Whatever Happened to Middle-Grade Fiction?

I had lunch with an editor yesterday, and toward the end we got to talking about the sorry state of middle-grade fiction. Both of us have been around the block long enough to remember when Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events launched, and at the time it seemed like we were entering a new golden age of middle-grade. Indeed, a number of notable MG authors and series appeared in the wake of Harry and the Baudelaires—Percy Jackson, Mysterious Benedict Society, Eragon, Cornelia Funke, Kat DiCamillo, to name a few.

But then, of course, Edward and Bella showed up, and almost overnight the party went from PG to PG-13 (if not R).

Now, children’s book authors have traditionally worked across genres and age-ranges, Judy Blume being the prime example. And it’s understandable that writers would gravitate toward YA when YA seems to be the biggest thing on the planet. But what confounds me is that how writers are focusing on YA to the exclusion of middle-grade, rather than complementing it as they did in the past—think about Judy writing Are You There God at the same time as Tiger Eyes. Hence, what passes for MG these days are either non-traditional formats like Wimpy Kid, or mass-market school stories that recall the days of Goosebumps and the Babysitters Club.

So to all you YA writers out there—how about some middle-grade? I see so many creative concepts and storylines in YA that would easily translate into middle-grade, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. The audience is there—really, I can’t think of any traditional series that commands the MG market right now—and from my informal survey of editors, it seems like they’re hungry for it, too.  All we need are the writers…

Or am I missing something here? Are there other reasons for the dearth of middle-grade? Have any of you tried MG and met resistance? I’d love to know!

29 Responses to Whatever Happened to Middle-Grade Fiction?

  1. Josin says:

    I read this and very nearly cheered out loud. I’ve got two MG books (ghosts and an urban fantasy) I absolutely love, but have kept putting off because I keep hearing that no one wants MG anymore. I shifted my focus to YA, but if people are still wanting books about younger protagonists, then I may have to go do a happy dance and bump those two up in the WIP line.

    Maybe if YA shifts back toward contemporary, then MG will heat up for paranormal and fantasy. That would be great!

  2. Suzi McGowen says:

    Yay! My current WiP “The Monster of Dewsberry Drink” is totally MG (urban fantasy). I’m happy to know if the writing is great, there’s market out there :)

  3. Nathan Major says:

    I love middle grade! The sense of wonder, the innocence of it all…it seems our fantasy is getting progressively darker and (as you said) more PG-13.
    One of my writing group buddies is writing a middle grade fantasy, and after our group has been constantly putting out dark YA/adult novels, reading a humorous middle grade has been a breath of fresh air.
    I agree! There should be more!

  4. Joelle says:

    Interesting. My young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, has a main character who is 16/17. It got the dystopian label, but because it is NOT dark like most dystopian, many, many reviewers said, “This is more like a MG novel.” I guess because it’s essentially PG. Since I sort of lean that way anyway, I wonder if perhaps I should be focusing on MG. Hard to know what’s what in this biz! Luckily, I have an excellent agent (at DGLM) to guide me.

  5. Speaking not as a writer but as someone who is looking for middle grade books for a family member, I just don’t see enough there that interests me as a book-buyer. I’m glad to hear that some editors may be sensing the same void.

  6. EEV says:

    Since I learned to read, the books that grab my attention are essentially MG. I’m not genre restricted, but I love how brave and strong the characters are, how amazing the adventures can be, how rewarding is at the end to fulfil the task at hand. And as my fellow colleagues, I’m very happy to see this post – sometimes I think I should focus on the YA market, but it’s just not what I’m into. Thanks, John, for bringing hope to us.

  7. M.A. Leslie says:

    I have a MG that is currently on Amazon and I am working on a different one that I will try to go the traditional route again. I am not sure what it was, but one of two things happened. Either I am the worst query writer in the world or MG isn’t getting a great response from agents right now. Maybe I am just that student that isn’t good at taking the tests in class, I’m still not sure. It is frustrating writing and loving MG and having no support from the writing community.

    Maybe I wasn’t persistent enough, but after an inbox filled with this doesn’t fit our list right now. I decided to go it another way. However, I do hope to still one day go it the traditional way. John, please remember how you feel when I query you in a few months, once the next MS is complete.

  8. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    What is the distinction between MG and YA? Is it an age range? How subject matter is handled? Themes? What happened to “juveniles?” (e.g., The “Lucky Starr” stories by Paul French AKA Isaac Asimov.) It’s a puzzlement to me.

  9. M. G. King says:

    Great news that the market is expanding for middle grade — I would love reading and writing middle grade stories even if I didn’t live in a Calvin & Hobbs cartoon at home! My boys would vote for more humor-filled books hitting the shelves. They love anything that makes them laugh. For them, literary books without humor are a bit like shredded wheat without the frosting. Cheers!

  10. John says:

    Wow, I’m really psyched that this post is generating so much enthusiasm!

    Just to clarify for Gilbert, Middle-grade is typically defined as books for ages 8-12, which means the main character falls in that age range–though often it’s on the older end, like 11 or 12. For me, that’s really the defining feature, though content-wise MG does tend to avoid the grittier subject matter of YA. But that doesn’t mean MG can’t handle important issues or merit deep characterization–and I think that’s where a lot of MG writers get tripped up, thinking they need to be less serious or substantial in MG.

    As for the market, while I definitely think there are interested editors out there, I’d take it more as a glimmer of hope than an opening of the floodgates. Publishers are still very much focused on YA and the sales potential there, and it’s going to be a struggle to get them to look younger, especially since the marketing departments have become so adept at YA. For MG to have a shot, I think it’s going to take some committed editors, new marketing strategies, and a healthy push from the schools and libraries where MG traditionally made its home.

    And of course, it’s going to take some very high-quality, commercially viable books…

  11. Middle Grade is such a pivotal time for readers. I really believe it is when you become a reader or not. Thanks for this post. I’ve got two MG manuscripts (almost) in the can, so it is great to know agents are hungry for it…as long as it is good.

  12. Adrienne says:

    While I can’t argue the point that there is the perception of a dearth of MG out there seeing as editors and agents seem to routinely point it out, I don’t think it’s for want of people writing it. It’s simply because attention isn’t paid as much to it as it is to YA. Now the pendulum is swinging back, and that’s lovely, but for those of us published in MG during the YA upswing, it’s all bitter sweet.

    For the record there is new MG being published all the time, new interesting and fun MG for that matter (and yes, I’m actually speaking of my peers and not necessarily of myself – though far be it for me to deny my awesome-ness – I actually faired better than many in the YA upswing with my MG). I’m happy to hear that people are now actively seeking it out as I find MG to be one of the most fascinating and inventive of genres. Particularly when it comes to Magical Realism and absurdity. With MG kids don’t feel a need to dismiss something with, “Well that’s ridiculous”. As I said in my guest post oh so many moons ago over at Nathan Bransford’s blog:

    “I have never once had to explain to a child why it is possible for my story to have tall ships and laptops in the same universe. . . Children are so much more willing just to sit back and enjoy the story, instinctively understanding that not everything has to have an explanation and that, in fact, sometimes a lack of explanation makes the story that much more fun.”

    In any event, I don’t think it is a matter of once again asking one kind of writer to write another kind of genre (ie: adult authors being asked to write YA) – though of course I acknowledge that many writers write across the board. I do so myself. I think it’s a matter of simply paying more attention to the MG authors that already exist or are currently in the process of getting/trying to get published etc.

    Ever have that experience when you learn a new word and then suddenly that same day you hear it or see it everywhere? It’s not that the new word just started to pop up to correlate with you learning it, it’s that the word was always there but you just didn’t notice it before knowing it existed. I feel the same about MG. It’s out there. And there’s new stuff coming out every week, you just have to notice it.

  13. I don’t know if you’d have time to comment, John, on the “edginess” factor in Middle Grade as opposed to YA. I have read comments from parents, and know of one myself, who have held off reading books such as Coraline to their children because they’re too scary.

  14. Day Day says:

    LOL… this is the best post yet. I write middle grade fiction. I spent 2 years putting together a series. When finished I was told by a few agents that my concept was to old for kids, or to dark, or not trendy enough and it was to young for adults. I was told my story was to long for kids and not long enough for teens. Apperantly they haven’t met a lot of kids, because the kids I know would willingly read a thousand pages if the story makes them laugh, cry, worry, and hope that their hero will win out in the end. Kids want to feel apart of the story. (Sorry for the rant.) Where was I? Oh yea… when I decided to continue with the series, discorying more about the character I created and a lot more about myself. I decided to take a chance with submitting to publishers instead of agents and I’ve been called back by two already. Yet now I have know agent and believe I need one. Hahahaha(some catch-22 wouldnt you say?) Yet if I would’ve changed my concept to fit a more older audience instead of sticking with what I believed in I might not have made it this far. MG books are awesome, because when they’re good, I dont care how old you are, you’re going to read it.

  15. The Writer's Song of the Day says:

    Bon Iver – Stacks

    Take five minutes to listen before you write a single word today and you’ll see a new world flow from your fingertips.

  16. Veronica says:

    “MG isn’t getting a great response from agents right now”

    This would be what I have heard from a number of agented MG writers, too, mostly because of the increasing difference in advances right now.

  17. suzanne says:

    I have three middle grade stories. I really was concerned the market was saturated. Who knew. I better write some cover letters.

  18. Ann Summers says:

    I agree, John, that MG is falling a bit by the wayside. As a parent of a science-crazed boy and girl, I find a huge gap in what MG has to offer (it really Peters out after Magic Tree House) early MG readers and what is available in the way of magic/fantasy pieces like Harry Potter (or as my 4 year-old neice calls it, Harry Bottoms.) For those not interested in dark fantasy fiction or even darker real-life fiction, there really is … nothing.
    As a writer, my goal is to try to fill this gap, especially for boys, and I have 2 MG novels meant for boys or girls, with bits from science, geology prehistory, lingustics and other cool stuff woven into what I hope are fun stories with likeable troublesome characters. I hope to engage readers whose vocabularies and development bespeak a higher MG age range, who may read Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, and sit around wondering, “Now what books do I read?”
    Maybe my “Hanna French and the Elephants of Nebraska” will be one of them. Thanks for your blog!

  19. Trudy says:

    Even my 17 year old son still loves to read middle grade. I’m glad to hear there is an interest in it.

    However, that is not what I see and a new author trying to get middle grade published. I have a middle grade novel aimed at boys. I have had it critiqued at SCBWI conferences. I get great from established authors and editors at the conferences and they tell me the novel is very good and I should be able to get it published. Yet, I have not even been able to get past the query process with agents to have any of them even read it. I don’t know if it is because of my query letter (which I have rewritten and had critiqued several times) or if it is because agents and publishers aren’t really interested in middle grade for boys. I know some of the agents I have sent to haven’t even opened by query.

    My boys would love to read more of the same types of stories like the one I have written. Middle grade is my family’s favorite. Thus, my choice of writing as an author.

  20. CM says:

    Why is so much of this discussion about fantasy and series fiction? Doesn’t anyone like middle grade fiction about normal kids and their problems anymore? Judy Blume did it!

  21. Will Overby says:

    I’ve been trying to sell my MG series for several years now, but I keep getting told there is no market for MG fiction, especially for boys, which is what mine is geared to. It’s very frustrating to hear such conflicting advice.

  22. Kit Bakke says:

    I’m late to this discussion, but found it while googling around for background for a talk I’m giving in a couple months to a statewide school library conference. It’s all very interesting. In some ways, I don’t like the way books are labeled middle grade or YA or adult. When I was a kid, I read all over the map. So what if I didn’t really understand all of what I was reading?

    My second book, a middle grade novel titled DOT TO DOT, collected rejections from agents for about a year and then I decided to bring it out through Amazon’s CreateSpace. I did so, and am working on marketing through schools and libraries. Meanwhile I got an agent, so am hoping DOT will be able to jump to a traditional publisher in 2012.

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  26. I only do middle grade. In fact, I am writing a thesis for my masters degree that argues for the inclusion of middle grade books into the literary cannon, But what are publishers looking for in middle grade these days? That’s the hard part.

  27. Carl says:

    The successes of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia have drawn children of all ages. I have read the books, sat in the theater with children, parents and grandparents and believe there are many more out there, like me. After six months of trying to draw the interest of agents to my fantasy series, The Connors Chronicles, I wonder if agents are only interested in vampires or zombies at this time. I hope not.

  28. David Martin says:

    I just finished my Middle Grade Trilogy and honestly believe this is a tragically forgotten and/or ignored demographic. \”The Adventures of Sugar Dog\” explores and defines it very well, and although there are four twelve year old boys as primary characters, the fact that Sugar Dog takes center stage keeps female readers glued to the story as well!~David Martin

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