s video-game tie-ins. Science fiction and fantasy accounts for 20% of YA sales, LGBTQ+ titles are “all up,” and “trauma-informed YA” titles like Kathleen Glasgow’s 2016 novel Girl in Pieces are benefiting from BookTok attention, Connor said. (BookTok drives backlist, as a Ci10 panel also acknowledged.)

Among children’s books generally, people are buying fiction titles about emotions and prejudice, and nonfiction in the categories of biography and diversity. In Connor’s data, the kids’ nonfiction category “diversity and multicultural” was up 993% from 2020 to 2021, and up 861% from 2021 to 2022. “Those areas are smaller in terms of volume, which is why we have that triple-digit figure posted there,” Connor said. The numbers suggest that available titles are receiving significant notice.

Even if 2022 sales likely will not match 2021’s, Connor said, “We are bullish on stores in 2022,” with customers returning to browse and with retailers having learned to serve clients in bricks-and-mortar and online communities. If the biggest markets—New York, L.A., Chicago—are underperforming 2019 and subject to the so-called Great Migration to more affordable places, NPD sees potential for booksellers in mid-size markets like Phoenix, Fresno-Visalia, Calif., Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Portland, Maine. As “the book ecosystem re-balances,” Connor said, bookstores have potential to be a “place of discovery for new children’s authors.”