How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers

How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers remains the most read post on my blog since I wrote it in 2012. Because of this, I have cleaned up this post, tightened the writing and added in any pertinent information that has come about since it originally ran. When I first started in August of 2008, I was scrambling for content, finding my purpose and my voice and not always doing my best writing. How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers was one of the first articles I wrote and, as a bookseller and a book reviewer, and now as an elementary school librarian where I have gone from working with kids reading well beyond their grade level to kids reading well below, this philosophy remains my organizing principle and central focus when reading and recommending books to parents and children. 

In the interest of my mission and the attention this article continues to receive, I have updated and expanded this article and included a guide to using and the labels to find books for your kids. Understandably, not all parents have time to pre-read books before giving them to their children and not all parents have time to peruse the reviews on my blog to find just the right book. With this in mind, I am offering my experience and expertise in compiling a personalized reading list for your child for a nominal fee. Click on the link for more details and customer feedback about lists I have created for their children, or please email me at

Often, I encounter children who read beyond their grade level.  If it is only one or two grades higher, there usually isn't much of a problem finding suitable books. But, if your seven year old (and I am going to use this age as a reference point throughout this article) is reading at a 5th grade level, you may not want them reading a book about a utopian community that practices euthanasia (The Giver by Lois Lowry, a phenomenal book) or a girl who decides to shave her legs because her classmates are teasing her (The Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, another fantastic book.) These guidelines should help you find good books that are engaging and also challenging to your reader.

But, before I start I would like to encourage all parents and guardians of the gateway to books for kids to PLEASE never stop or discourage a young reader from picking up a book that you perceive as being "too easy," "below your reading level," etc. If you are buying a book and money is an issue, of course you want to get your money's worth and buy something that your bookivore will not tear through in a day. However, judging a book's reading level or appropriateness by its page count or the number of illustrations it contains can eliminate many wonderful books that you and your child should experience. In light of this, I have a label in my reviews titled short books - BIG IDEAS I hope you will consider.

The Fear Factor: When choosing a book for any reader, but especially an advanced reader, it is important to know your reader's sensitivities. It is very important to know what in a book frightens or causes anxiety in your child, if anything. One day at when I was a bookseller, I met a parent with a high reader who, despite the fact that he had seen the Harry Potter movies, wasn't allowed to read the books - just yet - because his mother knew that he had a very vivid imagination and would be much more troubled by the written word (and the pictures his created in his own mind) than the movie. I had another customer tell me that her son, sensitive to violence and bullying, refused to read a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book because the cover showed one boy pushing another. These reasons make sense and it is important to listen to your children when they express a pointed opinion about a book. With fantasy being such a popular genre, as well as the generally high level of societally accepted violence in the media - tv, movies, electronic games - most children are not troubled by much that they read. 

If you do think your child may be sensitive to the content of a book, here is a pretty good rule of thumb for determining an appropriate read: Books written in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, as well as the mystery genre, tend to have suspense as a major plot point. To put it bluntly, this means a specific villain who is trying to harm the protagonist. If you consider a fantasy (by nature of the fact that elements of the plot could never happen despite the fact that there is no magic in the story) book series like Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, Pseudonymous Bosch's Secret Series or Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society Series, the villains will be a bit more slapstick and kooky than Voldemort-y. 

Outside of the fantasy genre, children's books based in reality, whether historical or set in present day, will not necessarily have a clear-cut villain out to get the protagonist and therefore the level of suspense will be minimal if at all. Reality based books most often center on plot points like an annoying little brother, a mean teacher or peer or maybe a divorce or death. These aspects will also be clearly indicated in the blurb on the back of the book. 

The Maturity Factor: Another thing to consider with advanced readers is the maturity and the comprehension level of the child. A seven year old reading at a 5th grade level may be able to read Anne of Green Gables or The Golden Compass and enjoy the story but miss out on the emotional nuances, relationships between the characters and beauty of the writing.  In other words, a 7 year old is probably just reading for the plot, which isn't a bad thing, but Anne of Green Gables and  The Golden Compass are such wonderfully written books, I wouldn't want my child missing out on any of that layered complexities just because they can handle the vocabulary. A good rule of thumb is to try to determine the age/grade of the main character. This can usually be done by reading the back or skimming a few pages. Try to keep your advanced reader from reading a book about a character who is more than 2 grade levels/years older than your child, especially if your reader is a girl, which leads me to...

The Age Factor: On the whole, this is predominately an issue for advanced young readers who are girls because, at a certain age, social interactions become a major plot point in reality based fiction, whether it is mean girls, crushes on boys, sassy language or other things you may not wish to expose your seven year old to and things that a high reading seven-year-old boy will, in many cases, have absolutely no interest in. A good rule of thumb for an advanced young reader who is a girl is to stay away of reality based fiction for a couple of years unless you plan to pre-read the books or read (my) reviews. Even Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Beverly Cleary's Ramona books might bring up issues you are not ready to discuss with your young child. Exceptions to this rule are any books written before 1960 like Ginger Pye, Newbery winner from Eleanor Estes, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Besty-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Also, newer books that are set in the past, such as Mary Ann Hoberman's superb Strawberry Hill, tend to be appropriate, but be sure to read the synopsis to ensure there are no potentially disturbing historical aspects to the book.

The Animal Factor: Animals in books can be a tricky proposition, but the cover art should help you sort things out fairly well. Most books with animals as main characters that are set in the real world involve some kind of sadness, mistreatment and occasionally the death of an animal. Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, The Black Stallion and more recently books like Hurt Go Happy, The One and Only Ivan, A Dog's Life, and Exiled are good examples of this type of animal story. Epic animal stories (in which animals are anthropomorphized) along the lines of Watership Down, Redwall, Mistmantle, Neversink and Erin Hunter's Warriors series are guaranteed to feature battles between creatures, suspense, villainy and death and you should consider your young reader's sensitivity level when choosing a book from this genre.

There are books with anthropomorphized animals as main characters that are not filled with (as much) suspense and peril as the books listed above. Rabbit Hill and Mrs and Mrs Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire are two that are perfect for high reading seven year olds for their heart, humor and wonderful stories. The "50+ years old" rule for books, as mentioned above, usually applies to animal stories as well. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry are good examples. Also, a new series that I have yet to review but is selling like hot cakes is Catherine Hapka's Horse Diaries Series. Each book is narrated by a horse from a different time period and breed and is written at roughly a third grade level.

How to Use 
to find good books for your advanced reader:

As an avid reader of children's literature, mother of three, children's bookseller for seventeen years, and elementary school librarian, I have found that assigned reading levels, whether it be by publishers on the backs of books, by companies like Renaissance Learning who develop literature comprehension tests for kids to take in the classroom or by academics like Lexile Framework, aren't always accurate or specifically helpful to your reader. Because of this, I developed my own method for judging the reading level (but not the appropriateness) of a book. You can read about my method in an article I wrote, Reading Levels.

However, if you are the parent of an advanced reader, reading levels are almost irrelevant. Instead of using the label of "reading level" to search for books for your reader, I suggest you use the "genres" search and sort through the titles, then using the reading level (assigned by me) to choose books. When I assign a book a 5th grade reading level or higher, it is generally because of content and/or complex ideas that might be lost on a younger reader, regardless of reading ability and comprehension skills. If I have classified a book as "middle grade" or "teen," it is specifically because of content, which can range from romance to death of a parent to genocide, animal abuse or puberty related issues.

Or, like I said above, you can always email me and I'll be happy to put together a list of titles and links to reviews, mine or those of others, depending on the need.

PS - Those are my three "advanced readers" with their favorites, from Tashi to Harry Potter to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, circa 2009.


Jeremy said…
Great tips, very helpful. We're running into these exact challenges right now with a seven-year-old daughter who reads at a very high level. She adores Harry Potter, but we're reluctant to fill her young mind with all of that dark imagery. And many of the series we see in the library are aimed at older kids with a lower reading level, and concerns she doesn't share...the quality of many of them seem terrible, too.
Anonymous said…
Hello, i enjoyed your blurb above, but i have a question.
I am currently writing an essay about how parents unintentionally retard the psychological development and overall learning rate of their children though their teaching practices (such as early age learning programs, and "advanced readers" community.)
So i guess my question is: Is a child who can read and generally understand the meaning of a larger word truly an advanced reader, if he or she is incapable of managing themes and ideas that are targeted (usually) for older children or teens?
And if so, what is then the whole point of advancing a child's reading curve(for lack of a better word) if they are still bound to the literature of their own age group?
I would very much appreciate a response.
Aneurin V.
Tanya said…
As a parent and children's book seller I really wonder about this myself. I can't tell you how many times a day a parent comes into the bookstore where I work looking for a book for their child who is in (fill in the blank) grade but reads at (fill in the blank with at least 2 - 3 grades higher). I know that this can't be true and I also know that, based on the children's books that I read, the books that are at a higher level (5+ maybe) these kids are not getting all of the themes and ideas in the text. I try to find tactful ways to steer the parents & kids to more appropriate books, but it's hard to fight the system.

I think that we are a numbers oriented, competitive society and all parents focus on are the test scores from computer generated programs that tell them the supposed reading level their child is functioning at. I think that these numbers can't possibly reflect higher level thinking and comprehension. And, as the parent of a child who has not learned to read yet (my youngest of three is 4 1/2 and we are not pushing him to learn to read, let alone letter recognition) I feel a little worried for my son. I was just talking to a parent of a kindergardener while at work and he was telling me that his child is being tested on problem solving and logic and is graded for it on his report card. This is in public school. I think that we have become a fat and lazy society and we are pushing our kids to make up for this in very misguided ways.

Sorry for my rant. This is something I think about often and I would very much like to read your essay .

Thanks for your input
Jeremy said…
Sorry aneurinv, but it sounds like you've already made up your mind based on several flawed assumptions and a pretty sketchy hypothesis. And Tanya, surely you know that there are many kids who do read 2-3 (or more) grade levels above their age -- gifted programs across the continent are full of them, and many others who have never been officially tested or identified as gifted, but love to read.

Isn't it obvious that there's a spectrum of reading abilities at every age, and that "reading level" by definition includes measures of comprehension (not just recognizing words)? It's also obvious that the content (but not the reading level) of books targeted at teens may be inappropriate for younger readers.

So the goal for the people supporting younger readers (parents, librarians, booksellers) is be to find books for all young readers that are challenging, interesting and appropriate for each individual -- and those books exist for all readers, regardless of how advanced they are. It's just more difficult to find matches when the ability is much higher than (or below) normal.

But it's a massive (and absurd) leap to then assume that parents who work hard to find appropriate and challenging reading material for their advanced younger readers are somehow retarding their kids' "psychological development and overall learning rate". How exactly could reading lots of exciting, appropriate, challenging stories set these kids back?

When so many kids are struggling with literacy, and setting themselves up for less success in their lives as a result, it seems disingenuous to try to find fault with the kids (and their parents) who are most engaged in taking responsibility for their own literacy.
Tanya said…
Jeremy, I agree with everything you said, but you are also the fortunate parent of an advanced, very gifted reader who has the benefit of enormous amounts of parental care and attention when it comes to literature (and everything else, I'm sure.)

I guess my attitude comes from the perspective of book seller who is also a parent. Maybe one out of 10 parents I encounter cares as much as you do about what their children read. And, out of that 10%, even less read what their kids read and are enthusiastic about it. That leaves most kids to sink to the lowest common denominator, which is usually what is most popular and/or what there are the most copies of on the shelf. Kids I see also want to read what their friends/classmates are reading, which is also usually what there is the most of.

I think really, though, Aneurinv's question is more about kids reading books beyond their comprehension abilities and/or reading books with themes that are too mature for him/her all in the service of advancing the reading curve. Since I think based on what I see leaving the shelves, most kids are not being challenged or challenging themselves, it's not an issue on the ground floor, so to speak.

Are we then talking about an 8 year old of average reading ability who goes to the movies and then wants to read Pullman's incredible "Golden Compass?" Yes, this kid will be way out of his/her zone of ability and comprehension and may not finish the book. In my experience, the books with important, mature themes and nuanced characters and plots (like "Savvy," like "Enola Holmes," like "Tunnels") are not the books that the average kid gravitates to. And, a series like "Harry Potter," while not as well written and masterful as Pullman's trilogy, works on many levels and can be read by kids of varying abilities and be consumed happily and maybe re-read at a later time.

A book like "Twilight," which I have read, might be a better example of a book with themes for older kids/teens that is being consumed by young kids who really shouldn't be reading it. I have read the book and it is not very complex or well written and the average 10-12 year old who reads is might miss some of the themes, but they are goofy, fairy-tale romance themes anyway.

Jeremy, maybe we both got our feathers ruffled for a question that is moot. As you have experienced, young children who are advanced/gifted readers who have parental/adult involvement can read books with advanced vocabulary and themes and comprehend what they are reading. In my experience, most of the books on the book store shelves, which are the ones that most kids I see shopping are reading (Warriors series, Rangers Apprentice Series, Judy Blume's Fudge books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) are not full of complex ideas and vocabulary and themes and therefore are not a challenge to kids being pushed to read harder books. And, of teen books that I see on the shelves, most do not contain complex themes, just mature, adult and therefore inappropriate for young readers, themes like drugs, sex, murder, death, anorexia, pregnancy, etc.

Aneurinv, I think you are focusing on e very individualistic, hard to determine aspect of reading - how the advanced reader manages themes and ideas beyond his/her maturity level. This seems like something that can only be determined by talking to the reader about the book or having the child write about what she/he has read. How many kids do this or have a parent/teacher who talks to them about the books they are reading? You have to have read the same book to really know what the reader is getting from it.

I used to lead a Newbery Book Group at the bookstore where I work. All the kids in the group were "advanced" and ages 8 - 11. Rarely did they hone in on the larger themes of what we read - Wrinkle in Time, The Westing Game, Johnny Tremaine.

Good luck answering this question!
Unknown said…
Thank you so much for what you do. I homeschool my three kiddos and value your reviews. We read a lot of older books. One my kiddos really liked was Gone Away Lake.
Tanya said…
Thanks so much for your kind words and for reading my blog! I will definitely seek out "Gone Away Lake."
Lydia Syson said…
I found this all fascinating, both your blog and the comments. I'm in England, where, certainly in the state sector, 'advanced' readers often seem to get little encouragement at school, phonics are in and reading for pleasure is sadly out. (I generalise, obviously...there are lots of people out there doing wonderful things to combat this.) I think your advice about going for older books for these children is absolutely spot on, as children's fiction written pre-1980 or so seems to have the complexity of language and plot to keep them absorbed and interested without straying into inappropriate or scary territory. One of the most valuable things my mother has done for my four children, all big readers, has simply been to preserve our childhood library intact so they can pick and choose from a huge range of classics and out of print books that I and my siblings can personally recommend!

I was particularly delighted to see 'Gone Away Lake' mentioned here as Elizabeth Enright was one of my favourite writers when I was a child and my daughter adored her just as much. Some older books definitely need more discussion with younger readers for other reasons, usually to do with race e.g. Laura Ingalls Wilder (another favourite - of my now 9 year old boy twins!) or Huckleberry Finn or the Doctor Doolittle series, but that's great too, and a wonderful opportunity. Other older authors my children love include E.Nesbit, KM Peyton, Joan Aiken, Arthur Ransome, Geraldine Symons, Eleanor Farjeon and yes, the two youngest both chose 'The Secret Garden' as their all time favourite book on World Book Day.

But this is all about pleasure! I'm not interested in 'advancing their reading curve' for the sake of it and all I do is read aloud to them and make sure they've got access to a wide choice of reading matter. Then it's up to them. I can't help bristling at the suggestion that children who love reading and gobble up books that many of their age aren't interested in are going to have their psychological development 'retarded' in some way. The more children read, the more mature they generally are, in my view, as they become aware of a much greater range of life experiences. It's not always about being competitive - it's about avoiding boredom and entering other worlds!
Tanya said…
Lydia - Thank you so much for your thoughtful, helpful comments. How wonderful that your mother kept your childhood library for her grandkids. This is a generalization, but I think that there is a much richer tradition of quality children's literature in the UK than in the US. I suspect I am older than you, but even if my mother had saved my library, it would be very small, and I was a voracious reader. Also, pre-Harry Potter, there were not as many kid's books by British authors being published here. It really is a fantastic time to be a young reader (or an old reader who likes kid's books...)

Thank you for mentioning authors, too!!! Joan Aiken was a childhood favorite of mine. Well, actually I didn't discover her til I was in high school and went on to read all her books. E Nesbit is fantastic as well. Have you heard of Edward Eager? He wrote in the 50s and cites Nesbit as a direct influence.

Finally - thank you so much for your words about reading out loud to your kids (even after they can read on their own) and making a wide range of literature choices available. In my own experience and from conversations with readers and customers at the bookstore where I work, that seems to be a key ingredient in growing a thoughtful, skilled, comprehensive reader who reads and explores for pleasure and knowledge, all of which translates into life, as you noted.

Thanks again for your thoughts - I wish I could find a way to fold them into my article!
Lydia Syson said…
Yes, Edward Eager remains another favourite - I love all his Nesbit references! And one of the lovely things about keeping a family library is seeing the names written in the mother or my aunt's childish writing, so now my children can occasionally tut at their grandmother's naughty colouring-in...
Tereza Crump said…
Tanya, I just found your blog as I was looking for a review on the book "Waiting for the Magic." My daughter who is 9 read it and immediately asked me for a dog! LOL

She is very creative; we homeschool and she reads a ton of books every month. She read the whole series of The Guardians of Ga'Hoole in the month of August. Although I know she didn't catch many of the subtle references to many social topics and issues in the book (because she is not aware of them yet), she still enjoyed the books because they were adventurous and involved animals.

I appreciate what you are doing here on your blog and I will be linking to it in my learning log for October so that other homeschooling parents can peruse your website too.

thank you again, :) Tereza
Tanya said…
Tereza - Thank you so much for reading my blog and sharing it with others! Readers like you daughter are the reason I started There are so many wonderful books out there, sometimes hard to find, and not all parents have time to research and pre-read books for their kids and hopefully I am helping find good books and assure parents of their quality and value. Actually, I also had home schoolers in mind when I started this blog. You have more freedom with your curriculum and you are often the parents of very talented readers!
Katyberry said…
This was fantastic - exactly the info that I was searching for. My 8yo is a good reader, but will read a stack of different books at once - something I put down to the fact that they are not very good books - those Rainbow Fairies and the like that all have the same essential plot!

I tried her on The Witches, but it was too scary for her, and so now she is reading an Australian Classic: Storm Boy. It is making her cry (and we haven't even got to the bit where the bird dies yet), but I do think that it is good for her to be exploring these slightly more complex scenarios. I just re-read the end, and I think I might sit with her as she reads it, because I know that she will just be devestated.
Tanya said…
@katyberry - You are very welcome! Glad to hear that you are pre-reading and reading with your daughter. Besides the wonderful bond reading together builds, it lets you be there for her for the tough bits, either ability-wise or emotionally.
Unknown said…
These comments just prove that there is no "one size fits all" answer to that question. I teach 8th grade Language Arts, and I never try to dissuade a student from reading any book of interest, unless it's too graphic. I think discouraging a young child from reading a classic because he or she might might miss out on character development, symbolism, or themes is silly. Across the country, 9th graders read To Kill a Mockingbird. I taught that book for several years, and I never met a student who was mature enough to fully appreciate that story. I still discover something new with every read. My own six year old daughter just finished Anne of green Gables and loved it. While I know that she missed out on some of Anne's wit and the beautiful language, she still LOVED the characters and the story. I know that she's developing a love for reading, and when she reads it AGAIN, she will understand it even more. There is no "right time" for a book. Stories take on different meaning depending upon when we read them in our lives. I like to encourage my students and children to re-read stories and see how they change.
Tanya said…
@Stephanie - Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree, somewhat grudgingly, with your stance on never discouraging a child from reading a book. As my youngest of three kids reaches the age when he is able to read books that me a lot to me, I see that there are often narrow windows for getting a book in a kid's hand at the right time. And that window may never open again. In light of that, of course let your six year old read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and enjoy it on whatever level she does! And, I have to agree with you about the mandatory reading of certain books in school despite the maturity and comprehension levels of the readers - there are some books that people should be made to experience. Ok. I'm sure that comment will upset a lot of people...
Tanya said…
This is a fantastic comment from a reader who couldn't get it to post, so I am sharing it for her:

I am so grateful for this article. As a homeschool mom, beginning my 20th year teaching my kids...or kid..since I only have one left of school age, I am asked often about what the children should read. I will use your article to add to my own counsel. My first two were advanced readers and we had some of the dilemmas you mentioned. Although, my seven year old son was able to understand the emotions of Heidi...I was surprised and happy when he emerged from his room upon finishing the book with it hugged to his chest and said, wistfully, "That was the best book I ever read!" Since now he reads what I would term as drivel, I am glad that some really valuable literature was stored in there at that ripe time when he was eager to read anything in print! I hope that people will not miss out on the Betsy-Tacy books, or the Shoe Books (Streatfeild), or the Pollyanna series, or Hitty: Her First Hundred Years or Caddie Woodlawn. Those are some good titles for advanced readers that will not compromise their delicate minds and souls. The Railway Children and all things E. Nesbit, too, should be considered. I could go on and on. Oops, I've gotten carried away, haven't I? Thanks again for your part in insuring that these great books are not forgotten in this predominantly techie society!

Thank you again!

~Ellen Keyes

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