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.
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.