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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



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. 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



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



Listening together: Audio adventures September 19, 2008

Audiobooks are magical: when you pop in something riveting enough, on CD or tape, in the car, kids’ room, kitchen, or anywhere there’s a CD or tape player, a truce between quarreling siblings can be instantly struck; a troubled child may stop whimpering and grow quiet and listen; your own jumbled thoughts will calm and you begin to focus on what you’re hearing, not what your overworked mind is telling you.

I’ve always been resistant to TV/DVD players in the car — and none of my used cars ever came with one anyway, removing the tempation. I knew I’d never get around to installing one. And you know what, I’m glad. I’m not saying TV in the car is so terrible — but although it keeps the kids quiet, it segregates the family just as it does at home (not always a bad thing, this I know).

Audiobooks can also be musicals, operettas, radio broadcasts (the very best!) and the like. Among the finest we’ve heard are The Little Prince: A Magical Opera, based on the classic Antoine de Sainte-Exupery book; and a well-restored, eerie collection of The Shadow radio serial broadcasts from the 1930s — which made us shudder deliciously as we drove toward our beach vacation destination down dark two-lane roads at night.

A quick stop at a Books-A-Million in Augusta, Georgia halfway home from a trip to Beaufort, SC to visit my mother one weekend when I was on my own with the boys, then little more than toddlers, once netted a well-produced audio compilation of all the Beatrix Potter books from Peter Rabbit to the Tailor of Gloucestor. The family visit was typically wonderful, I’m sure, but what made that trip charmed for me was listening to the stories together on that long drive home, kids’ meals in small laps eaten sporadically between the exciting parts.

The country-themed restaurant Cracker Barrel has an audiobook lending program that lets you rent recent audiobooks for the cost of a DVD rental. This is very handy on long road trips when everyone begins to get bored and restless. 

These days, the boys are in 3rd and 5th grades, but we listen on the way to their new charter school to stay quiet and experience some calm and focus before the school day begins. This week it’s Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke, procured from our local branch library (the very best, no-cost way to check out audiobooks). The boys beg to put it on the second we get in the car.

The New Magic Bookshelf includes much more about audiobooks, and the bookstore offers a selection.

Here are a few websites I recommend to get started browsing for some wonderful audio adventures for your family: (includes a rental option)

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



Getting teens to read September 16, 2008

If Bart Simpson has never exactly been a force for good, he is now (or, rather, the actress who voices his character is).

Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart on “The Simpsons,” has recorded three public service announcements (PSAs) for Teen Read Week™ 2008, set for Oct. 12-18 in libraries across the country. The theme is Books with Bite @ your library. To read more about the program and have a listen, click here.

Teen Read Week is a national literacy initiative sponsored baimed at the oft-neglected segment of the reading population, teens. But the annual awareness program, which began in 1998 and is sponsored by the American Library Association and numerous partners, also targets teens’ parents, librarians, educators, booksellers and other concerned adults. The purpose of the event is to increase the number of teens who are regular readers and library users.

Nancy Cartwright is an Emmy Award–winning actress whose unmistakable voice has appeared on a number of hit TV shows, but she is best known for playing Bart on the long-running Fox series, “The Simpsons.” She has also narrated a number of audiobooks, including her autobiography “My Life as a Ten-Year-Old Boy”; “Stink,” a series of audiobooks for young people by Megan McDonald; and “If I Were You,” a story by L. Ron Hubbard.

If you’re looking for ways to get your teen more involved in reading, here’s a great place to start.

And as for finding meaty reading material teens will gobble up? An excellent site for book suggestions is

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



Life lessons worth hearing September 13, 2008

Anyone having experience with children knows a story beats a lecture any day. Moreover, stories beat lectures and complicated explanations to a child’s questions because they avoid the personal, finger-pointing element that makes lectures so distasteful… to anyone.

You know the psychology, because adults employ it too. “I have this friend…” I have an uncle, an M.D., who wishes he had a handpuppet he could reach around a corner to “talk” him out of unwanted social engagements or other obligations. I wish I’d thought to use something like that in lieu of some of the disastrous notes and letters I’ve committed to paper in my time.

Aesop’s fables, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, all of these have endured because of the simple, but potent lessons they deliver peoplekind. But unlike the too-personal (and hum-drum) lecture, they’re more powerful because they offer them in an easily understandable, digestible package with characters with whom we can identify. You can’t beat the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf for a lesson about lying, and how destroying your credibility can put you at great peril.

Even Dr. Seuss delivers sweet, simple morality in Horton Hears a Who, as suggested by Allison Bruce in a recent column in the Ventura County Star, with its message of respect. (“A person’s a person know matter how small.”) The Lorax is another, more overt morality tale about wastefulness, and preserving nature.

I don’t personally like the preachy, simplistic and over-obvious moral lessons like those depicted in the Berenstain Bears series. I may be in for some indignant e-mail, but I find nothing original, or memorable, about them — they always strike me as if the authors just said, “Hey! What about…” and jotted down the story in about 15 minutes.

Sure, it’s good to warn children about overeating, not being selfish, or caution against watching too much TV. So give me Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory any day (remember Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teevee? They also met far more satisfactory ends, and I think that message is driven home much more clearly than with a tidy little lecture from Mama or Papa Bear-Berenstain).

I’m glad I caught Bruce’s column and her suggestion of Jacqueline Golding’s guide Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big & Small Changes in a Child’s Life, now available in the Magic Bookshelf store. Golding lists high-quality books as conversation starters for problems and issues children may encounter.

I think there’s nothing like a story to bring a lesson to vivid and constructive life, and to also let us know we’re not alone in our troubles, that many, many others have gone before us and shared our problems.

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