Middle grade books are the reliable workhorse of children’s publishing, and today’s eager readers are driving a boom reminiscent of the rise of the Harry Potter series a generation ago. While publishers devote their attention to bringing new middle grade titles to market, the responsibility for putting their books into the hands of kids largely falls to librarians, teachers, and booksellers.
From some of the smallest bookstores in the country to the biggest indie stores, half a dozen booksellers who are steeped in all things middle grade shared their views with PW, along with their approaches to selling these books to reluctant and avid readers alike.
The Challenge of Selling Middle Grade
As young readers age out of early chapter books and into middle grade, a vast and loosely defined sea of titles awaits. The breadth of the category, along with its somewhat unenticing name, can leave readers confused and without a guide. “A lot of the books in this category do not really appeal to that wide of a range of readers,” says Margaret Brennan Neville, children’s buyer and manager of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. For help, middle grade readers often turn to independent booksellers, who have to find appropriate titles within the category, trying to capture children’s imagination while also satisfying parents and caretakers.
Much has changed about middle grade publishing since the debut of Harry Potter, but the core difficulty remains the same, according to Neville. “The biggest challenge is matching the kid to the age-appropriate title,” she says. To get the right books into readers’ hands, booksellers are allocating an increasing amount of floor and display space to their middle grade books, ensuring that there are books on hand for readers of all types.
The Right Amount of Space
If there were any doubt about the demand for middle grade books, Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., puts it to rest. The store has sections for children’s, children’s fantasy/SF, and young adult titles, but bookseller and buyer Elisa Thomas says that 70% of the store’s space for children’s books is currently devoted to middle grade.
Thomas can rattle off a string of current and backlist bestsellers at Cellar Door, from Wonder and Harry Potter to Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies, Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, Jason Reynolds’s Ghost, and Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder. “There is no possible way to keep up with all of the titles, but I try as hard as possible,” Thomas says—and that begins with giving the books enough shelf space.
At Foggy Pine Books in Boone, N.C., owner Mary Ruthless sets aside 43% of her store’s children’s and YA sections for middle grade books. To attract readers, she calls the section Chapter Books and displays the newest hardcovers faced out alongside top recommendations from the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next list.
Ruthless has also created a rotating set of topic-specific displays. Among the most popular, she says, “were ‘Families of All Shapes & Sizes,’ ‘Different Cultures, Same Experience,’ and ‘Global Mythology.’ ” At the Tattered Cover bookstores in Colorado, director of buying Bethany Strout recently began experimenting with the same idea and has seen positive results.
Six months ago, Strout revamped the middle grade sections at her store’s four locations by introducing a New Middle Grade section that emphasizes “new and noteworthy arrivals.” She says that in addition to increasing shelf space for middle grade books overall, new display space “has been great for discoverability, making it easy to notice under-the-radar titles, as well as quickly find titles customers come in for every day, like Wimpy Kid, Dog Man, and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Navigating New Titles
With a glut of titles for indies to choose from, booksellers turn to every available resource to stay informed, pick new releases for their stores, and keep up with demand. At the King’s English, Neville turns to her entire team of booksellers for help. “I try to make sure that anyone on staff who is interested in reading and selling kids’ books has access to Edelweiss, F&Gs, ARCs, comp copies, trade magazines like PW, and reviews,” she says.
Neville also turns to her sales representatives for advice, as does Donna Fell, owner of Sparta Books in Sparta, N.J. “I listen to my publishers,” Fell says.
Tattered Cover’s Strout agrees. “Sales reps are the first line,” she says. “If they recommend something, I make sure to take a look.”
With increasing demand for books that are authored by and written for diverse readership, Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., pairs up her reading of publisher catalogues and ARCs by paying careful attention to the website of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that promotes greater diversity in children’s publishing.
Along with industry news publications, publishers’ recommendations, and marketing materials, booksellers track excitement about new and forthcoming titles by reaching out to experts, both in person and on social media. “Teachers and librarians always know what their students are reading, and we have a great network here in Denver that’s willing to share thoughts and reviews,” Strout says. At the same time, like many booksellers, she follows enthusiasm for books on social media, joking that she “stalks Twitter.”
The bedrock for all booksellers is nonstop reading. “I read as many ARCs as I can,” says Thomas at Cellar Door.
For Fell, close reading allows her to have the conversations that matter most, talking with middle grade readers about their favorite books and asking their advice. Simply put, she says, “Kids know everything.”
Covers, Covers, Covers
Catching the attention of readers who are browsing in a sea of books is one of the most important ways that booksellers introduce new titles, and it is the reason many have increased the number of face-outs and displays for middle grade books in their stores. Fell, however, is quick to point out that face-outs cannot work unless the covers are something worth looking at. “Cover design is really important for kids and, frankly, for parents, too,” she says. “They like something to catch their eye.” Among the covers that are drawing attention at Sparta Books these days are Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound and J.A. White’s Nightbooks.
Neville adds that an eye-catching cover “needs to be aimed at the audience the story is aimed at, and the cover should tell the story.”
Multiple booksellers describe the cover for Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret as among the most effective covers of the last year for just that reason. “It lets you know right away what the book is about and who it will appeal to, and kids eat it up,” says Brinkley at Oblong Books.
At Tattered Cover, Checked by Cynthia Kadohata has found wide readership for the same reasons. “Something about the combination of dog, hockey, and clean design has really drawn customers in,” Strout says.
Though Fell says she is pleased with the current crop of front cover designs, she is less satisfied with rear jackets, where age-old problems persist. For price-conscious parents, difficult-to-find standard retail prices lead to decreased book sales. In addition, Fell says, “I would love to see fewer back covers that are completely covered in blurbs. Kids don’t care about that, and parents are looking to see what the content is and if it’s appropriate for their kid.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is keeping designs fresh. Just like successful content, effective covers often create trends in design, which Neville warns against: “Publishers think that one style is working, and all the books start to look the same.”
Staying on Top of Series
One area of middle grade where readers expect things to look the same is series. With strong sales and devoted readership, series are in many ways the backbone of all physical bookstore retailers. At the same time, given the number of successful series and the space they take up, stocking them can bedevil physical retailers, from the smallest indies to the largest chain bookstores.
At Tattered Cover and the King’s English, every book in a bestselling series can be found on the shelves. “It’s so satisfying to be able to tell a young reader, ‘Yes, we do have that one Wings of Fire book you haven’t read,’ ” Strout says. But she also acknowledges that most stores don’t have the same “luxury of square footage.”
The entire Wings of Fire series is on hand at Oblong Books as well, but from there, the store is more selective, as are most others around the country. Three general approaches are common among booksellers when space and size are a limitation: they stock every title in evergreen series such as Harry Potter, the first books in other bestselling series, and the first books in series that are staff recommendations. Ruthless cuts off any series except the bestselling ones at three books, no matter how many more there are.
The approach may seem rigid, but Ruthless says there is still room for experimentation. “I will try new series out by getting the first two or three titles and then rotating them out with other new series to see what my customers like the most.”
If You Can’t Take a Joke
Fantasy still reigns supreme among middle grade books, but perhaps the greatest shift in the last generation is the success of graphic novels (see “An Ever-Growing Demand for Middle Grade Graphic Novels”) and humor titles, both of which were looked down upon by parents a generation ago. Increased acceptance has led to a wave of new titles, to the delight of readers and booksellers alike.
“At this point, it feels like you can’t go wrong with full-color trade paperback graphic novels,” Strout says. Tattered Cover’s graphic novel section for kids is constantly busy, according to her, with Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series leading the pack.
“The graphic novels are great in my opinion,” says Thomas at Cellar Door. “They have some really interesting content,” and, according to her, they also serve an important purpose: “They pull in reluctant readers.”
Hybrid graphic novels, which combine longer passages of text common to unillustrated books with illustration and imagery, also have a growing readership, according to Brinkley at Oblong: “I’m seeing a lot more kids looking for novels with some illustrations, in the vein of The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, that they can read with their parents—even if they’re old enough to read them themselves.”
Brinkley says she is also seeing “a surge of kids looking for realistic books that make them laugh.” The growing success of such titles suggests that if publishers offered a larger supply of humor books, booksellers and readers would be happy to read them—but only if they are more diverse in their approaches to comedy.
Among the most popular graphic novel middle grade books at Foggy Pine are James Patterson’s I, Funny and Jacky Ha-Ha, but Ruthless says there are two types of humor that need more attention from publishers: “I would love some more options, particularly potty humor—something other than Captain Underpants—and more humor featuring girls. Funny middle grade books seem to be designed for boy readers.” A sign that publishers may already be taking note of the need for such books is Viking’s 2017 release of Funny Girl, a collection of humorous stories and comics by 25 female writers, edited by Betsy Bird.
Brinkley concurs with Ruthless. “I’d love to see more funny contemporary books where ladies are the protagonists, à la Frazzled,” she says. “And I would love to see more funny fantasy books like The Girl Who Could Not Dream.”
Though there is demand for more, Brennan says she understands why there are fewer humor titles: “True humor is hard to write.”
Diversity Front and Center
Though middle grade books have an increasing focus on characters and content from diverse backgrounds, the trend does not extend to include authors. In May, Jason Low published an analysis of statistics drawn from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2017 study on children’s books. Low, publisher of Lee and Low Books, wrote that the diversity of characters in children’s books is on the rise, but that authorship continues to be predominately white. The gap is noticeable to booksellers, who say that readers are clamoring for more diversity in middle grade books.
“When we think about diversity of books, we tend to think of the characters and not the authors,” Brinkley says. “I’d like to see more authors of color writing books about characters of color.”
Ruthless says a greater focus on diversity is among the most important shifts that need to occur in middle grade books, and that it benefits all kids to see greater diversity of content and authorship. “Showing kids that POC, queer, disabled, and poor people can be authors and can tell their stories makes them believe that their stories are worth telling, that they are worth knowing about. I can’t express how much impact it makes on these kids to have books about characters that are like them, written by authors who are like them. It can help turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader when they find out that there are stories where it’s easy to see themselves as heroes.”
More nuance regarding diversity is also something that needs to be present in middle grade books, Brennan says. “Most of our customers want to see the diversity of our communities reflected in books. I do not think they want to be hit over the head with diverse books. Kids of color, kids on the LGBTQ spectrum, can all wave wands, cross rivers, have their hearts broken.”
Brennan adds that though there are persistent issues around diversity in middle grade books, there has been progress. “We love seeing the success of all authors,” she says. “And right now, it is a wonderful moment watching Jewel Parker Rhodes, Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Matt de la Peña, to name a few, get the recognition they deserve, and to hear people talking about their stories.”
At Cellar Door, Thomas is buoyed by recent announcements from publishers signaling an increased commitment to diversity in publishing. “I was so excited when Penguin Young Readers announced its new imprint, Kokila, that’s focusing on diversity,” she says, “as well as the new Rick Riordan Presents from Hyperion.”
Getting Outside the Bookstore
Along with creating a welcoming environment for middle grade browsers in their stores, booksellers are increasingly developing in-store events and out-of-store networks to reach readers across their communities. The King’s English hosts author readings and in-store programming, and booksellers also keep abreast of school reading lists so that they can align what they have in store with what kids are encountering in the classroom.
At Foggy Pine, Ruthless is considering launching an after-school readers club that would reward readers for each book they complete.
Tattered Cover has developed extensive programming, including a new festival that shines a light on middle grade books. Earlier this year, it launched the Colorado Children’s Book Festival with the OMG (Oh Middle Grade!) Bookfest. Over a two-day period, at both a local elementary school and Tattered Cover’s Colfax location, the store hosted 19 authors including Newbery Medalists Avi, Shannon Hale, and Erin Entrada Kelly, as well as The Sisters Grimm author Michael Buckley. According to Strout, the events drew more than 500 attendees, and the bookstore plans to continue the festival in 2019.
Though the large volume of middle grade books provides great new stories for her customers, Neville says that, as with any area of publishing and bookselling, some problems remain. “I think that publishers should publish fewer books, focus on quality,” she notes.
Along with more books come more related marketing items, which Neville also finds problematic. “I wish that publishers would be more cognizant of the environmental issues associated with all the marketing materials. We love the stuff and try to use it all as well as possible, but less is more. Let’s not add to the landfill.”
Despite those concerns, it is undeniable that the growth in middle grade books being published is matched by a growth in readership, and booksellers are taking note. Stores that once only had a few shelves now have themed tables, displays, face-outs, nooks, reading chairs, and point-of-sale titles. All of it is dedicated to fostering a conversation between booksellers and kids, and a faith that it will lead to a good book.
“Talk to kids,” Thomas says. “Kids know what they like, and they definitely know what they don’t like. If they don’t like to read, ask them about what kind of TV shows or games they like. There will always be something for them.”