Data points and anecdotes about middle grade reading intertwined at a panel on “Recapturing the Tween Middle Grade Market,” held at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 2024. The middle reader category saw a dip below 2019 unit sales in 2023—unless you happen to be Dav Pilkey. “The devil works hard, but Dav Pilkey works harder,” quipped panel moderator Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., after learning that 24% of middle-grade books sold are comics and graphic narratives, 16% if you don’t count sales of the Dog Man author’s titles.

Brenna Connor, manager of industry insights at Circana BookScan, called the tween market “still strong by historical standards,” but diminished from a peak in 2021. Circana tracks 85% of trade books published in the U.S., and ABA—which encourages independent booksellers to report their numbers—is Circana’s partner for aggregating data. Compared to 2022, Circana found that middle reader unit sales in 2023 were down 6.3 million, and in fact half a million units shy of 2019’s top figure.

All the other children’s and young adult categories Circana tracks—young reader (ages 4–8), teen (13 and up), and infant (0–3)—slipped below 2022’s numbers in 2023 too, yet remained slightly ahead of 2019 numbers. As a whole, “the kids’ market struggled in 2023, selling 13.5 million fewer units versus prior year, and contributing to two-thirds of the total market declines,” according to one of the bracing slides Connor shared.

Middle grade had an especially tough 2023. According to Connor and Circana, series account for more than two thirds (69%) of middle grade sales volume, and “nine of the top 10 bestselling series are underperforming”—again with the exception of Pilkey. Another slide reported that “the kids’ licensing market is not particularly innovative at the moment,” with Bluey and Gabby’s Dollhouse “the strongest recent licenses.”

Dispiriting findings coincide with a documented decline in 13-year-olds’ pleasure reading. Connor shared a 2023 report in which the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 14% of 13-year-olds surveyed read for fun “almost every day,” 22% went beyond required reading “once or twice a week,” and 31% “never or hardly ever” picked up a book in their leisure time. Those findings reverse data collected in 1984, when 70% of 13-year-olds surveyed said they read either daily or weekly, and only 8% didn’t reach for a book during down time.

Panelist Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories (Decatur, Ga.), did not “want to get all doom and gloom,” but nevertheless asked, “Given what’s happening in middle grade right now, what does that mean for reading in general, 10 years down the road?”

Reading Stamina

Shelves of material await today’s young readers, but electronic devices get in the way first. Connor noted how the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 intersected with pleasure reading’s already steep decline. More than a decade later, books are still competing with screens, “and books are losing that war,” Connor said. Capriola suggested that screen time is “impacting visual stamina,” children’s energy for sustained reading. She feels readers ages 9–12 “just don’t have the stamina” to engage with a chapter book or other prose-heavy book, even though they may zip through a graphic novel due to its screenlike “visuality.” Webtoons, manga, and streaming video based on comics originals—Heartstopper comes to mind—do grab young readers’ attention, the speakers said.

Panelist Audrey I-Wei Huang, a frontline bookseller at Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., added that in addition to competition with screens, “books are expensive.” Many adults balk at the cost of children’s books, Huang said, although she notices that “BIPOC parents will take a chance on a debut [or popular title] because of word of mouth” and will readily pick up a book with people of color on the cover “because it looks fun” and represents diverse perspectives.

Huang also remarked that, while caregivers come in looking for canonical works like Treasure Island, “sometimes kids are just bored with classic books because they’re written in an archaic way.” She recommended starting with contemporary titles with historical themes, including Christina Soontornvat’s The Last Mapmaker and A Wish in the Dark. Discoverability, Huang states, continues to pose a challenge. Connor cited the pandemic’s “break in the chain of peer-to-peer discovery,” and Brinkley wryly pointed to “a lack of BookTok for kids, although that is a terrifying premise.”

Given what's happening in middle grade right now, what does that mean for reading in general, 10 years down the road? —Diane Capriola, Little Shop of Stories

With all these factors in play, slow sales of middle-grade titles have meant a reduction in shelf space for the category. Lately, Huang said, “We use more dumps. We’ll put graphic novels together or put new books together with shelftalkers on each one,” then reuse the dumps as hot titles change. Capriola said Little Shop of Stories staffers more often combine middle-grade fiction and graphic novels on the same shelves, and they have discussed flipping the sections entirely to give more space to comics. Brinkley said that Oblong Books “cut four full shelves’ worth of [middle-grade] books, and filled it with faceout staff picks to give kids something to gravitate toward.”

Bright Spots

For all the uncertainty, “I feel like the pendulum will swing back,” Capriola said. She hears from reading specialists who are encouraging schools to “move away from digital media and back into physical books.” Last summer, Little Shop of Stories partnered with K–2 grades in the Decatur area on We Read Together, a program that connected roughly 50 families in a summer read of Renée Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine. Capriola hopes to grow the program this summer.

Huang wants to see more dedicated “BIPOC debut marketing” of stories and creators, due to her customers’ hunger for diverse representation. She also calls for frontline booksellers to gain expertise in “fun books at the middle grade level” and looks for opportunities for young readers—junior reviewers—to write shelftalkers for ARCs. “Middle grade staff picks are your friend,” Brinkley seconded, recommending that booksellers talk to sales reps about designing sections with kid appeal.

From the audience, Cathy Berner, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, said, “Frontline booksellers need to become familiar with middle grade and be compensated for that time.” She encouraged the audience to listen to PRH’s free prepublication audiobooks and to review physical ARCs on Edelweiss, since ARCs cost upward of $10 each to produce and often are not deemed worthwhile in the middle readers’ category.

Connor is watching “kids’ cross-platform entertainment behaviors” and betting that “graphic novels will remain key.” She posited that although middle grade series were “soft,” with even the stalwart Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bad Guys, and Cat Kid Comic Club in the red for 2023, “non-series are down just 6%.” That makes Connor wonder whether kids are on a quest for standalone fare or ripe for an altogether fresh trend. She speculated, “Maybe the middle grade readers of today want something a little different than middle grade readers pre-pandemic.”