Is Middle-Grade Fiction Really an Adult Reading Trend?

I stumbled upon this interesting article over at PW’s Shelftalker: Is Middle-Grade Fiction Really an Adult Reading Trend? Which is itself a rumination on a Wall Street Journal Article See Grown-Ups Read.

The WSJ article posits the trend that PW is responding to:

Middle-grade books have become a booming publishing category, fueled in part by adult fans who read “Harry Potter” and fell in love with the genre. J.K. Rowling’s books, which sold more than 450 million copies, reintroduced millions of adults to the addictive pleasures of children’s literature and created a new class of genre-agnostic reader who will pick up anything that’s buzzy and compelling, even if it’s written for 8 year olds. Far from being an anomaly, “Harry Potter” paved the way for a new crop of blockbuster children’s books that are appealing to readers of all ages. Recent hits include Rick Riordan’s mythology-tinged fantasy books, which have sold have sold some 35 million copies; Rachel Renee Russell’s “Dork Diaries,” which has 13 million copies in print; and Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which has sold more than 115 million copies. The eighth and latest book in Mr. Kinney’s series, “Hard Luck,” which came out last month, sold more than a million copies in its first week, and had a massive first printing of 5.5 million copies. It’s currently No. 1 on Amazon and tops The Wall Street Journal’s fiction best-seller lists.

Elizabeth Bluemle isn’t so sure this is right

I think what’s happening with middle grade books is a little bit different. At the Flying Pig, we don’t see adults coming in to buy Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books for themselves, at least not yet. And while many adults are reading and loving middle grade books like Wonder, those adults are still, by and large, teachers and librarians and parents. In other words, as has long been the case for middle-grade books, our observation has been that adults who read middle-grade titles are still reading them primarily because they are sharing them with children. I don’t think our bookstore is alone in not seeing a marked recent shift in the middle-grade-book reading habits of the average adult reader. So what is this trend, really?

I think what is happening is that these books are finally on the radar of the general adult population, both because of bestseller lists and because many adults’ own favorite authors are venturing into the children’s realm. These forays by adult authors perhaps spark interest in and lend credibility to a genre previously overlooked by adults not in the know about children’s books. It’s sort of similar to the spikes we see with many celebrity titles. Those books get enormous amounts of publicity, and so reach into the nooks and crannies of the normally distracted adult brain. Unlike celebrity books, which all too often are preachy and not very well-written, many of the adult authors writing for young people today know how to spin a great story.

I will confess up front I have no hard data other than my own experience.  And the plural of anecdote is not data, etc.

And secondly, I have to confess I get confused as to what genre or age group is what. I have been labeling all books between children’s picture books and adult novels as young adult.  And it was only until recently I started to grok that middle grade and Yound Adult are, in theory at least, different.  So obviously not an expert here …

But I do read middle grade and young adult. And I do so for a couple of reasons.  The middle grade is almost universally aimed at finding good books for my eight-year-old daughter.  I am looking for stories with female lead characters, good plots and a sense of adventure (all things she enjoys).  But as the search goes wider I am also looking for appropriate subjects and reading level, etc.

In the young adult area, I am less driven by being a parent and more by interest in the creativity and breadth of the genre.  I grew up loving fantasy adventures and creative storytelling. It seemed to me that for whatever reason publishing was producing a lot of creative and imaginative series in this area that were worth reading. And once you start browsing in this section it is easy to get hooked.

So I think Bluemle is likely right from this perspective.  The genre has received a lot of publicity and some big time authors have gotten involved which means curiosity and more adult readers.

But I am also somewhat troubled by something noted in the WSJ story:

The growing appeal of children’s literature reflects a broader cultural shift as the taste gap between generations collapses. Pop culture today—from frothy hit songs to clever Pixar movies—increasingly caters to both parents and kids. Hip urban parents ride skateboards, play videogames and eat gourmet Popsicles, while their children check their cellphones and sport skinny jeans. Rock bands like They Might Be Giants and Bare Naked Ladies have released children’s albums. The Sundance Film Festival recently announced that it will start screening children’s movies “to reach our youngest independent-film fans.” It’s no wonder that parents and children who watch the same TV shows, listen to the same bands and wear the same clothes have similar taste in literature.

This worries me because it seems to lead to a celebrity driven pop-culture focused literature.  And it involves the further blurring of lines between adults and children which I do not view as healthy. And the article notes the darker and more controversial trend in topics and approaches within YA and middle grade.  Again, I am not a big fan of pushing the envelope in this way.

But on the other hand, if good writing is finding a wider audience and parents and kids can read quality storytelling that has to be a good thing. Like most things it is probably a complex mix of a lot of factors.  If authors can cross boundaries in interesting and creative ways because of the success of these markets that is on the whole good.  But given the seeming power of celebrity these days kids and parents will likely need help finding the quality.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. I write middle grade fantasy adventures, so this post got my interest. Thus far I’m not seeing huge sales, regardless of source and this genre still seems to be an uphill climb into the wind, yet I write what I enjoy. Maybe I’m one of those adults who never grew up and still enjoys a good middle grade work :) All the same, if there is a shift happening, it is still so small down in the indie trenches as not to be felt. I do hope the prediction is correct.

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