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Kidlit Spotlight: Following YA’s market dominance, publishers say it’s middle-grade fiction’s time to shine

(Illustration: Christy Lundy)

(Illustration: Christy Lundy)

Lifelong passion for fiction often blossoms in the tween years, creating soft-focus memories of reading by flashlight under the covers or holed up in a backyard fort. While homegrown offerings for middle-graders have arguably been strong for decades – thanks to celebrated authors including Jean Little, Gordon Korman, and Kit Pearson – many insiders say the category is suddenly getting hotter. “I think it’s definitely a growing area for us,” says Tara Walker, publisher of Penguin Random House Canada Children’s Publishing Group.

The prolonged spotlight on young adult titles has reached a saturation point, says Walker, creating more demand for middle-grade fiction. At the same time, children’s publishing is a category that continues to expand, despite industry-wide challenges. Middle-grade is “becoming more important all the time,” says Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Orca Book Publishers. “That’s where the readers are, and where you can do some of the most interesting things.”

Several publishers suggest it’s a hugely auspicious time for the category, in which market opportunity is colliding with increasingly high-calibre writing, some of it by established authors who are venturing into middle-grade for the first time or taking more chances. Walker cites The Road to Ever After (Doubleday Canada) by Moira Young, who achieved much success with her YA Dust Lands trilogy, as an example of the first, while Richard Scrimger’s Downside Up, published by Tundra Books‚ represents the latter. A moving, slightly fantastical tale of grief and loss, Scrimger’s novel is one of the company’s most anticipated fall titles for readers aged eight to 12, says Walker, because “Richard is so known for his humour, and this is a really touching story as well.”

A sentiment that pre-teens can, and should, read about tough subjects is also fuelling the boom. Writers who tackle difficult issues with nuance and empathy are finding an eager audience. Emma Rodgers, marketing and promotions manager for Toronto’s Second Story Press, points to the continued success of the publisher’s Kids Holocaust Remembrance Series – which has seen sales of two million books since its launch in 2001 – as proof of this. “There was definitely pushback, especially in the earlier years, about tackling such serious subjects with a middle-reader audience,” says Rodgers. “But kids react so strongly to these stories and they’re so ready and eager to learn about them that it reinforces our decisions every time we publish these books.”

Children’s toy and entertainment industries (and parents) say that kids these days are growing up faster. “It’s true,” says Owlkids Books publisher Karen Boersma. “Kids today in that eight to 12 range are dealing with issues that I think kids 20 years ago at that age didn’t have to deal with, including questions of gender identity, diversity, and bullying.”

The Mask that Sang, Susan Currie (Second Story Press, Sept.)

The Mask that Sang, Susan Currie (Second Story Press, Sept.)

Sharing a wider range of voices is top of mind for many publishers, editors, and writers – as a result of shifting demographics, a sense of cultural responsibility, and rising demand from teachers, parents, and librarians. At Second Story, the desire to publish more indigenous authors inspired their inaugural Aboriginal Writing Contest in 2014. The publisher will release one of the two winning submissions this fall: a middle-grade novel called The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie, about a young girl exploring her Cayuga heritage.

Increasing diversity is more than an obligation, however; it’s enriching the category for everyone. “I think children’s publishing is in the best place it has been in ages,” says HarperCollins Canada children’s editor Suzanne Sutherland. “A large part of that comes from the interest in promoting diversity.” By portraying different lives and perspectives on the page, publishers are serving an audience that’s hungry for those stories.

The Lotterys Plus One, Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins, March 2017)

The Lotterys Plus One, Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins, March 2017)

One example is international bestselling author Emma Donoghue’s debut children’s novel, The Lotterys Plus One. Appearing on HarperCollins’ winter 2017 list, the book features a gay couple and a lesbian couple who “win the lottery, buy a big old house in Parkdale, and fill it with kids,” says Sutherland. The novel is aimed at readers aged 10 to 12, which seems to indicate a shift in attitude: while LGBTQ characters have been common in YA novels for more than a decade, “it always seemed a bit too touchy to get into with middle-grade,” says Sutherland. “Which is ridiculous.”

Upcoming titles also point to a growing sensitivity to and acknowledgement of issues around gender norms, social pressure, and identity. Sara Cassidy’s A Boy Named Queen (Groundwood Books) – about a friendship between a young boy who is perfectly comfortable in his own skin and a girl whose sense of identity is in flux – deals with big concepts in a savvy, age-appropriate manner. “It’s beautifully written, character-driven, and short, short, short,” says Groundwood Books children’s and YA editor Shelley Tanaka.


Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers, Anna Humphrey; Lisa Cinar, ill. (Owlkids Books, Sept.)

Meanwhile, Owlkids aims to tear down gender stereotypes (with a good dose of fun) with Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers by Anna Humphrey. “Clara has the kind of self-confidence that you almost always find in boy characters,” says Boersma. “You don’t find it that often in a female character in a middle-grade novel.”

Clara is Owlkids’s first foray into middle-grade fiction and a key step in Boersma’s mandate to expand the company’s fiction program. Since coming on board as publisher four years ago, Boersma has focused on developing the picture book and non-fiction categories, but now, she says, “middle-grade is probably where we all see the most potential. It can run the gamut from funny books to fantasy, and you can do difficult, emotional subjects. There really is no limit to what kind of topics you can address.”

Pandas on the Eastside, Gabrielle Prendergast (Orca Book Publishers, Sept.)

Pandas on the Eastside, Gabrielle Prendergast (Orca Book Publishers, Sept.)

Instead of pushing an overly “adult” agenda, says Tanaka, the best children’s writing feels like it springs directly from a kid’s mind. Still, from gender identity and class culture to social justice, middle-graders are becoming increasingly aware of the world around them, and their literature needs to reflect that. Kids Can Press’s forthcoming Dingus, the first middle-grade novel from Toronto picture-book author Andrew Larsen, is “an introspective, coming-of-age book about friendship and social dynamics,” says Yvette Ghione, Kids Can’s editorial director. “It’s nothing too heavy, but it’s just so authentic.” At Orca, Wooldridge highlights Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prendergast, the 1970s-set story of a 10-year-old girl who rallies her neighbourhood to help two pandas stuck in a Vancouver warehouse. The novel tackles poverty, homelessness, and many political issues that still define the city.

A sense of authenticity and relevance is of utmost importance for middle-graders, because for many, it’s the age when they become newly independent readers. Beyond content, publishers realize this shift requires different considerations for packaging and marketing these titles. From cover images to trim size to book length, decisions become “more geared to looking at what a kid might pick up, versus looking at what a librarian would pick up,” says Ghione. “Even though you still have gatekeepers and the institutional market is so important for us.”

Increasingly, publishing for middle readers is also a smart economic decision. Even YA titles that receive award nominations and strong press often have sluggish sales compared to middle-grade titles with comparable acclaim, says Wooldridge. In today’s tech-centric world, YA audiences can be splintered and distracted. “Even if teens used to read,” says Wooldridge, “a lot of them don’t anymore; they’re too busy playing Pokémon.”

Sutherland agrees that YA gobbled up more than its share of attention over the past several years, with adults reading about vampires and dystopian worlds right along with teens. “But the core of middle-grade readership really is still kids,” says Sutherland, “which is what makes publishing those books so important. These are the stories that can turn young people into readers for life.”