Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 1: Genres & Topics

This is part one in my middle grade fiction series. Future installments will include information and statistics on word count, point of view, tense, and debut vs. established authors.

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Methodology

I compiled the statistics below based on the New York Times Bestsellers List for middle grade novels. I included all novels that made the top ten list between April and September 2013 (a six month period).

I did not include media tie-ins (Lego, Disney, Star Wars, etc.) as these books have their own momentum that may have nothing to do with the subject matter, the quality of the book, etc.

I did not include nonfiction.

I did not include books that were sequels because they are not standing alone on their own merit.

I did include books that are the first in a series even if a subsequent book had already been published before the first book made it on the bestsellers list.

Purpose of Research

While there are a lot of factors that go into a book’s success, I wanted to break down the elements of the most popular middle grade books in the current market.

My primary motivation in doing this is to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring middle grade authors, such as appropriate topics, genres, word counts, point of view, tense, etc.

Bestselling Middle Grade Genres & Topics

Realistic vs. Fantastical

Rather than split hairs about individual genres, I decided to breakdown the bestselling books based on whether or not they are realistic or fantastical.

I am defining realistic as anything that could possibly happen in real life and fantastical as anything that cannot happen in real life. Talking animals are included under fantastical.

Of the 22 books on the list, 10 were realistic and 12 were fantastical.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 2.54.04 PM

Realistic Fiction Topics

In realistic fiction, the most popular topic/genre was Historical. Keep in mind that teachers are one of the biggest purchases of middle grade books and are more likely to buy the educational historical novels over a humor or mystery novel.

Humor and Mystery were the primary topics/themes of two books each. There were also two books with a disabled main character. I included “disabled main character” as a topic when it was the driving force behind the novel rather than incidental.

Only one sports book made the list. It may be important to note that this book was written by a professional soccer player, which may or may not have driven sales.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 9.59.48 AM

Fantastical Fiction Topics

In fantastical fiction, the most popular genre/topic was books set in a fantasy world. I defined “Fantasy World” as a book that takes place entirely in a fantasy world and in which the real world does not exist at all. There were five of these on the bestsellers list, making it by far the most popular form of fantastical fiction.

“Portal Fantasy” is a novel that starts in the real world and features a child who is transported into a fantasy world. There were two of these.

I defined “personified animals” as animals that are the main character or who narrate the story. Aside from the personified animals, there were no fantastical elements in these story. The setting and plot would have been realistic had the main character been a human. There were two of these.

There was only one Dystopian novel and it featured dogs as the main characters (this was not included under “personified animals” due to other fantasy elements). Since the only bestselling Dystopian featured dogs, it is not clear whether Dystopian with humans would be successful in middle grade.

One book featured fantasy elements in the real world, meaning that the characters were not transported to another world but simply found magic here on earth.

One book was Paranormal, but the author was extremely well established before its publication, making it difficult to say whether paranormal would be a successful genre for a debut author.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.16.12 AM

Animals

Animals made quite a few appearances in middle grade books. Three books featured animals as a significant element of the plot, and two featured animals as the main characters, for a total of five books featuring animals in a significant role.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.35.04 AM

Absent Genres

In addition to exploring the popular genres, it’s important to note the genres that made no appearance at all. There was not a single Science Fiction novel on the list. There also wasn’t any Horror, though some of the fantasy books had some minor horror elements.

In realistic fiction, there weren’t any stories about normal kids facing major life issues (bullying, divorce, etc.). There were two humor books that dealt with popularity, but the only realistic fiction with a serious tone were the two books about disabled main characters.

There are two ways to look at these absent genres/topics. They could either be areas of opportunity or areas with poor sales. It’s difficult to determine without further research, but I tend to believe that there is always a place for a well-written novel of any genre.

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4 thoughts on “Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 1: Genres & Topics

  1. lisenminetti says:

    My stats professor would be so happy right now – I think this is a great post, and extremely useful. With so many books out there, it’s hard to know where to begin. A friend and mentor told me once just to write what your heart tells you and let it fall where it does. I’ve done that, by the rejections tell me differently 😦

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your rejections. Listening to your heart tends to get a lot of writers nowhere. Our hearts are not always very marketable.

      You can always get published with a more “mainstream” book and then, once you’re established, you’ll have an easier time getting published with the one you followed your heart on.

      I’m glad you found this post helpful. Best of luck with your novels!

      • lisenminetti says:

        I’m honestly not sure wherein the problem lies as I had very positive feedback from crit partners etc. It actually just may not be a fit. That’s what I’m telling myself at least.

        • Ellen_Brock says:

          Hmmm. Well fit is definitely a big issue. It’s also possible that something similar is on the horizon and agents/editors are aware of it and don’t want a competing project. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!

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