Kids’ Interest in Reading Is Dying. What’s The Reason?

Those of us who believe in the power of books worry all the time that reading, as a pursuit, is collapsing, eclipsed by (depending on the era) streaming video, the internet, the television, or the hula hoop. Yet, somehow, reading persists; more books are sold today than were sold before the pandemic. Though print book sales were down 2.6 percent in 2023, they were still 10 percent greater than in 2019, and some genres—adult fiction, memoirs—rose in sales last year.

But right now, there’s one sector of publishing that is in free fall. At least among one audience, books are dying. Alarmingly, it’s the exact audience whose departure from reading might actually presage a catastrophe for the publishing industry—and for the entire concept of pleasure reading as a common pursuit.

Ask anyone who works with elementary-school children about the state of reading among their kids and you’ll get some dire reports. Sales of “middle-grade” books—the classification covering ages 8 through 12—were down 10 percent in the first three quarters of 2023, after falling 16 percent in 2022. It’s the only sector of the industry that’s underperforming compared to 2019. There hasn’t been a middle-grade phenomenon since Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants spinoff Dog Man hit the scene in 2016. New middle-grade titles are vanishing from Barnes and Noble shelves, agents and publishers say, due to a new corporate policy focusing on books the company can guarantee will be bestsellers.

Most alarmingly, kids in third and fourth grade are beginning to stop reading for fun. It’s called the “Decline by 9,” and it’s reaching a crisis point for publishers and educators. According to research by the children’s publishers Scholastic, at age 8, 57 percent of kids say they read books for fun most days; at age 9, only 35 percent do. This trend started before the pandemic, experts say, but the pandemic accelerated things. “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how disruptive the pandemic was on middle grade readers,” one industry analyst told Publishers Weekly. And everyone I talked to agreed that the sudden drop-off in reading for fun is happening at a crucial age—the very age when, according to publishing lore, lifetime readers are made. “If you can keep them interested in books at that age, it will foster an interest in books the rest of their life,” said Brenna Connor, an industry analyst at Circana, the market research company that runs Bookscan. “If you don’t, they don’t want to read books as an adult.”

What’s causing the Decline by 9? It might be screens, but it’s not only screens. It’s not like kids are suddenly getting their own phones at age 9; recent survey data from Common Sense Media reveals that phone ownership holds steady, at around 30 percent, among kids aged 8 and 9. (It isn’t until they reach 11 or 12 that the majority of American kids have their own phone.) Indeed, several people I spoke to mentioned that middle-graders’ lack of phones created a marketing problem in an era when no one at any publishing house has any idea how to make a book a bestseller other than to hope it blows up on TikTok. “BookTok is imperfect,” said Karen Jensen, a youth librarian and a blogger for School Library Journal, “but in teen publishing it’s generating huge bestsellers, bringing back things from the backlist. There’s not anything like that right now for the middle-grade age group.”

“It’s not like we want these kids to have phones, that’s not the solution,” one executive in children’s books told me ruefully. “But without phones, we’re really struggling to market to them.”

Traditionally, middle-grade book discovery happens via parents, librarians, and—most crucially—peers. At recess, your best friend tells you that you have got to read the Baby-Sitters Club, and boom, you’re hooked. That avenue for discovery evaporated during the pandemic, and it hasn’t come back. “The lag in peer-to-peer recommendations seems to be lingering,” said Joanne O’Sullivan, a children’s book author and PW reporter. “Kids are back in school, so why aren’t they sharing recommendations with each other? Why aren’t they as enthusiastic about books as they were prepandemic?”

Experts I spoke to pointed to any number of causes for middle-graders’ lost love of reading. Yes, screen time is an issue: “We know that screen time increased for many kids during that initial phase of the pandemic,” said Circana’s Connor. “Some of that increased screen time still remains, even though the pandemic is mostly behind us.” Or, as O’Sullivan asked, “Is this generation just iPad babies?”

But others also pointed to the way reading is being taught to young children in an educational environment that gets more and more test-focused all the time. “I do not blame teachers for this,” said O’Sullivan, but the transformation of the reading curriculum means “there’s not a lot of time for discovery and enjoyment in reading.” She noted a change I, too, had noticed: Reading in the classroom has moved away from encouraging students to dive into a whole book and moved toward students reading excerpts and responding to them. “Even in elementary school, you read, you take a quiz, you get the points. You do a reading log, and you have to read so many minutes a day. It’s really taking a lot of the joy out of reading.”

Of course, even many teachers and librarians who buck the curricular pressure—who dream of fostering a love of aimless, testless reading in their young charges—are finding that substantially more difficult in 2024. “Libraries are getting defunded,” said O’Sullivan.
“Librarians are being let go. In some states, teachers can’t even keep a classroom library because they have to protect themselves from book bans.” As Jensen wrote in a recent blog post, it sure doesn’t help the children’s book industry when “chat rooms and library board meetings fill up with a small handful of people calling librarians Marxist communist groomers.”

It all adds up to an environment where kids are less passionate about reading and, even if they somehow do get excited, they’re less likely to discover the book that will keep them excited.
What are publishers trying to do about it? They’re doubling down on the kinds of books that have been hits for middle-grade readers over the past few years: graphic novels and illustrated novels. Graphic novels, comics published in trade-book form, are a sales bright spot; last year they made up a quarter of all middle-grade sales. And “illustrated novels” have only become more and more popular since the birth of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid in 2007. Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and Dog Man books live somewhere in that graphic novel/illustrated-book mode—blocks of simple text followed by pages of drawings—and more and more, publishers are looking for light, funny stories-with-pictures that can help uncertain readers make the leap from picture books to big-kid books.

It’s great that the kids who love these books—or Spider-Man comics, or manga, or for that matter off-putting kid-lit “histories” about tragedies that happened in my lifetime—are reading something. For sure! Yet I can’t help but be worried that the kinds of books that changed my life between ages 8 and 12 are falling by the wayside. Is there room for the thoughtful, serious, beautiful young-person’s novel in 2024? Can you publish Bridge to Terabithia in the age of Captain Underpants?

It does seem to be just a little harder to sell that kind of novel these days. “Editors are looking for highly illustrated projects, shorter word counts, a bit more humor and adventure,” said Chelsea Eberly, director of the children’s book agency Greenhouse Literary. Connor was more blunt: “Maybe you think a book about a school shooting is really important,” she said, “but kids want to read a fun book. That’s what kids want today—they want to have fun.”

“If you’re an established author and you have an established reputation” for serious, heartfelt books, said O’Sullivan, you’ll be fine. But if you’re a new author who’s written a quiet, issue-oriented debut, “you might have to think about adapting, in a way.” A publisher might, for example, suggest bringing an illustrator aboard.

One side effect: Those established authors with established reputations tend to be white. The younger, newer authors who are being dissuaded by the market from writing unillustrated non-comedies? They’re increasingly people of color, thanks to the industry’s notably successful attempts at diversification over the past five to 10 years. The result may be a two-tiered system of awards-worthy book publishing, as older, whiter writers continue to publish moving, sensitive novels, while younger, Blacker authors are shut out of that particular market. “When you make it harder for new writers to break through, you’re perpetuating the problems that children’s publishing has been trying to address,” said Jensen.

For her part, Eberly, the book agent, doesn’t think the supply of serious, “award-winning” books will dry up. “Knowing the editors that I sell to, those are the types of books they want to shepherd into the world.” The danger, she says, isn’t that publishers will stop publishing such books; it’s that children won’t be able to find them due to book bans and pressure on librarians and teachers. Which books face the most challenges from book banners? Books by Black and queer authors.

What nearly everyone I spoke to in children’s publishing agrees would solve the problem in a snap is a new blockbuster, the kind of Harry Potter–style success that raises all boats. The industry can’t depend on Captain Underpants forever, even though, as Connor noted, “The devil works hard, but Dav Pilkey works harder.” While more than one person I spoke to expressed an existential fear—what if that next blockbuster never comes? What if we’re in the post-children’s-blockbuster era?—Eberly was more sanguine. “I don’t worry that we’re not going to have another blockbuster,” she said. “I’m hoping that the tent expands. I’ve always kind of hated it when there’s only one tentpole, like Harry Potter or whatever. I want there to be more tentpoles with room for more people underneath.”

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