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Kids’ book age guidelines Part II: Reading between the lines September 30, 2008

The trend in children’s book publishing — more specifically, marketing — is to label each title with an age or grade guideline for which the book is supposedly appropriate. And yesterday I described, with the help of likeminded sources, why it not only doesn’t help, but actually hinders, efforts to put a good book in the hands of the right child.

Drawing on the chapter of my book devoted to this topic, I gave my secret formula for finding the best books for children. Here it is again:

The most important question is not, “How old is my child?” but “What is my child’s reading ability?” Also factor in maturity and interest levels, and there you have it.

  • If your child is a superior reader, you’ll need to ask yourself, “Is the material presented in the book still appropriate?” You have to temper an advanced reader’s zeal for “big books” with a sense for her maturity level. (I’ll use a blog subject from last week as an example. An avid child reader who devours L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (see fantasy novel section) will not be ready for Wicked (Reader Picks) until she’s practically a grown-up, even if she can read the sophisticated language of Gregory Maguire’s highly imaginative parallel novel. Am I age labeling here? Well, given the explicit sexual situations and satirical nature of this very well written fantasy novel, I’m just saying Wicked is written for adults or quite mature older teens who can handle such subjects. 
  • Follow these questions by asking which books will allow your child to stretch his ability and enrich his thinking processes.
  • A quick scan of the first chapter or two of potential book choices gives the best indicator of the level on which the book is written — not the age guideline on the book jacket.
  • Gauge interest level above all, even over skill. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a child can read something well if she doesn’t relate to the book. Strong interest in and enjoyment of the material are the only ways to cultivate a dedicated reader.
  • A boy who loves cars will likely be interested in a well presented book about cars, even if it happens to be a level or two below that designated for his age. It’s the subject matter he seeks. What a shame for him to be reluctant or embarrassed to pick it up because of artificially imposed reading levels.

My younger son Thomas, now 9, has always been a very accomplished — and rather competitive — reader, tackling chapter books way back when he was still expected to still be in the picture book phase. As I also describe in The New Magic Bookshelf, I feel it’s a shame to rush past the treasures to be found in the picture book genre for the sake of earning Accelerated Reader, peer prestige, or other bonus points by moving on too quickly to middle grade novels and other more challenging reads.

I’ve been very happy to see Thomas lately revisiting the picture books that line our shelves, even when he’s capable of reading the children’s novels placed alongside. When his dad took him to a used book store recently, Thomas chose a picture book to bring home. Likewise, when my husband Josh took him along on an outing to Barnes and Noble, Thomas came home with the whimsical Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble (Skippyjon Jones).

I’m glad third-grader Thomas feels just as comfortable hanging out with Skippyjon as Harry Potter. Even if the Skippyjon Jones picture book series is supposedly aimed at “ages four-eight”.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Age guidelines for children’s reading: only numbers September 29, 2008

We consumers are so used to our prepackaged goods, whether they be bologna or books, that we’ve come to rely on numbering classification systems for labeling just about everything: this movie is suitable for children ages 12+; these eggs are best used before 10/11/08; this children’s book is aimed at ages 6-8.

I appreciate knowing when my sour cream may go bad, I really do. I realize juvenile titles are ostensibly processed and classified in such a way to make it easier for the consumer to sift through and find what they hope are appropriate books. But it’s a marketing tool for the easy sale of books. And it may not help your child.

I’ve never changed my thinking that the narrow age designations for books are not only trite but deceptive in their perceived “helpfulness.” In The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever, I’ve devoted nearly a  whole chapter to this issue. I’ll quote a snippet:

“But what about the eight-year-olds who read on an ‘ages ten to twelve’ level? Or the eleven-year-olds who struggle a little more, but are attracted to books on the ‘ages eight-ten’ level? Are all children of the same age, really the same? Of course not. That’s why it’s my belief this system can inadvertently work against them. Slower-reading children might become demoralized or ashamed of being designated ‘behind.’ This will likely deter them from reading books ‘below their level’ that could have been terrific reads. All because they, and their unsuspecting parents, believe they’re intended for younger children.”

And I might add, the publisher or book reviewer has labeled it so — age designation most often has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s intended audience.

In a Sunday story for the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen, former librarian Barbara Julian reports an outcry among authors over just this practice, even calling age labeling “unnatural.”

A group of children’s authors in England has issued a formal statement condemning this juvenile publishing industry trend. Notoagebanding.org has reportedly amassed more than 3,300 interested people from authors to librarians to booksellers to sign the statement.

“Pinning reading ability to age level is an inexact science, as any teacher knows. An exceptional book won’t stay within an age-defined straitjacket, anyway,” Julian notes. “A clever, humorously illustrated picturebook gives as much pleasure to the parent reading it aloud as to the child listening and looking.”

I also love Julian’s quote of juvenile author Nikki Tate, who doubles as a publisher’s publicist: “A very young child with a strong interest in a topic may devour a book intended for adults, whereas even the simplest, most attractive book on the same subject won’t tempt someone with no interest in the content. A good book is a good book is a good book.”

Read the full article here.

OK, so how is a parent, educator, or other involved adult to make a decision as to whether a certain title is appropriate reading for a child? The key is not in thinking, “How old is my child?” but, “What is my child’s ability?” Add into consideration interest and maturity levels, and then you’ve got the recipe for finding a fantastic book.

In tomorrow’s blog I’m going to elaborate on these and other ways around the labeling gimmick, so stay tuned.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Publishing revenues post-Harry Potter vanish September 26, 2008

Harry Potter fans are undoubtedly feeling a void since for the first time in years, there’s no new Harry installment to look forward to.

Meanwhile, American publisher Scholastic Corp. is apparently feeling the void in a perhaps less emotional but no less painful way.

According to a Forbes report yesterday, the children’s book publisher reported a loss of $49.1 million, or $1.30 per share, compared with a loss of $2.8 million, or 7 cents per share, in the same quarter a year ago.

“Scholastic Corp. said Thursday its fiscal first-quarter loss widened compared with a year-ago period that benefited from a new Harry Potter book,” writes Associated Press writer Michelle Chapman.

The final book in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7), reportedly generated $240 million in revenue that quarter.

Chapman writes that Scholastic President and Chief Executive Richard Robinson promises there’s fiscal life after Harry, citing new book franchises “The 39 Clues”, starting with The 39 Clues (The Maze of Bones, Book 1), and new Young Adult title The Hunger Games as performing well.

Fortunately, Hollywood is actually helping out us clingers-on with at least some new movie versions to anticipate, so maybe it’s not so bad they decided to postpone Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince until next summer.

And J.K. Rowling can’t seem to quite let go either, fortunately, with her spin-off The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Standard Edition.

Those whose little fans can’t say goodbye to Harry even after reading the entire series several times over also shouldn’t forget ancillary tomes like the Harry Potter Schoolbooks Box Set: From the Library of Hogwarts: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Quidditch Through The Ages. This collection, which at least gives more dimension to the world of Harry and friends, was released some years back but may have gotten lost in the shuffle of the new series installments that were coming out.

Meanwhile, Scholastic may never equal much less top the magical fiscal benefits Harry brought, but I hope they’re at least appreciative of the amazing coup of having been his creator’s stateside publisher.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Wicked: Yellow Brick Road Stretches On September 25, 2008

Fans of Gregory Maguire’s popular 1996 Wizard of Oz backstory book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Harper Fiction) will be happy to know that Wicked, its Broadway musical version, has a fresh new touring schedule that will spread its delicious spell over the U.S. in 2008-2009.

With a new slate of North American tour dates that kicked off in Pittsburgh Sept. 3, Wicked will hit 17 major cities by next summer.  Click here for schedule and ticket information.

For fun, enjoy the little documentary about Wicked above.

Wicked, which made its debut on Broadway in 2003, tells the stage version of the relationship between Wicked Witch of the West-to-be Elphaba and her perfect, popular and pretty college roommate Glinda, who becomes the Good Witch of the North. Wizard of Oz fans knew they were acquaintances, but author Maguire’s decision to delve into the story behind their divergent roads is truly inspired.

The stage show is deemed appropriate for children ages 8 and up.

The novel, on the other hand, contains adult themes and language. My husband enjoyed it in college. But for the younger set, the Oz series is abundant, starting of course with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition (Books of Wonder) or, for the even younger, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Pop-up.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Daily lit eases the daily grind September 24, 2008

I’m a big fan of DailyLit, a free service that offers *also free* classic books in the public domain (copyright expired), presented electronically in bite-size e-mailed excerpts. (Other, newer books are sometimes made available by current nonfiction authors and contemporary writers like Cory Doctorow, who wrote Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, an enjoyable 2003 sci-fi novella set in, that’s right, a futuristic Disney World.

 Sometimes there’s a small charge for the e-book but there’s plenty for free.

You can choose how often or on what days you wish to receive installments. For instance, progam your DailyLit selection to, say, e-mail you every weekday morning to enjoy for a few minutes with your morning office coffee, or arrange a midday ping to liven the mid-afternoon slump when you’re an at-home parent seeking a couple of grownup minutes.

And it’s not just for adults, of course — a busy older child can pick up a daily installment while riding the bus to school or on the way to soccer practice. DailyLit offers great juvenile titles too, like Little Women, E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle and The Three Musketeers.

A new update I just received from DailyLit yesterday announces new books and features, including a To-Read queue, reader ratings and reviews, and a members page.

So no more feeling like you accomplished nothing today — you did squeeze in 10 minutes of Oscar Wilde, and you should feel good about that.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Bratz: Runway to Highway September 23, 2008

I was looking for someone to high-five when I read the New York Times report that children’s publisher Scholastic Inc. has axed the sexed-up Bratz book rip-off series from their book clubs and fairs.

Well, nobody else is home so I’m high-fiving via blog. This rare “No” to the book merchandising of junky TV shows and products is a major step (although I don’t really understand why Scholastic allowed the trashy Bratz to move in in the first place, vamping about in titles such as “Catwalk Cuties”).

Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood claims credit for cutting the Bratz chapter books from the fliers that go home in students’ bookbags, as well as other spinoff products, via an aggressive e-mail campaign. Their beef is as much with the gimmick factor as the inappropriateness of the Bratz dolls, as is mine.

Unfortunately, Scholastic reports their decision to yank the series was based as much on dwindling sales as parent protests.

I’ve always felt Scholastic selections erred severely on the junky side, while sprinkling in some high-quality choices here and there, like the Harry Potter series. One stroll through a school Scholastic book fair and you tend to see as many, if not more, toys, cheapo plastic items and “imitation book products” on display as bona fide good books.

In her article, Times writer Motoko Rich quotes teachers who actually argue that book tie-ins to trendy shows like “Hannah Montana” and movies might be “the only books some children would read.”

Why? Why would spin-off drivel be the only thing a child would read? I’ll gladly field arguments to the contrary, but my feeling is that somebody just isn’t trying hard enough — if at all — to find such kids something good to read.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Reading Rooster™ Rocks! September 22, 2008

I’m so glad I happened to websurf a little before posting today because it gave me the opportunity to start off the week with a bang. Or a crow, as it were.

I’m excited to share with you Reading Rooster Recommends™, a program of the South Carolina Center for Children’s Books and Literacy. It’s a regular, usually bi-weekly, broadcast on YouTube and TeacherTube, with coordinator Helen Fellers (aka Reading Rooster™) recommending a wide, well-chosen variety of children’s books both for the classroom and home.

Check it out:

Helen has an extensive background as a juvenile literacy advocate not only as a librarian but a buyer for bookstores including Barnes and Noble. She thus has a terrific feel for both older and brand-new titles coming out. This is the perfect blend of expertise for parents and teachers who find themselves lost in the crush of juvenile book merchandising, wondering how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Be sure to check out past broadcasts too. The July 31 video discusses children’s books about the American Revolution, including Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Hulse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

Visit magicbookshelfonline.com