For authors looking to write for children and young adults, it’s important to understand that what they want to read is evolving. Young readers now have screens and devices constantly competing for their attention, but they are still interested in reading engaging, well-written books. While you don’t need to follow trends, it’s helpful to know what other writers are doing and the trends that publishers are monitoring.
Annabel Barker has 20 years’ experience as a literary agent, and now runs her own agency representing Australian writers and illustrators for children and young adults. Annabel Barker Agency also represents Australian children’s houses Hardie Grant Egmont and Berbay Books overseas. Here, she’s identified seven trends in children’s and YA publishing and what she hopes to see more of.
1. The rise of graphic novels as a format, across ages and genres
Graphic novels have experienced huge growth particularly in the US over the past five years, particularly when contrasted against the rest of the market which has been flat, Annabel says.
“I think we're all waiting to see when it might boom here as well, and that's something that I think will happen. We've seen gradual growth at the moment, but eventually it will probably take off more than we think.”
There’s an increasing trend for illustration within middle grade and young adult novels and a movement towards new ways to present text, she says.
“With the boom in the new poetry genre with people like Rupi Kaur in the last couple of years, in that upper end of YA, there’s interesting different formats for publishing. There definitely is work being done in that illustration space across all age groups.”
2. Middle grade novels dealing with complex issues
Books for middle grade readers are increasingly dealing with more complex issues that have historically been more the domain of young adult novels, Annabel says.
“Stories discussing trauma or other issues that are very big for kids to handle, I think have to be dealt with in a very delicate way for that age group,” she says. “But I think there are still writers who can do that in such a way, particularly with a good editor, to get a story out that has complex issues within it in a very age-appropriate way.
“It's a quite important age group to try and tackle those kinds of particular issues with. I don't think writers should shy away from that, bearing in mind that often their readers will be 10, 11, 12.”
3. Non-fiction and real-world issues for kids
This continues to be a big trend, from picture books right up to YA, including memoir, Annabel says.
“A lot of the big growth in the kind of feminist anthology works that were published for kids, Rebel Girls and those kinds of books, came alongside the Me Too movement,” she says. “There are just a lot of books tackling the kind of issues that kids are seeing in the world around them in the non-fiction space.”
“That was the most important non-fiction book that came out in the last couple of years for Australian kid readers,” she says. “That was definitely an adult book that was distilled into a childlike form. People can take a bit more creative license to make something appropriate for the audience and a bit more engaging. I think parents look for those books too.”
4. Fresh takes on the classics
This is a trend Annabel has noticed overseas, with books which were modern takes on particular classics longlisted for awards like the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Carnegie Medal. A recent example of this is And the Ocean Was Our Sky, by Patrick Ness and Rovina Cai, which tells the story of Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale.
“It is a lot like fan fiction,” she says. “Maybe it's coming out of that, because that's such a popular genre now. It's sort of an admiration for classic works in different contexts. And often they're taken from different character perspectives in the way that fan fiction does, very successfully.”
5. Books on natural disasters, climate change and particularly the bushfire crisis
Obviously this is particularly salient in Australia, but with the events of the summer of 2019 to 2020 having garnered international attention, Annabel says books on the bushfires could come from writers both here and abroad. Beyond that, climate change and natural disaster books have been popular for some time.
“It's a significant area, books about climate change, and I think they'll continue. There are a lot of non-fiction books about climate change now, picture books and other things that are coming out, but maybe that will move further into longer form fiction as well.”
6. Books about getting outside
With children having been home-schooled and stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, Annabel says we could see an increase in stories around the anti-screen/unplugging culture.
“There will be a lot of books on COVID-19 itself. But books are not as fast as something like TV or documentaries, it’s harder for books to be published quickly. So I don't know if we'll see quite as much content on the actual COVID-19 crisis in books as you might in other mediums.”
“I'm interested in what will happen to society afterwards and what kind of books will be published. I think that maybe screen culture will be an interesting one… that kind of rewilding, anti-screen kind of being outside and playing, I think there'll be even more books about trying to go back to basics.”
7. More escapist fiction, particularly in YA.
Dystopian fiction has slowed in the adult world, Annabel says, and it could easily do the same in the YA space.
“People are trying to get away from the real world and I think dystopian fiction is just a bit too close to things at the moment,” she says. “So escapist fiction – a lot of rom-coms are doing really well in the adult side of things, fantasy fiction is doing well, crime, things like that. Contemporary YA might follow suit, people might be looking for books to kind of take them out of their reality a little bit.
“There's already such a lot of great Australian writers writing really funny, voicey YA and we might see even more of that coming through… Books like Nina Kenwood's book It Sounded Better In My Head, the Text Prize picks up some really good ones. I think those might be ones that do particularly well.”
If you’ve got a brilliant idea for a book geared towards children or young adults, why not enrol in our step-by-step course on How to Write for Children and Young Adults? Or, if you’re keen on writing for an even younger audience, our Writing Picture Books course will teach you everything you need to know to turn your ideas into a real picture book.