The Middle Grade Slump

kid with book

Storm clouds have gathered over the land of middle grade literature, and the forecast is uncertain. Referring to 2023 sales, consumer behavior advisor Circana reports thatSales of books for children ages 8-11 are posting the steepest year over year declines within the children’s book market in the U.S.”

But haven’t print sales decreased overall? Yes, print sales were down 3% in 2023. However, sales of middle grade books declined by 10%. And that came on the heels of 2022, which saw its own steep decline in the middle grade market. The middle grade market is in a slump.

There’s a lot of speculation about the cause of this downward trend. There are supply chain issues, the cost of paper, and increasing book prices to take into account. But there isn’t one factor alone that has produced the current state of affairs. It’s a combination of factors that have joined forces to create the perfect storm.


Pandemic Effects

Event cancellations and supply chain issues caused a major disruption during the pandemic, and these issues have not completely resolved themselves. Increasing book costs and unstable profit margins are a direct result of this continuing recovery.

pandemic earth in mask

Another pandemic effect could be the widespread learning loss attributed to school closures. According to Education Week, “Analyses of student test scores have repeatedly shown severe declines in academic achievement.” These gaps in learning form a compounding deficit, especially in reading.

However, in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, Circana BookScan books analyst Karen McLean notes that the decline in children’s book sales “is really a return to 2019 levels, before the pandemic led to a jump in children’s sales.” It may be reasonable to suggest that a surge in sales during the early part of the pandemic has skewed trends and statistics in the years since 2020. 


Book Challenges

Book challenges and book bans have certainly affected the middle grade market. School Library Journal reports that school librarians were “more likely to avoid buying books or to remove titles from collections because of their content” in 2023. This certainly affects sales, but in a larger and more concerning context, it affects readership.

Trying to avoid conflict, some school libraries have severely limited students’ access to circulation, placing restrictions on students’ ability to check books out. Many teachers have eliminated classroom libraries altogether, and still others have opted out of reading aloud to students.

School library book crates

Book challenges have created a threatening environment. For many school personnel, it’s just not worth the hassle to provide books for students. Sadly, the trend resulting from book challenges is contributing to a declining interest in reading among students.

In Publishers Weekly’s Spring 2024 Children’s Preview, Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency says, “The drop in school and library sales, thanks to book challenges and restrictive local and state-level legislation, makes me really concerned about the whole middle grade ecosystem.”


The Changing Landscape of Literature

School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox (TLT) suggests that trends in middle grade books may be causing some readers to pause. One trend they note is that middle grade novels are aging up, with the typical middle grade protagonist now being 12 or 13. 

Additionally, TLT points out that middle grade novels “are growing increasingly longer, which can be a real hindrance to many readers. We don’t need all the books to be shorter, but we need more shorter books to be an option.”


The popularity of graphic novels among this age group should be an indication that many students are averse to hundreds of pages of solid text. Perhaps the formula for the next break-out middle grade hit will find its success in an innovative format.


What’s Working

We’ve heard the grim news. Let’s talk about what’s working in middle grade. Graphic novels continue to top the sales charts, especially when they are products of series. While this format initially struggled to achieve legitimacy among many adult gatekeepers, it has proven itself to be an effective port of entry for budding book enthusiasts.

We see consistency in the popularity of books by authors like Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Raina Telgemeier, but there’s another trend in graphic novels that deserves some attention. According to Publishers Weekly, adaptations are driving the market. Many backlist books are seeing a resurgence in popularity because they have been adapted into graphic novels.

The Baby-Sitters Club

Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club chapter books have been adapted into graphic novels, and guess what? The original chapter books have seen a new surge in popularity. The same is true of Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books.

Lemoncello's Library Graphic adaptation cover

Following suit, you can now find graphic adaptations of Chris Grabenstein’s Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown series. Based on the track record of adaptations, we may see a resurgence in the popularity of these backlist titles.


Looking Ahead

Will the storm clouds continue to gather over the land of middle grade? Or will the sun break through and usher in the dawn of a brand new day? Time will tell. Given this uncertain forecast, what should middle grade authors do?

Authors, of course, should keep writing. Stories are derived from passion and creativity. They are crafted through revision and feedback. And they are always born with an uncertain future. 

Every creative act is a risk taken by the creator. Whether that creation finds success in the market or not, it is a personal triumph for the author who has turned a solitary, irresistible idea into a gift to share with the world. The great hope to which we can all cling is that middle grade readers will soon rediscover the joy of books. 

Strong Girls in Historical Fiction: A Celebration of Women’s History Month

March isn’t just a month to pay tribute to important women in history. It is also a time to celebrate all girls and women, even those strong characters portrayed in literature. Gathered below is a collection of historical fiction novels with female protagonists struggling with loss, hunger, displacement, discrimination, conflict, and despair. Will they survive? Read to find out.

Iceberg by Jennifer Nielsen, 352 pp. historical fiction female protags

Hazel Rothbury is traveling all alone from her home in England aboard the celebrated ship Titanic. Following the untimely death of her father, Hazel’s mother is sending her to the US to work in a factory. But Hazel harbors a secret dream: She wants to be a journalist, and if she can write and sell a story about the Titanic’s maiden voyage, she could earn enough money to support her family and not have to go to a sweatshop. When Hazel discovers that her mother didn’t send enough money for a ticket, she decides she must stow away onboard the storied ship.

With the help of a porter named Charlie and a sweet first-class passenger named Sylvia, Hazel explores the opulent ship in secret, but a haunting mystery quickly finds her. The danger only intensifies when calamity strikes, and Hazel fights to save her friends and herself.

By the Light of Fireflies: A Novel of War Hero Sybil Ludington by Jenni L. Walsh, 188 pp.

historical fiction female protagsSybil Ludington believes in the legend of fireflies–they appear when you need them most. But it’s not until her family is thrust into the dangers of the Revolutionary War and George Washington’s spy ring, that Sybil fully experiences firefly magic for herself–guiding her through the darkness, empowering her to figure out who she’s supposed to be and how strong she is–as she delivers her imperative message and warns against a British attack.
By the Light of Fireflies is the captivating tale of a young girl’s journey as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a spy, and eventually a war hero, completing a midnight ride that cements her place in history as the “female Paul Revere.”

With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Dear America series), 336 pp.  historical fiction female protags

Twelve-year-old Dawnie Rae Johnson’s life turns upside down after the Supreme Court rules in favor of desegregation in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Her parents decide that Dawnie will attend Prettyman Coburn, a previously all-white school — but she’ll be the only one of her friends to enroll in this new school. Not everyone in Dawnie’s town supports integration, though, and much of the community is outraged. As she starts school, Dawnie encounters the harsh realities of racism. But the backlash against her arrival at Prettyman Coburn is more than she’s prepared for, and she begins to wonder if the hardship is worth it.

Orphan Eleven by Gennifer Choldenko, 305 pp.

historical fiction female protagsFour orphans have escaped from the Home for Friendless Children. One is Lucy, who used to talk and sing. No one knows why she doesn’t speak anymore; silence is her protection. The orphans find work and new friends at a traveling circus. Lucy loves caring for the elephants, but she must be able to speak to them and warn others of danger. If Lucy doesn’t find her voice, she’ll be left behind when the circus goes on the rails. Meanwhile, people are searching for Lucy, and her puzzling past is about to catch up with her.

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte, 304 pp. historical fiction female protags

Mary Lambert has always felt safe and protected on her beloved island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her great-great-grandfather was an early English settler and the first deaf islander. Now, over a hundred years later, many people there — including Mary — are deaf, and nearly everyone can communicate in sign language. Mary has never felt isolated. She is proud of her lineage.

But recent events have delivered winds of change. Mary’s brother died. Tensions over land disputes are mounting. And a cunning young scientist has arrived, hoping to discover the origin of the island’s prevalent deafness. His maniacal drive to find answers soon renders Mary a “live specimen” in a cruel experiment. Her struggle to save herself is at the core of this penetrating and poignant novel that probes our perceptions of ability and disability.

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk, 368 pp.

historical fiction female protagsAfter losing almost everything in the Great Depression, Ellie’s family is forced to leave their home in town and start over in the untamed wilderness of nearby Echo Mountain. Ellie has found a welcome freedom, and a love of the natural world, in her new life on the mountain. But there is little joy after a terrible accident leaves her father in a coma. An accident unfairly blamed on Ellie. But Ellie is a girl who takes matters into her own hands, and determined to help her father she will make her way to the top of the mountain in search of the healing secrets of a woman known only as “the hag.” But the hag, and the mountain, still have many untold stories left to reveal.

A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff, 240 pp. historical fiction female protags

Anna’s mother has died, and her older siblings have emigrated, leaving Anna and her father to care for a young sister with special needs. Although the family has worked their land in the Irish countryside for years, they’re in danger of losing it as poor crops leave them without money to pay their rent.

When a violent encounter with the Lord’s rent collector results in Anna and her father’s arrest, all seems lost. But Anna sees her chance and bolts from the jailhouse. On the run, Anna must rely on her inner strength to protect her sister–and try to find a way to save her family.

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet (Graphic Novel), 176 pp.

historical fiction female protagsAt the Sèvres Children’s Home outside Paris, Rachel Cohen has discovered her passion—photography. Although she hasn’t heard from her parents in months, she loves the people at her school, adores capturing what she sees in pictures, and tries not to worry too much about Hitler’s war. But as France buckles under the Nazi regime, danger closes in, and Rachel must change her name and go into hiding. Now known as Catherine Colin, Rachel is faced with leaving the Sèvres Home and her friends behind. But using her camera, Catherine possesses the power to remember. For the rest of the war, she bears witness to her own journey, and to the countless heroes whose courage and generosity saved the lives of many.

Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla by Alexandra Diaz, 336 pp. historical fiction female protags

Victoria loves everything about her home in Cuba. The beautiful land, the delicious food, her best friend and cousin, Jackie, and her big, loving family. But it’s 1960 and as the political situation grows more and more dangerous, Victoria, her parents, and her two younger siblings are forced to seek refuge in America with nothing more than two changes of clothes and five dollars. In Miami, everything is different. Victoria must step up and help her family settle into this new world.

Back in Cuba, Jackie watches as friends and family flee, or worse, disappear. So, when she’s given a chance to escape to America, she takes it—even though she has to go alone. Reunited in Miami, can Victoria and Jackie find a way to bring the rest of their family to safety?

A Sky Full of Song by Susan Lynn Meyer, 272 pp.

historical fiction female protagsAfter fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, eleven-year-old Shoshana and her family, Jewish immigrants, start a new life on the prairie. Shoshana takes fierce joy in the wild beauty of the plains and the thrill of forging a new, American identity. But it’s not as simple for her older sister, Libke, who misses their Ukrainian village and doesn’t pick up English as quickly or make new friends as easily. Desperate to fit in, Shoshana finds herself hiding her Jewish identity in the face of prejudice, just as Libke insists they preserve it. For the first time, Shoshana is at odds with her beloved sister and has to look deep inside herself to realize that her family’s difference is their greatest strength.

Wild Bird by Diane Zahler, 320 pp. historical fiction female protags

Her name was Rype. That wasn’t really her name. It was what the strangers called her. She didn’t remember her real name. She didn’t remember anything at all.

In fourteenth-century Norway, a plague has destroyed the entire village of Skeviga. Rype was hiding in the hollow of a tree trunk when they found her. She was hungry, small, cold, alone. She did not speak their language or understand their mannerisms. But she knew this: To survive, she would have to go with them. To stay alive, Rype would have to embark on a sweeping adventure across Europe with the son of an English ship captain and a band of troubadours in search of a brighter future and a new home.

Millie and the Great Drought: A Dust Bowl Survival Story by Natasha Deen (Girls Survive series), 112 pp.

historical fiction female protagsIn 1935, dust storms are sweeping across the southern plains of the United States, including Oklahoma. Twelve-year-old Millie Horn is worried about her family’s survival. The Dust Bowl is getting worse, and her family is running out of food and money. Despite the hardships, Pa doesn’t want to abandon the farm, which has been in the family for generations. But when the worst black blizzard yet hits, they have no choice. The family decides to make the journey west. But life in California isn’t without struggle. Can Millie and her family survive the Dust Bowl and the hardships of the Great Depression?

The Windeby Puzzle by Lois Lowry, 224 pp. historical fiction female protags

Estrild is not like the other girls in her village; she wants to be a warrior. Varick, the orphan boy who helps her train in spite of his twisted back, also stands apart. In a world where differences are poorly tolerated, just how much danger are they in?

Inspired by the true discovery of the 2,000-year-old Windeby bog body in Northern Germany, master storyteller Lois Lowry transports readers to an Iron Age world as she breathes life back into the Windeby child, left in the bog to drown with a woolen blindfold over its eyes.

Hope’s Path to Glory: The Story of a Family’s Journey on the Overland Trail by Jerdine Nolen, 240 pp.

historical fiction female protagsIn Alexandria, Virginia, in the mid-19th century, a slave-owning family is facing financial trouble. The eldest son, Jason, thinks going to California to mine for gold might be the best way to protect his father’s legacy. He’ll need a cook, a laundress, and a hostler for the journey, and one of them is twelve-year-old Clementine, whose mother calls her Hope. From Independence, Missouri—the “Gateway to the West”—she and the others join a wagon train on the Emigrant Overland Trail. But what Jason didn’t consider is taking the three enslaved people west will give them an opportunity to free themselves—manifesting their destiny.

Alice Atherton’s Grand Tour by Lesley M.M. Blume, 208 pp. historical fiction female protags

The heartwarming story of a young girl sent to live with the extraordinary Murphy Family in southern France. Ten-year-old Alice Atherton is sent by her father to spend the summer with his dear friends the Murphys who live with their three children and pet monkey in the French Riveria. There, Alice will meet and learn from some of the most extraordinary luminaries of the time. She visits a junkyard with Pablo Picasso looking for objects to make into art, performs a dance inspired by celestial bodies with the renowned Ballet Russes, and imagines magical adventures with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Hoops: A Graphic Novel by Matt Tavares, 224 pp.

historical fiction female protagsIt is 1975 in Indiana, and the Wilkins Regional High School girls’ basketball team is in their rookie season. Despite being undefeated, they practice at night in the elementary school and play to empty bleachers. Unlike the boys’ team, the Lady Bears have no buses to deliver them to away games and no uniforms, much less a laundry service. They make their uniforms out of T-shirts and electrical tape. And with help from a committed female coach, they push through to improbable victory after improbable victory. Illustrated in full color, this story about the ongoing battle of women striving for equality in sports rings with honesty, bravery, and heart.


When Clouds Touch Us by Thanhhà Lai, 256 pp. historical fiction female protags

Hà and her family have worked hard to make a life for themselves in the US, but it hasn’t been easy. Hà has only just started to feel settled when Mother decides that the family will move to Texas for a new job. Hà knows how hard starting over is and doesn’t want to have to do it again. But sometimes even an unwanted change can bring opportunity, new friends, and a place to call home.

This lyrical and compelling sequel to Inside Out and Back Again follows Hà and her family through another year of upheaval, growth, and love.


Even more titles to explore during Women’s History Month:

historical fiction bookshelf


Interview With Author Matt Eicheldinger

I’m thrilled to welcome Matt Eicheldinger to the Mixed-Up Files to chat about his new book MATT SPROUTS AND THE CURSE OF THE TEN BROKEN TOES—Available March 19th (Andrews McMeel Kids).

I loved hearing all about his backstory and journey to publication.

I think you will, too. 


Lisa: Tell us about MATT SPROUTS!   

Matt: The story follows sixth grader Matt Sprouts at the start of summer vacation, where he accidently trips his neighbor Jenna, breaking her collarbone in the process and ruining her summer plans. In the weeks that follow, Matt finds himself in all sorts of problems, including breaking a few toes. Matt thinks it’s just a coincidence, but every other kid in town suspects he has “The Curse”, a hometown myth which has haunted other middle schoolers before him. As Matt attempts to solve The Curse and stop his ill-fate ahead, he also has to contend with school, the soccer team, a new “fake” girlfriend, and a slew of other problems, including the Purple Grape Lady.

Lisa: What inspired the idea for this book?

Matt: The book is actually autobiographical. Even though it is fiction, almost every single scene is based on something from my life (and yes, I have broken all ten of my toes!). These mini-stories are things I would share with my middle school students, and they liked them so much I wove them together to create Matt Sprouts and The Curse of The Ten Broken Toes. So really when I think of who inspired this idea, it was my students!

Lisa: Did you always want to be an author/illustrator?

Matt: I enjoyed reading comics when I was younger, and I doodled on basically anything that a pencil could leave a mark on, but I never had a desire to be an author or cartoonist. For me, drawing was just for fun.

Lisa: Can you tell us about your publishing journey?

Matt: My journey is a long one! I wrote The Curse of The Ten Broken Toes my first year teaching middle school in 2009-2010, and placed it in my classroom for students to read who were struggling to find something that would hold their attention. I figured if they liked my stories I told in class, they would like my book.

And they did!

I didn’t know anything about publishing, so I started researching and began sending query letters. I was pretty naïve and I’m sure my first dozen or so letters were absolutely terrible. Still, I continued sending letters for the next ten years, and received hundreds and hundreds of rejections, but I knew my book was good because kids were reading it every year and loving it. So, in 2021 I decided to self- publish my novel. Over the next two years I sold thousands of copies online and won some indie book awards, which helped me get noticed by a literary agent. Within just a couple weeks of signing with agent Dani Segelbaum, we signed a two book deal to re-release the original book, and follow it up with a sequel.

Lisa: Do you have favorite part of the book making process?

Matt: Creating the title is my favorite part, because as soon as I know it I feel like I can understand what needs to happen in the story. I have two kids (one in elementary, one in middle), and sometimes they will just start giving me ideas by starting the sentence with “Matt Sprouts and the. . .” and we’ve come up with a ton of ideas for sequels. I love that they have been able to be involved in the process!

I’ve also enjoyed illustrating, because it is something I am continually finding ways to improve. When I signed my book deal, I was asked to add about 100 illustrations, which was the most I had ever drawn in my life. It was intimidating at first, but now that I’ve done it multiple times I find a lot of joy in creating visuals for the reader.

Lisa: Do you use social media? If yes, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing/artistic life?

Matt: I do use social media, and have accounts under the name @matteicheldinger for both TikTok and Instagram. I have pivoted a few times in my content, but have finally settled in to storytelling which has really resonated with people. I have collected hundreds of stories over my teaching career and other walks of life, so I share these stories and what I learned from the moment with the audience. Since I script out the video first, I find it creates a good routine for me to write every day, and really get at the heart of the story faster.

Lisa: What do you think makes a good story?

Matt: Many things, but right now I am focusing on relatability. I am fortunate enough to have a really, really good memory when it comes to experiences. I can’t remember daily chores unfortunately, but if you were to ask me what it felt like when our soccer team lost in the semifinals when I was 17, or when I sang in front of an audience for the first time, I immediately re-experience those same emotions and sounds. When I write middle grade stories, I try and put myself back in those moments and describe them in a way that makes sense to kids. If I can present them with scenarios (even as silly as breaking toes), but make them resonate with the reader by comparing it to something else they may have experienced, I find that is a great approach.

Lisa: What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

Matt: The Calvin and Hobbes series, without a doubt! It was basically the only thing I would read in late elementary through junior high. There was something so captivating about Calvin’s adventurous spirit, but I also like how reflective he was. Bill Watterson captured adolescence so well, creating a seemingly over-confident kid who at his core wanted the best for everyone, even though he didn’t always show it. I find the humor of that series has spilled into my own writing, along with finding ways to help character find time to reflect.

Lisa: What advice would you give twelve-year-old, Matt?

Matt: Me, or Matt Sprouts!? Since we are basically the same, I would tell younger me to stop lying. I was a frequent liar when I was younger, and it mostly stemmed from wanting to impress people. It caused a lot of problems, but I also really learned the value of honesty, and how much that can build (and destroy) relationships. As a teacher, I try to help kids understand that who they are is enough, and there is no need to exaggerate anything to find a connection with others. I do this with my characters too. I want the reader to see what kind of friendships you can form when you are your genuine self.

Lisa: What’s are you working on now?

Matt: I was fortunate enough to secure three more book deals with Andrew McMeel. The third Matt Sprouts book is called Matt Sprouts and The Search for the Chompy Wompers (Summer, 2025), which I just finished illustrating and is now being reviewd by my editor. I also am in the final stages of review for Sticky Notes: Memorable Lessons from Ordinary Moments, which is a compilation of illustrated, true stories from my teaching career for parents and adults (October, 2024). As these two projects wrap up, I will begin working on Holes in My Underwear, an illustrated collection of poetry for elementary/middle grade readers.

Aside from those, I am also currently working on a stand-alone novel, my first graphic novel, and other sequels for the Matt Sprouts series. These are in the very early stages, but I find a lot of joy in working on things that are so new, even if I am not sure if they will ever become book.

Thank you for spending time with us. It has been great getting to know you and more about MATT SPROUTS AND THE CURSE OF THE TEN BROKEN TOES.  I can’t wait to read about all his adventures!  

About Matt:

Matt Eicheldinger wasn’t always a writer. He spent most of his childhood playing soccer, reading comics, and trying his best to stay out of trouble. Little did he know those moments would ultimately help craft his first novel, Matt Sprouts and the Curse of Ten Broken Toes. 

Matt lives in Minnesota with his wife and two children, and tries to create new adventures with them whenever possible. When he’s not writing, you can find him telling students stories in his classroom, or trail running along the Minnesota River Bottoms.

To learn more about Matt Eicheldinger, please visit his website