Reaching Middle Grade Readers

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How booksellers can meet the diverse needs of middle grade readers of a wide range of ages and abilities was the subject of a panel discussion at the first-ever Children’s Institute, presented by the ABC Children’s Group at ABA, at BookExpo America.

The panel, moderated by Jennifer Brown, children’s editor of Shelf Awareness and creator of Twenty by Jenny, featured R.J. Palacio, author of bestselling middle grade novel Wonder; Karen Lotz, president and publisher at Candlewick Press; Jason Wells, executive director of children’s publicity and marketing at Abrams; Lisa Von Drasek, children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education; Margaret Brennan Neville, children’s book buyer at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Patricia Brown, co-owner of Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Virginia.

For purposes of the discussion, Brown began by defining middle grade readers as being between the ages of eight and 12 years old or students in grades four through six. 

Von Drasek, who spends much of her day mentoring middle grade readers in a library setting, said that among the forces she sees impacting the reading habits of this age group are academic and testing pressures. Parental pressure also plays a role, she said, as guardians often urge middle graders to “read something meatier” while discouraging the re-reading of favorites or the choice of simpler-seeming series titles.  “Read the important book rather than the book [you] enjoy” is an admonition Von Drasek often hears.

Booksellers Brennan Neville and Brown, on the other hand, said that for their middle grade customers reading becomes a social experience that cements peer relationships.

Brennan Neville noted that “before ages eight to 10, parents pick the books,” but soon after, a middle grader will pick a book because “my friend is reading this.”

However, when dealing with a middle grade reader, “you have two customers,” Brennan Neville said.  “You want the child to believe you, and you want the parent to trust that what you’re telling their child is worthwhile.”  At times, she added, these two goals can be in conflict, but the “best bookstores” surmount these obstacles by having “staff that reads the books” and can give pitch-perfect recommendations based on expert knowledge.

Brown finds ways to connect with middle grade readers through events, such as big-name book release parties and advance reader copy (ARC) book clubs. Hooray for Books! started a middle grade ARC reading club for 10- to 12-year-olds that gained such popularity, the store quickly established three others: a club for teens, a junior club for eight- to 10-year-olds, and a beginner club for six- to 8-year-olds. Participants are asked to write reviews on 3" x 5" index cards that include a recommended audience for the book. Hooray for Books! clubs are so sought-after that they currently have waiting lists.

Weighing in from the publishing and marketing sides, Lotz and Wells agreed that the process of reaching middle grade readers can be “a delicate balance” that can require catching the attention of both child and parent. Wells noted that publishers do like to see booksellers hosting ARC book club groups and value their feedback.   He also cited parent-child book clubs as a good way to reach a wider readership for middle grade literature, citing NPR’s Backseat Book Club as a recent boon for middle grade literature.

Lotz suggested that one way to reach middle grade readers is to give them “an object that has real presence . . . an object of permanence.”  She cited the “mouse-nibbled pages” of The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press) as something that “makes the book special for the reader.”  Lotz also encourages authors to reach out to their readership but noted that, though social media can be a useful way to engage readers, it can be “interesting and challenging” to figure out when it is appropriate to use it to interact with children. 

Palacio told session attendees that she is hoping to reach readers through Random House’s newly launched anti-bullying campaign, Choose Kind, inspired by her novel Wonder.  The campaign aims to encourage readers to start real-world conversations about the issues raised in the novel, and Palacio hopes that booksellers will get involved.  Wonder has been well received by readers of all ages, but Palacio explained that she wrote the book with her fifth-grade son in mind.  To connect with him through her writing, she used short chapters and “got to the meat of the story quickly.”  “Hook ’em in, and don’t let ’em go,” Palacio quipped, adding she is pleased that “boys are loving [Wonder] every bit as much as girls.”

To guide adults looking to purchase books for middle grade readers whom they may not know very well, or at all, Von Drasek finds that a recent release is often the best choice. Brennan Neville noted that newly re-illustrated or re-packaged classics make good gifts.  And a bookseller attendee suggested that if the gift giver is going to see the child at a holiday gathering or other special occasion he could choose a beloved book from his own childhood and write a note inside for the recipient to discover.  Von Drasek also mentioned that she curates an annual book list called “Books to Give Kids You Don’t Know Very Well” on and recommended that booksellers check it out!

Though booksellers, librarians, authors, and publishers work hard to reach middle grade readers in a variety of engaging and sensitive ways, Lotz believes that “word of mouth” still reigns supreme with middle grade readers and “is the best way to get the books out to kids.”

“Kids book-talk other books to their peers,” Von Drasek added.  “When middle grade readers discover a book that they like, be assured that they will share it,” she said.

Booksellers who attended the ABA’s ABC Children’s Institute and have not yet filled out a post-event survey should contact ABC Group Manager Shannon O’Connor via e-mail for a secure link in order to provide valuable feedback that will improve future events.