Children’s Sci-Fi: Marketing vs. Reality

The top example of “middle grade science fiction,” by some metrics.

Note: this is the third and final companion post to my upcoming podcast episode about children’s sci-fi. I should also note that these results are based specifically on Amazon listings, and I don’t know if they are truly reflective of the industry as a whole. See the first post and second post for background on this one.

The children’s literature market is divided into several smaller markets based on the age of the target audience, and science fiction books are no exception. These audiences already overlap in age (such as 6-10 and 8-12), but if you look at how books are marketed in practice, you see that often, these guidelines are simply not reliable. As I said before, what market a book falls into is just that: marketing, and publishers also have an incentive to market a book broadly rather than narrowly. The result is that if you look at the listings on Amazon (where I researched a fair bit of the upcoming episode), you see a surprising number of books that are listed in the “wrong” category, and it really threw me off for a while. In fact, it was one of several reasons why this episode took so long to make.

I’m writing this post partly so that parents, teachers, and anyone else who is shopping for books for kids can be aware. But mainly, I think the results are really weird and surprising, and I wanted to work out what’s going on. So, let’s get started.

First off, I am looking specifically at middle grade science fiction, which Amazon lists as ages 9-12. (They do list “Fiction – Middle Grade” as its own category, but it seems to be a miscellaneous bin with only a few books in it.) Amazon can be confusing to navigate in this granular detail, so here is the exact search link.

If you look in the top right, you will see a drop-down menu with “Sort by” options: featured, price, average review, publication date, and most reviews. The default is “Featured,” and in fact, Amazon’s Featured list is mostly well-curated, although it’s not all middle grade. The Hunger Games is on the list, yet is a young adult series, while Magic Tree House is a chapter book series for younger kids. Even Superheroes Have Bad Days is a picture book, of all things.

The reason for this is obvious in retrospect. Helpfully, each book does list its own target age range, and all of them do overlap with the 9-12 age range I specified. The Hunger Games is ages 12 and up, while Even Superheroes Have Bad Days is listed for ages 3-9 (for some reason). Nonetheless, the Featured list as a whole is mostly middle grade (or upper middle grade). If you take the time to look at the age ratings or specifically limit your search to ages 10 and 11, you’ll be in good shape.

However, the Featured list doesn’t actually tell you what books are best. It tells you what books are popular. As I explain in the episode, children’s books don’t have nearly the staying power of adult books, so only a small number of superstars like The Hunger Games are going to stay on the shelves for more than five years. Since I was trying to talk about the history of children’s sci-fi, I needed to know about older books. So, instead of the Featured list, I tried sorting by “Most Reviews,” thinking that going by review count would allow older books more time and opportunity to rise to the top.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the list got…weird.

Question: what does Amazon list as the most popular children’s sci-fi books—for ages 10 and 11—sorted by Most Reviews?

Answer: Hunger Games, Hunger Games, Hunger Games (still listed ages 12+), Animal Farm (12+ and also not even sci-fi), Hunger Games again, The Giver (10-12, okay, that counts), Magic Tree House (8+ in this listing), Ender’s Game (12+), The Maze Runner (12+), The Secret Lake (8-12), The Beast of Buckingham Palace (7-12), The Selection Series (12+, a YA dystopia), A Wrinkle in Time (10+), Trapped in a Video Game (8-12), The Selection Series again, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (listed as 9-11, somehow). That’s just the first page, but you get the idea. Out of 16 entries, only 5 of them are actually middle grade, and a couple of those look more like fantasy to me. Meanwhile, the list is infested with YA dystopias, even though I specifically excluded that age range.

This (I suspect) is what I mean by books being marketed broadly. I’m sure many younger kids do read and enjoy The Hunger Games. Thus, it is advantageous for publishers to list it in the middle grade category as well as YA to sell more books, even if it doesn’t match the official age recommendation. And this is fair. I certainly don’t want to limit kids’ reading choice. But it’s still weird how many of the most reviewed (and presumably most-read) “middle grade” books are dystopias.

Now, you may be thinking that’s well and good for an attempt at looking at historical books, but it still doesn’t tell us the best books. So, just for fun, let’s switch to sorting by “Average Customer Review.”


Okay, this has clearly gone wrong.

First, “average review” supports statistics of small numbers. A book with only a few reviews is more likely to get a perfect 100% 5-star score than a book with many reviews. But it goes deeper than that. Of the 16 entries on the first page, the top three are from a series called The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls, a Christian children’s series about two kids to time travel into Biblical stories (which may be fine; I haven’t read them, but I don’t think that counts as sci-fi). Four more are from the Rush Revere series, written by the late talk radio host Rush Limbaugh about time traveling back into American history—or, as the Washington Post called it, “historical fanfiction about himself.” That’s also barely science fiction.

I don’t know much about the other titles. The Bad Guys and The Wild Robot, at least, show up high on the Featured list. But this has gone deep into ideological territory where the others didn’t. Although honestly, in retrospect, that isn’t surprising either. Who is more likely to rate a book a perfect 5-stars than someone who has an ideological motivation to like and support it? (True, some books like those will be subject to viral downvoting campaigns, but those are never going to hit all of them.) “Average Customer Review” will work great if you’re buying toaster, but for books, for multiple reasons, it’s probably the least reliable metric. I’d stick to the Featured list.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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