Why you need to read *recently published* MG and YA novels

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

How well do you know the current market?

I often work with authors who haven’t read a children’s book since their own childhood and can’t name a middle grade or YA novel published in the last twenty years. That’s understandable – most adults don’t read children’s books anymore! But my number one rule around here is that if you want to write and publish them, you absolutely have to read them.

No, strike that. You have to devour them. Study them. Pull them apart and understand how they work. The more you read and analyse middle grade and YA novels, the more marketable your own work will be. So, you should start with the classics, right? Actually, no. The literary landscape is always changing: trends come and go in the blink of an eye, public taste moves on, writing styles and narrative devices fall out of favour, technology changes how we consume novels.

Most of what was popular a hundred or even fifty years ago probably wouldn’t be published today, particularly in kidlit – the way we talk to children has changed radically since the Victorian era, shifting from an often patronising and didactic voice to a far more honest and respectful relationship with young readers.

When I work with a new author, I send them a questionnaire to help me learn more about them and their manuscript. It’s one of my favourite parts of the job because I find out so many interesting, wonderful things about each client and I always try to read as many of their favourite books as I can in order to get a feel for their inspiration and style, which means I’m discovering new authors and stories all the time.

But so often, authors can’t name any recently published titles and list only ‘classics’ like Treasure Island, What Katy Did, Peter Pan, The Railway Children: fabulous books but all written more than one hundred years ago. It’s wonderful to feel inspired and fuelled by childhood favourites but they can’t tell us as much about what agents, publishers and children are looking for today as modern books can.

Developments in children’s literature

🐺 In the 19th century, most children’s stories were moralistic and preaching, written to warn, scare or instruct young readers: be good or God will smite you, do your chores or you’ll fall and break your back, stay away from temptation or the wolf will get you.

🦔  Misogyny, racism and ableism were common in literature of the time and there was less respect and sympathy overall for children as a group of people separate from adults. Writing styles were different, too: omniscient voice was in vogue, for example, and overt authorial intrusion was tolerated much better than it is now.

🦉 So although these might be the stories that made us want to write our own books, they’re not as useful as recently published novels when it comes to studying the craft of writing for children and understanding what the market wants.

Children have changed, too

And remember: children have changed a lot, too. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of writing for the child you were when in fact that child no longer exists.

This CBeebies article is a really interesting overview of how childhood has changed in just a couple of decades – not only did the internet or mobile phones not exist when I was a child but society has taken huge strides forward in terms of equal opportunities, tolerance, consent, mental health awareness and what’s considered ‘normal’.

Reading recently published novels will give you an idea of how authors are anchoring their stories in today’s world for today’s children.

Most agents and editors will advise you to read books published in the last two or three years because they will best reflect the current children’s book market, although try not to write for specific trends. Even if an agent likes your manuscript, it could be years before it reaches bookshelves, by which time that ghost robot or dragon school trend will probably be long forgotten.

Do, though, pay attention to themes, character arcs, structure, narrative devices, settings, family dynamics, diverse representation, writing styles, vocabulary level and voice in the books you read and consider how and why they have helped make that particular novel successful.

The images in this blog are from the gorgeous Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, coloured in by my fair hand. 

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes