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.

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