Continuing the trend of the past several years, publishers’—and consumers’—demand for middle grade titles remains strong. Barnes & Noble, however, recently made a move to cut back on buying middle grade fiction, a development that is being widely discussed in the industry. Before this news broke, we asked a number of literary agents about the kinds of middle grade projects they see coming into the pipeline and what they think editors and readers will want next.
Widening the lens
“Hooray—I am seeing so many more diverse voices,” says Fiona Kenshole, senior agent at Transatlantic Agency. “I think the message that publishing is open and hungry for new untold stories has taken quite a long time to percolate through the writing public, but it’s working! Very thrilling.”
The writers’ pool is growing, according to other agents as well. “While the questions at the heart of middle grade stay somewhat timeless, it’s exciting to see more and more voices telling stories, exploring truths, and offering their storytelling traditions to young readers,” says Molly O’Neill, an agent with Root Literary. “Middle grade is the age where many kids become eager readers for the first time—so books that reflect and center all factors of identity and lived experience are essential.”
At Full Circle Literary, agent and cofounder Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel says, “Submissions continue to be polished, thanks to mentorships and programs from organizations like Las Musas, Kweli, LatinxPitch, SCBWI, DiverseVoices, and We Need Diverse Books. Latinx in Publishing launched a work-in-progress fellowship specifically for middle grade/YA this year.” In addition, she notes, more adult fiction writers have come her way this year looking to launch into children’s books with their first middle grade project.
Alex Slater at GreenburgerKids has observed a range of new voices tackling a specific kind of tale. “I feel like I’m talking about middle grade horror all the time these days!” he says. “These recent submissions are stories from people of color, stories from people who wish to retell ancient myths, and stories that are using horror to discuss and dissect real trauma that middle grade usually skirts around.” He suggests some reasons why shivery tales are proliferating. “Maybe it’s the collective trauma we’ve all been living through recently, when you think about how and who we’ve lost during the pandemic, or maybe it’s the continued rise of brands like Stranger Things, but ultimately, I’m enjoying meeting writers who are trying to scare me, because it’s working.”
Chills, thrills, and adventure abound in agents’ inboxes. “I’ve noticed an increase in spooky themes with ghost stories or haunted places,” Von Borstel says. For Alyssa Eisner Henkin, founder of Birch Path Literary, “spooky tales” are included in the list of projects that have landed on her desk lately, along with “mythology-infused light fantasy, and museum and subterranean labyrinth settings.” And Chelsea Eberly, director and agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency, is seeing “a lot of witches and fantasy adventure.”
Penny Moore’s client list at Aevitas Creative Management is typically heavy on contemporary fantasy, and she believes that’s part of the reason authors have been sending her manuscripts in that genre. And at Gallt and Zacker, agent Linda Camacho has seen “more speculative middle grade, which is super fun.” She has also been receiving “plenty of escapist fiction on opposite sides of the spectrum—super cozy/joyful and eerie/unsettling. I kind of love it.”
O’Neill notes, “It’s easy to observe the influence that the Rick Riordan Presents imprint has had on middle grade, and on my inbox. I’m seeing more stories than ever that aim to balance high-octane adventure with inclusive, memorable characters and narratives grounded in specific heritages and mythologies.”
Inside the minds of middle graders
Most agents we spoke with surmise that current events and trauma are informing the themes in today’s submissions in any number of ways. “Young readers had their lives disrupted these past few years,” Eberly says, “and they’re working through that. They’re craving connection and community. Authors recognize this and are giving them stories that speak to themes of identity, friendship, community, and dealing with trauma and anxiety. These stories help readers feel seen and give them the tools to discuss the issues they’re facing. I love that we’re exploring gender and identity in middle grade.”
Similarly, Slater offers, “Tough themes, like those on loss and family struggles, and books that dive into the realities of pandemic living, are all standing out to me right now.”
Kenshole says, “I am seeing a lot of stories celebrating wildlife, the wilderness, the oceans, and grappling with what is happening to the climate. I’m always looking for these—it’s a major interest of mine, and I’m hungry for new stories about it because it is a very real and important topic for middle graders.” She points to the success of a 2019 title she represents, A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry, which she says has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years, in hardcover and paperback editions.
Henkin notes, “I continue to see a number of social justice/change themes, immigrant and refugee stories, and I am also starting to receive more books about Covid and how that has affected kids. I would say that [recently submitted proposals] are more serious than lighthearted in tone.”
O’Neill wonders about the effect that an influx of such projects will have on the middle grade category. “We’ve been through a lot of heavy things in recent years and done a lot of collective thinking about them, but a side effect is that so many writers want to explore topics like activism, social justice, grief, loss, and anxiety,” she says. “These topics are meaningful and important. However, the shelves cannot hold hundreds of new books all at once about those themes—and kids want to read about things that aren’t hard, too.”
Like some other agents, O’Neill is witnessing a reactionary phase regarding heavy themes. “We’ve seen a huge uptick of adult readers turning toward the escapist joys of reading romance as a buffer against the uncertainties of the world,” she says. “While kids are hungry for realism and tools that help them face it, they also want their own buffers against the world, often in the form of transportive, immersive adventures, magic and mysteries, evocative language, and/or main characters who instantly feel like best friends—or delicious enemies.”
The look of the books
“I’ve been seeing an uptick in novels written in verse,” Moore says, reflecting on what’s new in middle grade book formats. “I think it’s partially due to the recent success of books like Rajani LaRocca’s Red, White, and Whole and Lisa Fipp’s Starfish.”
Henkin says she has also received “quite a few submissions in poetic verse,” and Von Borstel has seen a similar bump in novel-in-verse projects.
O’Neill provides a multilayered assessment of format. “Publishers are increasingly breathing new life into successful backlist middle grade by doing graphic novel editions, for series—e.g., the various Who HQ and Warriors series, the Magic Tree House, or, of course, Babysitters Club—and standalone novels, like The Giver, The Graveyard Book, The Crossover,” she says. “This matters to creators because it can mean assignments as writers, adapters, illustrators, colorists, letterers, etc. It also means that a publisher might be able to introduce a book to new generations of readers long after its initial publication, which can be both creatively joyful and financially rewarding. Publishing is a long game!”
The economics of producing some formats are getting trickier now, O’Neill points out. “The rising cost of paper, and the enormous stresses on the global printing supply chain we’ve seen across publishing—and every industry—over the past few years has, in most cases, been prohibitive to inventive physical formats,” she says, “and it seems likely that we’ll be in this place for at least the next few years. The good news? This is a moment for creators to lean into hypercreativity in their storytelling, rather than in the physicality of bookmaking itself.”
A forthcoming book from Slater’s client list exemplifies a bit of a format departure. “Claire Swinarski’s What Happened to Rachel Riley?, due out from Quill Tree Books in January, is told through text messages, podcasts, and passed notes,” he says. “And while we’ve seen kids’ lit play with these formats before, I love how this book uses it toward solving a mystery, while also deftly handling some deep topics. We pitched it as Where’d You Go, Bernadette for kids.”
Eberly also cites a recent format tweak. “With the graphic novel boom, we’re seeing more highly illustrated projects with an interactive element,” she says. “For example, Bill Doyle’s series starter The 5th Hero [Random, Jan. 2023] explores climate change in a way that empowers the reader to join the adventure and choose how the reader will help to save the planet. Interactive storytelling isn’t new, but publishers do seem more open to empowering the reader to participate in creative ways.”
Visual elements continue to proliferate in both middle grade fiction and nonfiction. “My inbox is showing more illustrated books, whether they have spot art or the art is interspersed throughout the narrative,” Camacho says. “I’m also noticing an uptick in early reader graphic novels, which is exciting, but not new per se.” This assessment was echoed by the agents we spoke with, all of whom cited a growth spurt in the area of graphic novels for younger middle graders.
Overall, the wildly popular graphic novel genre has not seen any falloff in the middle grade category. But many agents note subtle shifts in this area. “Graphic novels in the middle grade space are certainly still on the rise; I just held an auction for a debut series last week,” Slater says. “However, I know more and more editors are becoming quite selective, which is a good thing. For example, I’ve been hearing for a while that their lists are all full of fantasy, and now they’re hungrier for contemporary realism.”
According to Eberly, “It helps that most of the Big Five publishers have recognized that kids can’t get enough of these books and have invested in dedicated imprints. And we’re noticing that publishers are willing to expand beyond contemporary realistic stories into other genres such as horror and paranormal.” She points to growing interest in a close relative of the graphic novel. “I’m seeing a stronger call for manga. Apps like Webtoon and Tapas are extremely popular, and I hope to see more shoujo [a manga/anime category marketed specifically to girls] tween crush stories in trade publishing as a result.”
Camacho says, “Middle grade graphic novels are still selling, and new deals are being consistently announced. There’s been a slight slowdown, likely because for a while there was a mad rush of editors snatching up middle grade graphic novels, so they’ll need to see how all the books fare when they’re published.”
And Henkin points out, “There is such a voracious readership of kids out there, and creators of popular graphic novel series and books seem to be in high demand. Yet graphic novels are relatively expensive to produce, so cost may affect things at some point.”
In Kenshole’s view, “The graphic novel market is still solid, but I’m beginning to hear noises that people’s lists are pretty full.”
Moore says, “I don’t think graphic novels are still on the rise, but instead have become a steady staple in the middle grade market. There hasn’t been any kind of falloff, but publishers aren’t acquiring them for aggressively high advances as they did when retailers like B&N created a middle grade graphic novel section in stores.”
O’Neill notes, “The graphic novel category continues to be one of the most dynamic and interesting places in the entire publishing landscape, and I’m delighted to have so many clients operating in it. I’ve done deals involving over 30 graphic novels—and have many more in various stages of development—in the past three years alone.”
Another development O’Neill identifies is a growing number of picture book illustrators and author-illustrators who are changing course and “exploring their way over into the graphic novel space,” she says. “Not because they’re just running to where the heat is, but in the organic, curious, ever-playful way of artists, like, ‘Oh, that looks like fun! And it might enable me to tell a different kind of story.’ It’s exciting to think about the experience and inventiveness they’re bringing with them and the books that will emerge from that category melding.”
Agent wish lists
After hearing about some of the manuscripts that have landed on agents’ desks, we asked them about dream projects they’re eager to discover. “I’ve been in a horror state of mind these days, whether it’s horror comedy or flat-out scary,” Camacho says. “I do have clients who write in that vein, but if the right project came along, I’d be game. I’m also in the mood for a heist or adventure of some kind, à la The Mummy or something similar.”
Funny books and escapist books are top-of-mind for Kenshole. “The last couple of years have been really tough on kids,” she says. “They need the excitement of immersing themselves in magical worlds. They need adventure to help them make sense of their circumscribed lives. And they need good old belly laughs. And even some Spooksville-type horror would be fun.”
Moore says, “I’m always looking for stories rooted in the fantastical—coming-of-age stories that take you on a Studio Ghibliesque magical adventure, particularly from underrepresented cultures.” She notes that she has signed a few projects recently that fit that bill and “can’t wait to share them with publishers when they’re ready.”
Similarly, Slater recently landed one of his wish-list manuscripts. He had been seeking “a straight-up fairy tale—something beautiful but deceivingly simple, something that reminds me of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.” He found that very thing and has already sold it, though the deal has not yet been announced.
Eberly says, “I’m always looking for fantasy that explores folklore and mythology from diverse, non–Western European backgrounds. I’d love to see more genre blending and intersectional stories and more disability representation where disability is not the main focus of the plot. I’d also love to see more ESL stories in my inbox. The recent bestseller Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by my client Gabriela Epstein is a brilliant example of how graphic novels can be highly effective in the ESL space.”
O’Neill has an extensive wish list at the moment, which includes “a mystery with enormously kid-compelling stakes and stories that explore questions of faith and belief authentically and inclusively, but where religion isn’t the plot and proselytizing isn’t the goal,” she says. And she’s aiming to find “voicey, character-driven stories where the setting is practically a character itself, especially if that setting is a region/locale we’ve heard from all too rarely in the kid lit canon. I also want stories that are unafraid to acknowledge that today’s kids understand darkness, are curious about some of the very things adults think they need protection from, and have big questions that need more than pat, simplistic answers—in short, novels with fresh, nuanced, honest understandings of what hope looks like for today’s young reader.”
Henkin, who says she was “very moved” by Starfish, would like to see more books about body image and body positivity. She also hopes to receive “more novels in letters in the vein of Dear Mr. Henshaw. And I am always game for more humor, which is often hard to find. I would like to see more compelling nonfiction, too, especially for older middle grade readers.”
The agents we spoke with offered their best guesses about where the middle grade category may be headed in the near future—but before B&N’s new strategy for middle grade buying became known. In a follow-up conversation, Eberly shared some thoughts on how the B&N tack could color new developments on the middle grade landscape.
“My hope is that publishers will focus on how to create greater discoverability through other retail channels and with school and library gatekeepers,” she says. “We will also have to see how B&N’s ordering decision affects format choices when fewer hardcovers are sold in. We may see more simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. Middle grade is often when readers discover ‘their book,’ the book that turns them into lifelong readers, so everyone in publishing, even those in adult divisions, should be concerned about the health of the middle grade market as we try to create those lifelong readers.”
Outside of the B&N shift, agents weighed in with their broader vision of what may lie ahead. “I hope middle grade lit will continue to be open to what was once considered too mature or too sophisticated for middle grade readers,” Von Borstel says. “The challenges with book bans have made it tougher to get new voices into classrooms, so it is even more important to publish these stories and to find creative ways to get them into the hands of young readers.”
Camacho considers middle grade “very much a growing market.” She adds, “I’m seeing some darker stories, which I’m definitely here for, so I’m curious to see where that takes us.” But on the whole, she concedes, “I find middle grade harder to predict than young adult because it’s more genre agnostic, so it keeps us on our toes.”
Kenshole says, “I’m thinking about the onset of female puberty moving even younger, with eight becoming the norm,” positing what the future holds. “I feel contemporary middle grade is going to need to reflect that. Stories changed when puberty moved from 13 to 11, and I think they may need to change again.”
On another note, Kenshole wonders how recent developments in the ways editors work might affect the middle grade category. “I see a great thirst from editors for originality,” she says. “It’s true that there’s too much retreading—my inbox skews a bit earnest, to be honest. I’m genuinely excited to see if having editors working from home across the U.S. makes a radical change to lists. I hope so. I’ve felt an urban Manhattan skew for years. Having editors in the Midwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, reflecting their worlds and diversity, can only be a great thing for U.S. publishing.”
O’Neill wonders what comes after the current boom in graphic novels. “I believe we’re overdue when it comes to thinking about growing a space for the avid middle grade reader to grow into,” she says. “What books do we give to today’s hungry consumer of middle grade graphic novels, three to four years after they’ve read their way through the entire middle grade graphic novel section? It’s not that the YA graphic novel space is empty, but it seems curiously underdeveloped given the approaching graphic novel–obsessed hordes. How do we help those readers to continue onward, as teen readers, as adult readers?”
The picture is definitely rosy in Moore’s view. “I feel like middle grade holds a lot of promise across genres and topics,” she says. “There’s a pretty cool resurgence in spooky/scary stories à la Goosebumps along with a lot of potential fresh takes on coming-of-age classics like the Babysitters Club or magical school stories—except now from a broader range of perspectives, ones that are more inclusive of underrepresented voices and backgrounds.”
Slater is likewise enthusiastic about the road ahead. “I think the middle grade category is only going to get braver and bigger and bolder,” he says. “Authors always meet the times we are living in, and these times demand stories that treat readers with the intelligence they have, and the respect they deserve. So, look out for more LGBTQ stories, more adventures for Black kids, more happiness for kids with disabilities, because you’ll still read in the news about book banning, but no one can stop what the beautiful tide is bringing in.”