Is Middle-Grade Fiction Really an Adult Reading Trend?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 12th, 2013

You may have seen Alexandra Alter’s recent Wall Street Journal article, “See Grown Ups Read,” about a new trend in which adults are buying middle-grade books for their own reading pleasure. The trend is due in part, Alter says, to the mother of all MG/adult crossover series, J.K. Rowling, and also to the more recent successes of MG titles like R.J. Palacio’s lovely novel, Wonder, which wildly exceeded sales expectations and has been published in adult editions in several countries. The article also finds signs of the trend in the sales figures for books like the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries series, as well as children’s books by bestselling authors like John Grisham and James Patterson, who initially made their mark writing for adults.

I’ve been pondering this article a bit, because I am on the fence about whether or not significant numbers of adults who aren’t parents, teachers, librarians, or children’s book people really ARE picking up more middle grade books for themselves. Is this really a trend, or is Wonder an anomaly?

(Okay, this isn’t the final cover of Grave Mercy, which now features a girl in a gown. This was the cover on the advance reading copy; I love it deeply and importantly, and think it would garner an even broader audience.)

At the bookstore, we certainly have seen a shift in the reading habits of adult women buying YA titles for themselves and apologizing for it less and less. I can’t tell you how many copies of  Grave Mercy and Immortal Beloved we have sold to a grateful adult audience, and both men and women buy, without any hesitation, the incredible The Knife of Never Letting Go. Those are just a few YA examples; there are scores. Life As We Knew It. Graceling. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianMarcelo in the Real World. Octavian Nothing: The Pox PartyThe Book Thief (which started out life as an adult book in Australia but pubbed here as a YA). Anything by John Green. Yes, the adults-reading-YA trend has taken hold in a major way.

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 think it is also true that, as the article mentions, books across the ages are tackling more mature themes. So adults who happen upon books for youth are often surprised by their depth and complexity. But this still hasn’t seemed to create a tidal wave or tipping point into what I would consider a true trend.

I’m curious to know what other booksellers are noticing. It’s possible that the big cities are seeing more of a definable trend than we do here in Shelburne, Vermont. And if that’s the case, how marvelous! Children’s literature, the best of it, has always held much to delight and intrigue and move the adult spirit. Anyone reading this blog post already knows that. The question is, does your cousin Tony? Your college roommate? That accountant in the office next to you? When does a trend become a trend?

25 thoughts on “Is Middle-Grade Fiction Really an Adult Reading Trend?

  1. Ms. Yingling

    My daughter says that a trend becomes a trend about eight years After I embrace something, so we’re completely on track for Middle Grade literature to explode! Look no further than dangly owl necklaces and hipster glasses for further explanation. I think it’s great to see adults reading Middle Grade!

  2. Melanie

    Excellent article! And yes, I think you’re dead on the money. I’m an adult, and for the last ten years I’ve been reading Middle Grade fiction primarily coming out of the UK and the US. It started out as a way of educating myself about the market so that when I wrote my middle grade book, I would be well informed. Maybe it was JK who helped push me on this journey, but I love the aspects of MG lit for all the fun and adventure .

    1. Melanie

      P.S. Robin LeFevers started out writing MIddle Grade fiction books, which I adore! For me, they were gateways for her YA fiction that I might not have read because I am VERY picky about the YA books I read, where as with middle grade (so long as it’s not 500+ pages) I’m less reticent.

  3. Megan

    I’m 24 and lost my mind when I discovered there was a fifth installment in the Emily Windsnap series earlier this year. I find myself frequently telling others that they need to check out what’s available in the middle grade section of any store because that’s where the hidden gems are. The writing is so much better than what others assume it is and the stories are so engrossing. Calpurnia Tate, Percy Jackson, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. There are so many great titles in there that need to be read and shared. I have no problem admitting how much I love middle grade and I’m neither a teacher nor a parent.

  4. che

    I have always bought Middle Grade books for myself! I really love the action, the adventure, and the magic. It used to be a sort of secret shame, where I would haunt the children’s feeling bad that I was there with no child in tow. But I got over that eventually!

  5. Bright Edobor7

    I don’t think it is an abnormal neither is it new-fangled. This trend however won’t survive a viral spread. As most of the readers are parents it appears that they indulge in such literature because of the needs of their children.

    1. Bright Edobor7

      Imagine telling a bed time story to your kid and the best thing that comes to your mind is some adult fiction. It will sound weird and require matured understanding for the child to grasp the content of the story. But when your shot is of middle aged fantasy or children stories, the child’s enjoyment is confirmed sure

  6. Grace

    A few years ago I started reading the books that were becoming popular among middle grade/young adults because I had children in that age group. Just because someone else says a book should or should not be read by someone doesn’t mean they know my particular child’s situation. I would rather know the questions that are going to come and be prepared for them, and I’ve found many other parents feel the same way. In doing this, I have found wonderful writing and storytelling that I’d forgotten existed. Had I believed J.K. Rowling’s treasures were only for kids, I would have missed a lot. The humor in some of the current MG writing has me literally laughing out loud. Trend? I hope so, for everyone’s sake. We could all benefit from it.

  7. Nancy Partridge

    I’m currently writing a piece (for a degree in children’s lit) about middle grade fiction and the unreliable narrator, and why these books are so compelling…going all the way back to E. Nesbit. These books are so complex and sophisticated with a quality that has been coined as “childness” – which resonates with so many people. They’re engaging for both children and adults because we all carry our childhoods with us – and we’re also involved in helping children live their own. Personally, they are my favorite kind of reading.

  8. Amanda

    I not only read YA books because I write novels in the same genre, but because they are just such good reads. Some of the best fantasy/adventure novels I’ve read recently have come from YA. And I don’t have children, nor am I a teacher or librarian. I think YA and middle grade are becoming more widespread than people think.

    P.S. Let’s not forget about one of the most popular children’s novels of all time: The Hobbit.

  9. Rosanne Parry

    I’ve found an unanticipated audience in Adult English Language Learners. The local community college assigns my novel Heart of a Shepherd to 6th or 7th level students. For most its the first book of any kind they’ve read in English and for some of them the first book they’ve ever owned. Because my themes tend to be family oriented they resonate well with immigrants from fairly conservative cultures. These students go on to read the books to their own families and communities.

    It may not be a huge market but it’s a logical one for adults who need something shorter and more straight-forward than many novels for adults, but they still want to rich language and discussion provoking topics found in so many MG books.

  10. J. J. Parsons

    If this is a trend, I have mixed feelings about it. Already, the trend in MG and YA is to lots of dark dystopian themes. If adults are reading these books, will authors feel free to hype up the violence and add a few juicy bits. I originally wrote Dead Chest Island for YA readers, but because it was adventure and action that wasn’t based on magic, the supernatural, or dark-all pervading evil, I recast it for MG readers. I’d like to think there is still a niche for straight-up fun adventure. Time will tell.

  11. Lois

    As a librarian, it’s always funny to see an adult stealthily creep into the Childrens or YA section to get a book that they want to read. The dystopian books are the hottest reads for adults looking for young titles. It’s a nice trend. I often think that youth fiction is better and more tightly written than adult books. Now, the only problem is that I am seeing YA books, especially, become less “read-worthy” as it stretches to boundaries to become the crossover book of the day.

  12. Leslie

    I’ve always felt that there is a particular kind of wonder in a middle-grade book that isn’t captured in most of kinds of books. I probably started with Anne of Green Gables and the Narnia series, and have never stopped.

  13. Dianna Winget

    From the time I reached about ten years old I started reading mg and have never stopped. That’s likely why it felt so natural for me to begin writing it. But I can’t say that I’ve noticed more adults checking out mg books at the library.

  14. JOHN T SHEA

    C. S. Lewis famously and rightly encouraged adults to read children’s books without shame, and I’ve long been very happy to follow his advice. Likewise reading at meals!

    Last night I watched the DVD of ‘HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS PART ONE’ for the first time and was impressed by how dark and serious it was, literally and figuratively. Not really a kid’s movie at all, in fact. I wonder how closely it follows the novel, which I have yet to read.

    My current favorite MG series is ‘PERCY JACKSON’ though that too is progressing to YA like ‘HARRY POTTER’. Lewis spoke of books migrating from the library to the nursery in terms of readership. Some seem to be reversing that journey.

  15. Gretchen Wing

    Dare we hope that, if this really is a trend, is has more to do with the growing depth and breadth of MG lit, rather than mere exposure? There’s certainly dreck out there, as in any genre. But back in the days of, say, A Wrinkle in Time, what else WAS there? And now–such riches! Such talented writers unashamed to write for this audience! So…I, for one, HOPE you spot a trend. Thanks for the post.

  16. Vince Vawter

    I have talked to and video-chatted with dozens of middle-grade classes about my novel “Paperboy.” I have also presented to just as many general book clubs. I find the reactions and the questions about the book remarkably similar. As a commenter said earlier: a good story is simply a good story, no matter in what genre it resides.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Of course! You are preaching to the choir here; MG is a favorite age range for me as a reader. What I am wondering here is whether there is in fact a growing trend of adults reading MG. I can’t pin this one down yet.

  17. Elizabeth LaVelle

    I love middle grade books – I’ve been reading them for decades! I like the humorous ones (although not the potty humor), historicals, fantasy, and sf. They’re easy to finish in one or two evenings, and it’s nice to take a break from sex, graphic violence, romance, and angst. I have no particular objection to “more mature themes”, but that’s not what I select for unless it’s a topic that particularly interests me. And I couldn’t care less if they’ve been blessed by the literary pundits. (I am a bookseller, but not a children’s bookseller.)

  18. Alana Joli Abbott

    There are some middle grade books that I read for my own entertainment — some of which are borderline YA (John David Anderson’s excellent but under-read novels, for example), but some of which are just genuinely good kids books. I read on a jury for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards (both adult and children’s lists), and so I try to keep up with fantasy middle grade titles over the year in order to nominate them. And I always enjoy the all-ages books when someone else nominated them!

    But I am one of those readers who never stopped reading children’s books or YA books when I was supposed to have grown out of them. And there are books I missed reading as a child that I’m just now catching up with. So I don’t think I’m part of a trend as a reader, but rather that my reading habits have only expanded, rather than shifting from one part of the library to another.

  19. Cheryl Stewart

    There are quite a few book blogs out there that specialize in middle grade books. Some of the bloggers are librarians or parents but a good number are adults who just enjoy middle grade fiction etc. A notable middle grade blog is charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com

    I continued to read middle grade fiction into junior high and high school. I never made that public but I continued to read it and still do. :) Now, I don’t care who knows that I like to read it.

    Cheryl

    P.S. I always enjoy reading your blog also!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Cheryl, do you think general-audience adults are following these blogs about MG books? Is it just that social media has provided an venue for adults who already love MG fiction to gather and chat about these books, or are there significant numbers of adults newly discovering and reading MG fiction?

      P.S. Thanks!

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