age appropriateness

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

When MG Becomes YA

So I’ve been thinking about age. Not just because this year holds a milestone birthday for me, and for many of my friends, but also in terms of storytelling. I don’t think age matters too much in deciding what we choose to read – I am equally happy to read about Julian Barnes or Philip Roth’s older men as I am to read books with child protagonists; Life of Pi, Room, My Name is Leon etc. It’s more to do with our interests and personalities. However, stories do appeal because they resonate, so I think my father, for example, would more happily read Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett than Not Working by Lisa Owens (two great books I devoured this summer).

With children though, it’s more contentious. There are those that say we shouldn’t ‘gate keep’, and that we should let children read anything – if they don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter because the content will go over their heads. The same people say that censorship by age is nonsense – who are we to know the emotional intelligence or sensitivity of a child? Each one is an individual.

However, several things occurred to me recently. Firstly, I’m running an INSET this week about school library use and helping children to choose books. I’m sure there are some books the Headteacher vetoes (and rightly so, deeming them too old for the primary school library). Secondly, I read two books this summer aimed at the younger end of YA, but which for me, contained too much disturbing detail for me to suggest for that readership. Thirdly I read a review in The Times newspaper of Mal Peet’s newest novel, posthumously finished by Meg Rosoff, in which the reviewer stated that it contained details of rape, and therefore was suitable for 14 years plus – thus putting a direct age censorship on one particular issue.

Michael Morpurgo stated recently that hugely disturbing images come flooding at our children all the time – mainly because of their access to multimedia and because of the media’s access to what’s happening in the world as never before: Earthquakes, floods, war, terrorism. But how much do we protect children from this, or explain it? I have the headlines rolling into my kitchen every breakfast time, but I distinctly remember turning down the volume when, for a while, all the headlines were about Operation Yewtree, and I didn’t want my children (all aged under ten at the time) to hear details of that.

Some may think it’s good that MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books deal with difficult issues. I certainly agree that no literature for children should ‘dumb things down’. Children and teens are intelligent and should be presented with books that are well written, clever and ‘good’ literature, and which confront topics that they don’t necessarily, and wouldn’t want to, experience personally – in fact, sometimes with issues that don’t ‘resonate’ personally but which they want to read about happening to others to explore the emotional empathy it provokes. But, as in all art, there’s a reason that a TV watershed was introduced, that some music is labelled ‘explicit’. It’s to point out what’s contained within.

When I started my website, and my reading consultancy, I gave myself a remit. I would suggest books for children up to about age 14. This covered primary school, and those children who are advanced readers and emotionally astute – thus pushing the boundary slightly above their 11 year old selves, because, as above, I believe in each child being an individual.

And then this summer I read two books from publishers who thought that they fitted my remit. Possibly because they have young protagonists. And yet, although they’re both good reads, and in fact one is stunning, I couldn’t just review them on my site as books of the week without this mitigating introduction. Because the subject matter, well – it’s up to you as your child’s book buyer, hand-holder, confidant, judge of their own emotional intelligence – to decide if it’s appropriate for your young teen.

stars at oktober

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Told in immensely lyrical, poetic, and emotional prose, Alice tells her story. She is 15, but trapped as a pre-teen from her acquired brain injury, a result of a horrific assault (with an implied, although not blatantly stated, rape.) Her speech is slow. Her words, however, fly out on paper, and she writes poems to express herself, leaving them adrift throughout the small town, Oktober Bend, in which she lives. No one takes much notice, until Manny appears in town. A former child soldier, adopted in Australia from his native war-torn Sierra Leone, Manny runs round town to overcome his past, and finds Alice’s poetry. Manny’s story is told from his point of view, in chapters with a different typeface and a starkly different tone and prose style – far more matter-of-fact, much starker. (Personally I felt that Manny’s story was too buried beneath the starkness, but two woeful emotional tales may have been an overload).

In essence, then, this is a love story between the two – but readers will fall in love with the setting, the characters surrounding the protagonists, but most of all with Alice’s voice.

Not only is Alice’s voice poetic – but it is written with a lack of capital letters, and punctuation in unexpected places – some of the prose weaves into poetry. This lifts the voice from the page, so that the reader is fully immersed inside Alice’s head; creating an intimacy as if Alice is speaking aloud to the reader in a way that she cannot speak in her own world. Perhaps, also because of her isolation from the rest of her town – defined by her slow slurred speech and the townspeople inability to understand her/fear of her – the inner monologue creates an intense intimacy with the reader. Some of Millard’s phrases – as seen through Alice’s eyes, are startling in their poetry:

“in seconds we were racing along the damp dirt track beside the river. tiger-striped with sunlight and shadow.”

And yet all the time giving Alice an acerbic and humorous teen perspective on things:

“at day centre they showed us how to make things like paper, aprons and library bags, then they sold them to people who could have made anything they wanted, but didn’t because they went to school and university and got jobs and then there was no time left over for making anything.”

The love story is not just between Manny and Alice though, (as they come through their painful pasts to accept a hopeful future), but also the distinct and clearly written characters of Alice’s grandmother and brother – both Alice’s protectors. As Joey, Alice’s brother, grows older himself, so their relationship twists and changes, and this is one of the most special aspects of the book – an increasing awareness of the bond between the two siblings stretching and changing as they both find love outside the family unit. So too, as Alice’s grandmother grows older and more frail, does the relationship between the two of them change – one protecting the other and then flipping, as relationships do. It feels real, and heartbreaking and is written with expert emotional intelligence.

The setting too adds to the whimsical poetry of the book; a sleepy closed-off town, on a river – which is key to the story – both the place where Alice was attacked, and the denouement where the characters learn about revenge and forgiveness.

This is a book filled with soul, and beautifully written. Compelling and emotive, it’s recommended as a read for ages 13-17 by the publisher. To fully understand the implied issues, I feel that the book warrants a deeper maturity on behalf of the reader, so would recommend for older YA readers (and adults). A great, stunning read. You can buy it here.

what sunny saw

What Sunny Saw in the Flames by NNedi Okorafor

This is a scintillating read, written in matter-of-fact prose from the point of view of twelve year old Sunny. She lives in Nigeria, but was born in America, and struggles to fit into either country. What makes it harder for her is that although her features are African, she is albino. It’s hard enough entering the teenage years, without feeling like a misfit already.

But when she discovers that she has a magical gift – she is one of the Leopard people, imbued with an ability to see into the future with magical power, she is sucked into a fantasy world. Together with her new friends, she visits the city of Leopard Knocks and learns that her destiny is to destroy Black Hat Otokoto, a monstrous serial killer who also happens to be a witch.

By traversing the fantasy with reality, Okorafor poses Sunny in both familiar territory as a skilled soccer player yet one who cannot easily be in the sun, and the difficulties that she faces as albino in Nigeria, along with placing her firmly inside a tightly built fantasy world that draws inevitable comparisons with Diagon Alley and the team pursuits in Harry Potter.

The writing feels childlike – told from Sunny’s point of view, it dances around with exuberance – a running train of thought with observations that are both childlike and yet expose quite brilliantly the difference between the two cultures, which Sunny experiences – even down to the gritty detail of the differences between mosquitoes in Nigeria from those in America. The imagery is quite stunning – from her burning anger to the flames and the sunshine of her name – but also mixing the exotic and the familiar – the imagery of Africa with the more familiar territory of America and her American friend – to the fantasy world of the Leopard people.

Yet, for me, despite it being marketed as being for 10-14 years, Sunny’s battle against the serial killer contains frightening imagery. A killer who focuses only on children, and who maims them in the process – a five year old child found dead in the bush with no eyes or nose, for example.

Of course there’s a difference between fantasy darkness, such as Voldemort, and a darkness that intrudes upon everyday reality. And although there is darkness in Okorafor’s fantasy landscape, it pervades Sunny’s reality too, a familiar world to the readers, and so for me, was too frightening to recommend for the pre-teen market.

However, this is a novel of startling strengths – not least in the mix of the exotic and the familiar, and the ease with which Okorafor shifts between her landscapes. An absorbing book, although with a protagonist who could do with being slightly more dynamic – she is far too reliant on her friends making decisions for her. You can buy it here.

It could be argued that this age-group (Year 7, and so 12 years +) are recommended to read The Diary of Anne Frank for example, and not much is more horrific than the reality of the Holocaust, but somehow I felt that the topics of rape and maiming in the above titles could wait to be confronted. A fictional landscape of such horrors can be dealt with when readers reach a more mature age – it’s not as if there’s a lack of material available to read for ages 10-14.

Disagree? Catch me on twitter @minervamoan

 

 

Big Themes for Pre-teens

orbiting jupiter

So I don’t tend to feature YA (young adult books) on my website, having stated my remit as being 5-13 years – I had to stop somewhere! However, a book fell onto my desk a while ago that made me think. It defies categorization, as does its protagonists. It deals with issues that many would consider YA – love, teenage pregnancy and grief. And yet, the narrator is 12, and the boy he writes about is just 14 years old.

Published by Andersen Press, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt is targeted (according to them) at the 12+ age group, so just sneaks into my website review criteria. Although I wouldn’t recommend it without mentioning the themes above. Consider yourself warned.

But, this is a phenomenal book. One of the best-crafted, most heartrending novels I’ve read this year (and I include all the adult fiction I’ve read in that too). It’s a one-sitting read; the prose is stark, impeccable, faultless. No word out of place, nothing superfluous. What’s more, although it features those themes outlined above, it does so from a distance, with subtlety. There is nothing graphic. Sex happened but is not mentioned, a baby has been born, grief is the undercurrent.

Jack and his parents take in a foster brother, a fourteen year old who almost killed a teacher and has a three month old daughter called Jupiter, whom he’s never seen. Joseph is so hurt that he doesn’t show his emotions and won’t be touched – but the pain is there in a tightly woven knot, which his new family struggle to untangle.

In essence, this is a story about fathers. Jack’s father is the ideal – he believes in structure and hard work and shows his love with tenderness and moral rectitude. Joseph is a father, who longs to own up to his responsibilities despite his age, and who feels a love inside despite being unable to project it. And Joseph’s biological father is the last – the antithesis of Jack’s – the villain of the piece.

It’s also about brothers, or friendship, as Jack and Joseph form a bond over working on Jack’s parent’s farm and navigating the sometimes terrifying territory of school together. Gary Schmidt manages to portray those in society who are often overlooked or dismissed, as well as tucking into this slight novel the importance of reading, a sympathetic teacher, and the impact of extreme weather (and how to care for cows).

It’s a magnificent novel, in that although Joseph’s opening up is portrayed as profoundly slow with many setbacks, the novel races from scene to scene with skill and an edgy compulsion.

Not everyone in life is given a second chance, and not everyone grabs it when they are, but this is a beautifully written novel about just that. I cried at the end, for the story itself and also for having finished it so quickly.

In the main, it’s quite easy to distinguish between books aimed at the pre-teen market and those ‘YA’ books that are definitely for fully-fledged teenagers – by the scope of the protagonist (their world view), the language, the content, and the length of the book even. But every so often a book comes along that smudges the lines.

Schmidt has spoken about how the seed for the idea sprung from a news item about a thirteen year old father. And so, because big themes do happen to small people, if authors write stories about them as beautifully, poignantly and sensitively as this, we’d be terrible ‘gatekeepers’ if we held our children back from them.

You can buy it here.

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Children do judge a book by its cover. The children who come to my library sessions tend to look at the back cover blurb only after they’ve decided they quite like the cover art. For younger children of course the picture on the front is everything – they cannot read the blurb yet. Even for adults, the cover picture dictates whether they buy the book for their children – this is particularly true in a gender divisive way – I don’t see many parents even picking up, let alone buying, this for boys:

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that there should be ‘separate’ books for boys and girls, I have lots of girls reading football books, especially the Tom Palmer series, although not so many boys reading Rainbow Fairies. Gender aside, how do we make a judgement on whether a book is right for us?

The emotional pull of the front cover is what draws in the reader at the start, and the artwork nowadays is often stunningly beautiful. The pairing of a good illustrator with the right writer can produce an artwork that is completely indicative of what’s inside. This is particularly relevant in modern children’s literature as illustrations become more and more central to a book’s success. One only has to look at sales of Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates to see that heavily illustrated text is today’s big attraction.

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

I know that Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates is going to be a funny story fully annotated with diagrams and illustrations simply by looking at the busy covers. In the same way I can tell that Skullduggery Pleasant crosses the horror/fantasy lines; The Parent Agency (illustrations by Jim Field) is going to be a comedy; and the Dick King Smith stories (now with rebranded covers by Hannah Shaw) will be gentle, old-fashioned and comforting. Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, even if I was unaware of Neil Gaiman’s style, is clearly going to be chilling. Lorenzo Mattotti’s dark cover illustration reflects those within, which in turn reflect the darkness of Gaiman’s retelling. In fact publishers seem to be taking more time and interest in picking the right illustrator for their covers as bookseller shelf becomes even harder to win.

mr stinkTwits

Some illustrators are used widely and can give the book great appeal – the use of Quentin Blake to illustrate David Walliams’ books gives them a market advantage and immediately allows for comparisons between Walliams and Roald Dahl. On the other hand, it can also be quite confusing for children: Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and Goth Girls titles have similar ‘looks’, but so does Witchworld – which is by a different author – Emma Fischel.

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

Likewise The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket looks vastly similar to The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas – both illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, and yet both completely different books by completely different authors, John Boyne and David Almond respectively. Within the industry we may know what’s going on – but does the consumer?

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

Likewise the choice of Nick Sharratt, illustrator and author of such titles as Shark in the Park, You Choose, and the Daisy picturebooks, to illustrate Jacqueline Wilson books is an interesting one. Whereas the Daisy picture books are aimed at 4-6 year olds, Jacqueline Wilson stories are for 8 years and over – sometimes 10 years and over, because of the issues dealt with in the story, but the covers appeal to the younger end of the age group.

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

When a publisher rebrands a classic book, there’s a collective interest in what they’ve chosen, as we already know the content and so we’re party to the same thoughts as the publisher. When Bloomsbury rebranded Harry Potter with Jonny Duddle covers (see Harry Potter blogpost), the publishers knew they had to please the people who had already read the book, as well as appeal to the new young readers who hadn’t. Personally I feel they got it right. One Hungarian student decided to design her own Potter covers – they glow in the dark. You can read about it here.

Sometimes the rebranding of the cover is an update, sometimes a publicity stunt. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in August 2014 took many by surprise, but was defended as being aimed at the adult market. Here are some of the Charlie covers through the ages.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

But how else can we judge a book? The book cover and blurb aside, Chickenshed publishers and Little Tiger Press often give a page number on the back of a book, almost like a film preview – indicating that you should read that page as it will give you the clearest insight into what the book will contain, or as the most enticing and intriguing part of the story, ensuring you want to read more.

When you’re buying online there’s a tool on many sites to ‘look inside’ the book, or view a couple of sample pages. More often than not it’s the contents page or endpapers, neither of which give much of an idea as to what’s inside. Some publishers and sites are more generous, giving the whole first chapter, although this is impossible with picture books, and rare with non-fiction titles.

On e-readers, samples are usually available to download before buying, but once the book is purchased, I find the most frustrating element of the e-reader is that you never see the cover or title again. Research shows that you’re more likely to forget a book having read it this way –is that because we need a more visual element with which to connect? Personally I find I can remember a book by its cover, even if I don’t always judge the book by it.

 

Is My Child Old Enough?

Harry Potter Goblet of Fire  Anne Frank

So here is one of the most startling problems with helping children pick something to read. Age-appropriateness. The question comes up time and time again from adults: “My eight year old child loves Harry Potter, but we’ve got to book three, and I think they get darker after that – should I continue or wait till she’s older”, and “How old should my child be to read Anne Frank?” etc.

Even when you go to a good bookshop, it’s not like clothes where they’re shelved by size – books are only very roughly broken down into categories by publishers, and even then there’s huge overlap and vagueness, and some books don’t sit properly in their ‘marketplace’ at all. You’ll quite often see labels (even on my site), such as picture books, early readers, middle grade, young adult. What do these mean?

Picture books are what they say on the tin! Ie. They’re books with pictures on every page – almost always a larger size than your standard book, and mainly for a young age group. I say mainly because in the breadth and depth of the picture book world, the age range is huge. Many will read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to their children from birth, but The Arrival by Shaun Tan is best aimed at those aged eight and over. For The Sunday Times this was a picture book, in Publishers Weekly it was a graphic novel. In most bookshops I’ve seen it in the picture book section. The Arrival is a stunning book about having a sense of belonging, and explores issues of migration and displacement and refugees, but it’s not for pre-schoolers. Saying that, neither is The Promise by Nicola Davies (a book I hope to review on this blog shortly).

Early readers are those first titles that a child can start to read independently once they gain literacy fluency. However, even then the age at which they reach this point can vary hugely. Middle grade is roughly defined by the publishing industry as books aimed at readers aged 8-12 yrs with a protagonist of 10-13 yrs and a focus on friends, family and the immediate world. Young adult is generally perceived as being for readers aged 13-18 yrs, with older protagonists (14-18 yrs) who spend more time than the MG protagonists thinking and reflecting on what is happening and the meanings of things. These books may also contain romance, sex, profanity and violence. There is often some blurriness in the top end of MG and the bottom end of YA, and a huge debate over when young adult becomes part of the ‘grown up’ canon of literature.

Fastest Boy in the WorldFastest Boy in the World back

Some publishers started putting age labels on the back cover of their books to assist purchasing, and still do. My copy of The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird says 7+ on the back, which I do pretty much agree with. Although, again it depends on the individual child! In 2008 the Publishers’ Association found that 86 per cent of adults support labelling books like this, and staggeringly 40 per cent said they would buy more books if they had age labels! (Again, this points to people buying more books if only they knew which ones to buy!)

This became a hugely contentious issue. Doesn’t labelling a book as aimed at a certain age group limit it commercially, or in a perverse way just make it more attractive to those younger children for whom it isn’t intended? As I child I always wanted to watch films that were certified with a 15 certificate when I was under the age limit. We are drawn to the prohibited. It also makes the books less attractive to those older than the age label. And soul destroying to those who struggle with reading. A publisher such as Barrington Stoke allows you to search their website by reading age ability but also by content age, separating out the two. An interesting idea, and helpful to struggling readers.

And then there’s the school reading schemes – Cecelia Busby drew attention to the Accelerated Reading scheme on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure blogspot. The Accelerated Reader schemes labels books by ‘reading levels’, but it’s not done by a human, but by a computer – which then becomes a vocabulary and syntax exercise prone to error (in my mind anyway, as it deemed that a Daisy Meadows Rainbow Fairy title was more difficult to read than Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).

It’s the same argument that I’ve pointed to again and again. If you use a computer to give you reading choices, rather than a person – you’re going to be using an algorithm which, no matter how enlightened, has not actually read the books. Because what it boils down to is content. It’s all very well that an eight year old is a proficient reader, but just because they can read Forever by Judy Blume doesn’t mean they should.

Many parents believe that The Diary of Anne Frank, studied by many in Year 6 at school, needs to be read with an understanding of the context in which it’s set (the Holocaust). Of course you do, but there’s also plenty in the book about growing sexuality too – don’t forget Anne was 13 when she was given her diary and then went into hiding and wrote the diary for the next couple of years while she became aware of her own body. She writes extensively about exploring her vagina:
“There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
It’s nothing revolutionary, and quite understandable for a 14 year old, but not something I personally want my nine year old reading just yet. I think they will simply appreciate it more when they too are approaching or going through puberty.

In fact, this leads me to one excellent way of judging a book’s suitability, which is the age of the protagonist. Most children want a protagonist with whom they can identify or in many cases, wish to be like. A protagonist the same age or a year or two older is about right. Harry Potter starts his sequence of books aged 11 and each year progresses through school, ending at aged 18, and I would suggest that children would get more out of the books if they read them at roughly the same ages. Many children aged seven do start reading Harry Potter, and if they can cope with the dark content of the later books, many read all the way through, but I would argue (contentiously I know), that reading them a little later would make for a better understanding and appreciation of the book. It’s simply a life stage – I know I read Madame Bovary totally differently at the tender of 18 yrs and single as to how I read it in my thirties, several years after having got married. It’s all about point of view.

Some believe that children will automatically self-censor – ie. if they read a book with content that’s too advanced for them, they won’t enjoy it and will stop reading. Author Patrick Ness doesn’t think age labels work:
“I don’t think it works, if it’s got an 18 certificate then younger children will look at it when their parents aren’t around … children are great self­-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read.”
My argument with that is that it can put a child off a book forever, as they feel they already attempted it and it was dull – and then never return. If they have dismissed a book at the wrong age by misunderstanding the nuances and underlying content, they may never go back to it. My absolute horror would be to give my children Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at too early an age, so that they turn round and tell me it’s ‘dull’. So, I’m not suggesting censoring, just reaching out for the full breadth of children’s books that are available for your child at any given age, and not pushing them to read ‘higher’ up the literacy level until they are ready and willing, and you are somewhat aware of the content.

It’s impossible to read every book before your child, so there is no easy solution. You can talk to someone like me of course, although even I haven’t read all the books in the world! You can read about the book and do some research, and accept that at some point you will be caught out. When my daughter was six she was a proficient reader and was given a library book by an innocent librarian – it was only when my daughter asked me what ‘snogging’ was that I realised the content was inappropriate. My advice: don’t rely on a computer, do talk to as many people as possible about your book choices, don’t push your child onto the next ‘level in the hope of advanced literacy skills’ – there is plenty of amazing content out there for your child – and do take the more advanced books and read them aloud to your child so you can discuss issues when they arise.

 

 

 

How Can I Help My Dyslexic Child To Love Reading?

Dyslexia Action quotes that on average one in three children in every classroom is dyslexic and therefore struggle in some way with literacy.[i] As a reading for pleasure consultant, it’s vital to help parents find those texts that will appeal to a dyslexic child, and keep them reading because they want to. In particular, it’s important not to make that child feel as if they can read only ‘easy’ books that their peers read long ago, and for which they might be ridiculed for reading.

Being dyslexic only means that the processing channels can get mixed up – it doesn’t mean the child is in any way less intelligent, and so the books still need to be content appropriate. It’s also vital that the child doesn’t find the processing too difficult, so that their confidence (which can be the first thing to go) is nurtured, and it’s vital to help them discover that reading can be a pleasure not a struggle.

Luckily, in today’s publishing industry, the publisher Barrington Stoke is doing some excellent work producing books that are dyslexia-friendly, and seek to be like any other chapter books in their outward appearance.

What does dyslexia-friendly mean? In the main, it means that books have the following features:
paper that’s off-white to reduce glare, well-spaced text, thick paper so that the words from the next or previous page do not show through, wide margins, straightforward syntax, (which means that there aren’t too many clauses in one sentence), an unjustified right-hand margin, a well-structured story, and signposts that clearly show the story’s natural pauses – pictures, headings etc.

I’m most often approached by parents of children aged about seven who are learning about dyslexia for the first time and are desperate to find appropriate books to encourage them to read and learn to love reading. Here are some titles by phenomenal children’s writers to help:
Haunting of Uncle Ronyoung werewolfsnake who came to stayreal true friendsmeet the weirds
The Haunting of Uncle Ron by Anne Fine
A funny book about a guest who doesn’t want to leave! Part of the 4u2read series from Barrington Stoke, which also includes excellent stories by the likes of Annie Dalton, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong, Malorie Blackman, and Terry Deary, all aimed at an 8-12 years interest age.

Young Werewolf by Cornelia Funke
One of my favourite authors ever since reading Inkheart, Cornelia has the ability to create magic through simple text. When Matt gets bitten on the way home from the cinema, he realises he’s been infected by a werewolf. Can he undo the curse before the full moon? See also The Moonshine Dragon by Cornelia Funke for younger readers.

The Snake Who Came to Stay by Julia Donaldson
Another excellent children’s author best known for her picture books (many are surprised that Julia Donaldson has so many titles for older readers, but she does!), this is a simple tale of a home for pets and the trouble that ensues when Doris the snake comes to stay. Part of the Little Gems series, this is aimed at the 5-8 years age group, which is quite a wide range in my opinion, but excellent for confidence building for first readers.

Real True Friends by Jean Ure
When Hannah moves to a new school she needs to discover who are her real friends. A good story about fitting in and friendships. Jean Ure is a well-established writer and many of her books feature girls aged between 10-14 years, so a young reader can progress through her books if she likes the style. I personally remember Jean Ure for her now out-of-print titles such as One Green Leaf and A Twist in Time, and Hi there, Supermouse! which I adored!

Meet the Weirds by Kaye Umansky
A fabulously funny story about unconventional neighbours. Mrs Weird is a stuntwoman and Mr Weird a mad scientist and they have some unconventional habits, so moving in next door to the Primms is bound to spell trouble.

There are many more titles on the Barrington Stoke website, to which I highly recommend a visit.

However, I would also point to stories such as the Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon as a good read for dyslexic readers because they contain brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, and are divided into short manageable chapters. Likewise Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child and the Ottoline books by Chris Riddell are all stories broken up into short chunks with fantastic illustrations to accompany the text. Mr Gum by Andy Stanton has excellent spacing too, and try the Agatha Parrot books by Kjartan Poskitt, which, like the Mr Gum series, are also illustrated by the amazing David Tazzyman.

I would recommend the Edge series of graphic novels from the publisher Franklin Watts, which are also published on dyslexic-friendly paper. They are an excellent publisher of non-fiction titles, and their Slipstream series of reading resources is aimed at struggling readers.

For older readers (young teen) the Wired Up series by the publisher A&C Black are an invaluable source of gripping reads at manageable lengths and levels.

Of course it’s hugely helpful for a child to be able to identify with the characters they are reading about. So, here below are some books in which the protagonist has dyslexia:

percy jacksonhank zipzerreading the gamemaggot moon
Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief is the first of a hugely popular series of adventures by Rick Riordan. This series focuses on adventures with the Greek gods, and the books are tremendously exciting and fast-paced. Aged 9 and up.(and there’s a film).
Hank Zipzer
The Hank Zipzer series of books by Henry Winkler (yes the Fonz to you) follows the haphazard adventures of a ten year old boy. Very American but also very funny.
Reading the Game by Tom Palmer
A lovely story about a football mad boy who is great at football but struggles to read. Part of the Football Academy series. Tom Palmer is also published by Barrington Stoke.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
A teen novel that won the 2012 Costa Children’s Book Award, about a young teenage boy called Standish Treadwell, set in a totalitarian future state. Totally brilliant for its menacing subject matter, startling prose and exceptional characters:
“There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”
I also want to champion Sally Gardner here, who herself is dyslexic and has spoken out about this many times. She has written much for younger readers, including the Magical Children series, and gives splendid advice such as not shying away from giving dyslexic children a different platform from which to read. Giving a dyslexic child an ereader or a tablet for reading can help build confidence as it masks what they are actually reading – and therefore reduces any peer pressure. Some readers also find the letters jump around less on the ereader, and of course you can play with the font size. You can also try an audio book alongside the printed word for more challenging titles. And never, never underestimate the joy of reading aloud to your child (whatever age) to encourage their love for reading.

[i] Dyslexia Action (2012) Dyslexia still matters.

Picture Books Aren’t Just for Preschoolers

With the wealth of picture books in today’s children’s book market, it will come as no surprise to find that they are not all targeted at pre-schoolers. Reading the rich, beautiful vocabulary in some of them, imbibing the intensity of the emotions in others, and gaining moral insight in others, demonstrate that certain picture books are destined for audiences older than the 0-5 years marketplace. Many parents seem to think that once their child can read, they should progress swiftly to chapter books. Nothing could be further from the truth. I actively persuade my older children to look at picture books for inspiration for good writing, creative ideas and simple explanations of complex ideas.

The Snatchabooksnatchabook

One recent example, The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty, published by Scholastic, is enjoyed much more by my grown self, and my seven year old avid reader, than by the toddlers in the vicinity! The language lends itself to an older audience, and the message itself – that stealing is wrong, but that one can put wrong a right and become accepted for admitting your crimes – is for the older audience. Language such as “making amends”, vocabulary such as ‘rumours spread’, and ‘solve the mystery’ give clues that the book demands to be looked at by the older reader.

I hate schoolHonor Brown

Sometimes the ‘joke’ inside the book and the punchline at the end, also lead to the understanding that the book is intended for a much older child. I Hate School by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross, and published by Andersen Press, is intended for a school child with some sophistication. A lovely rhyme about a child who explains to an adult how much she hates school (with some vivid imagery…”They beat us till we bleed”) until the punchline when it’s revealed that actually the child cried on leaving:
“Yes, Honor Brown just hated school
For years and years and years,
Yet on the day that she could leave,
I found her full of tears.”
Even Year 11s leaving school would relate to this one I think.

kicking a ballWhat does daddy do

Two books that I bought for my husband are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Sebastien Braun and published by Puffin books and What Does Daddy Do? by Rachel Bright, also published by Puffin. In the first, by Allan Ahlberg, it’s not even the words that transfixed me so much, as the pictures, which have the capability to produce empathetic emotions only in those who have parented. Not only that, he makes a pun on the word ‘scoring’, using it in both senses of the word, which, thankfully, goes over the head of all three of my children at present:
“Kissing my wife, bathing our baby
Kicking a ball and SCORING (maybe).”
But in essence, it’s a book about the love of kicking a ball (anywhere, anyhow) and it works for any football mad boy to man in the world.

Kicking a ball2

What Does Daddy Do? by Rachel Bright, published by Puffin, is slightly more personal, because a member of my family does a job in the financial sector that for years was impossible for me or anyone related to him to describe! The title alone was enough to get us all chuckling, but even the text itself lends itself to a more grown up humour (even though it works perfectly well for four year olds too):
daddy superhero

““And he is a superhero!”
“Like Superman? gasped Bob.
“Yes!” said Daisy, “because he has to rescue people from a big bored room”
The illustrations in this one also come alive right off the page. It’s a smashing little find.

Lastly, revisit some Julia Donaldson picture books to fully appreciate the rich vocabulary she uses. The Snail and the Whale, published by Macmillan, is a good study for anyone wishing to hone their creative writing:
“These are the waves that arched and crashed
That foamed and frolicked and sprayed and splashed”
Sometimes the most complex ideas and feelings are best explored through picture books. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and The Promise by Nicola Davies are outstanding examples of this, and all for different reasons and on different themes – but more on them another time!