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?