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Spotlight on Middle Grade

This article was originally published on our parent site for the book publishing industry, Publishing Trends

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Young adult literature has been a huge catalyst and money-maker for publishing over the past few years. Beyond the books, the category’s given birth to several multimillion dollar franchises and new Hollywood stars. With all of the glamour and glitz that can come out of the YA world, it’s easy to forget about the rest of children’s literature. No, not board books or picture books: I’m talking about middle grade. According to Nielsen, it’s not the highest-selling segment of the children’s book market, but it’s still pulling big numbers. Middle grade titles contend with the YA stars like John Green and their sales can rival the standard baby-shower gift titles like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Green Eggs and Ham – so it’s time for them to share in the spotlight.

WHO’S READING MIDDLE GRADE?

While middle grade is a commonly-used industry term, there doesn’t seem to be one hard and fast definition. Searching for “middle grade” on the Book Industry Study Group yields no direct results. There aren’t any BISAC codes identifying a book as middle grade. (It’s worth noting that YA BISAC codes were only just added in early 2016.) There are BISAC codes for juvenile fiction (ages 0-11, preschool to grade 6) and of course, YA fiction, (ages 12-18, grade 7-12). Given this, one could assume middle grade presumably falls into the juvenile fiction section with perhaps some overlap into the early years of what BISAC considers YA. I asked around for some answers.

Author Alison Cherry, who has written both YA (most recently Look Both Ways) and middle grade (Willows vs. Wolverines) offered some definitions: “The answer I give people who don’t know anything about publishing is ’Appropriate for kids ages 8-12,’ but of course that’s not relevant to a lot of kids—there are ten-year-olds who read tons of YA, and there are six-year-olds who can handle middle grade with no problem.” Going beyond age ranges, she suggested that “one explanation I really like is that MG is often more internally focused—about figuring out who you are and how you relate to your family and friends—and YA is more broadly focused—about figuring out where you fit into the context of the wider world.”

Book Scout for Maria B. Campbell Associates, Rachel Horowitz had a subtly different answer from Cherry’s: “It often seems to be a bit younger, for ages 7-10 rather than 8-12, which is the traditional age group…I just looked at the latest New York Times Bestseller’s List, and for the middle grade bestsellers, there’s a real age range – but I think the sweet spot is really 7-10.”

IMPRESSIVE SALES

Whatever their age, middle grade readers are big readers. Nielsen’s 2016 Children’s Book Market Report’s top selling authors of the year were loaded with author names you’d expect to see – Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, and John Green. And yet, in the year’s top 5 bestselling authors alone, three are middle grade: Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid series; author of beloved Magic Tree House series, Mary Pope Osborne; and the “Disney Book Group,” with their Descendants series. This isn’t an anomaly, either. Nielsen’s 2015 Children’s Book Market Report had Jeff Kinney and Mary Pope Osborne on that top 20 list, joined by Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries series. The 2014 report shows Kinney & Osborne again, as well as James Patterson with his Middle School Worst Years series. Through 2014-2016 middle grade authors were up against huge media properties like Minecraft, Star Wars and Frozen, as well as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner series, and middle grade maintained a firm hold in children’s book sales.

TRENDING TOPICS

Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books are a good example of one of middle grade’s most surprising successes, according to Elise Howard, Editor and Publisher at Algonquin Books for Young Readers. “Humor is the most idiosyncratic and hardest thing to sell,” she said. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which had been serialized online and viewed for free by millions of readers before it appeared in book form, taught everyone in publishing a thing or three about the effect of the internet and ‘free’ on the market for paid work.” Despite humor being tough to nail, there is a definite hunger for it abroad, according to book scout Rachel Horowitz: “Everyone is looking for humor! There were a lot of stories with magical animals this year, an evergreen theme, but people would also like to read something funny.” Interestingly, humor is what author Alison Cherry enjoys so much about the category: “I can get away with writing much goofier situations for middle grade….it’s my favorite part about writing for that age group.”

Another trend in middle grade is serious topics. As Cherry mentioned earlier, middle grade characters are often looking inward, finding out who they are. Horowitz noted some examples of books dealing with these topics that have gone on to be successes: “There have been the pleasant surprises, like how well a book like Wonder, about a disfigured boy mainstreaming into school for the first time, has struck a chord; and George, about a boy who realizes he’s the wrong gender; or Lily and Dunkin’, a wonderful friendship story with a transgender character.” Howard pointed out some additional topics about identity that are growing in popularity: “Although there’s a long way to go to meet readers’ needs in this area, the burgeoning of imprints and auctions for Own Voices fiction suggests that it’s becoming something of a trend.” Howard continued. “It needs now to convert from trend to perennial.”

As a writer and reader, Cherry has noticed publishers being more willing to see middle grade books tackle tougher topics lately. “Kids have to deal with tough situations in real life, and making reading material available that can help them cope is so important.” She noted recent examples of middle grade books dealing with depression, the foster system, even an alcoholic parent. Last May, Publishers Weekly wrote about darker topics becoming more popular in middle grade as well, positing, “It’s never easy to be on the wobbly fulcrum of puberty, but has it ever been harder? The years between 10 and 14 are known as the storm-and-stress period, because so much change—physical, emotional, social—can happen seemingly all at once. Books that address the toughest issues kids face can help them navigate their way through a crisis, if books on those topics exist, and if kids have access to them.”

There do seem to be some consistent trends among the category. Howard said, “Series books across all genres remain strongly appealing for middle-graders.” She added, “If there’s such a thing as a sleeper trend, it’s horror and scary stories. Every time I publish something a little spinetingling, I’m reminded of how many middle-graders gravitate to these books.” Of course, there are always some general topics that don’t end up in middle grade novels. Each interviewee mentioned that sex doesn’t come up in middle grade, but when it comes to romance, there’s no hard and fast rule. Of course the lack of a romantic subplot differentiates middle grade from YA, where authors frequently get pressure from editors to add a romantic element to their plots. “I also love not feeling pressured to write a romantic subplot…. If your main character is eleven, it seems natural that romance wouldn’t be on her radar,” said Cherry.

Horowitz said that because middle grade readers are in that sweet spot of both picking out books on their own and still having a significant amount of parent and/or librarian input in their reading, “there is more room in middle grade for stories based on classic tropes – an epic adventure; kids sent to a boarding school or to live with relatives; a magical setting; talking animals.” Middle grade’s staying power among oodles of beloved children’s classics, YA blockbusters, and hugely popular media property tie-ins has been an enduring strength for the category.

Rather than being hemmed in by the lack of pictures on the one hand and on the other, middle grade books are freed up to explore everything from fantasy to burgeoning adolescence, adventure, and even horror, with the knowledge that anything might become the beginning of a beloved series that will pull a new generation of 7-, 8- or 10-year-olds into its orbit.

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