Books for confident readers, 5 yrs and up

[Disclaimer: this post is not a value judgement on children from whatever circumstances who are not reading at this level at this age. It’s not that children should be doing this, it’s just that these ones are; this is just a response to my own experience of trying to find the right level of book for a number of children aged 5-6 over the past year, and, through that process, finding that modern books for children seem much easier than books aimed at the same ages in the past. I’m also trying to find my way to books they might read once they’re in Year 2 (and 3).]

Children who are confident readers at a young age have probably always tended to find that the books that are written for their age group are way too easy and therefore dull, while the books that actually get their minds working are too old for them from the point of view of emotional maturity.

However (take that, Mr. Gove) as a rule of thumb, from what I’ve seen so far, modern books aimed at, say, 8-9 year olds seem at least two or three reading years’ easier than older books (ie pre-1970s-ish) aimed at the same age. The characters in Beast Quest and Jack Stalwart are very similar in age to the Famous Five or the children in the Narnia books, yet the font size, length of text and complexity of plot are miles apart. I imagine there are all sorts of reasons for this, but it means that for children with a high relative reading age, the disparity is even greater than in the past it might have been, and modern age-appropriate books that actually give them a challenge seem harder to find.

That is, if you are a 6-year-old with a reading age of 9 or10 (for instance), the modern books of the right reading level will be aimed approximately at 12 year olds, and therefore be a bit bemusing. Since there’s a deluge of newly-published children’s books to wade through every year, it can be difficult to find a path through it all.

I’ve estimated that the more modern books listed below are readable in an hour or two by the children I’m talking about. The books are not challenging to them in terms of difficulty, but they do enjoy them (which is at least part of the point…). A major aspect of the speed with which may of these children are reading, though, is the cost, and the importance of libraries and of schools having a decent book budget – buying them all at £8.99 or so is not an option when they’ll go through four or five a week at least during term, given the chance, and more in the holidays.

A Blyton or longer Dahl, by contrast, can often work well spread over a couple of weeks, and have more in it to discuss.

A lot of the things in the list will be familiar, but what I’m hoping to do is collect other suggestions as well and include those in the future. Any ideas welcome.

NB I’ve had some people suggest Michael Morpurgo, but ours just aren’t keen yet. No monsters (all-important at the moment), and the books of his with the right level of vocabulary etc seem just too emotionally advanced for them. It’s a tricky balance. UPDATE: One has just expressed an interest in a MM book. We’ll see how it goes.

Our next books will be some E. Nesbit, so I’ll add some notes on those as we go.

Anyway. The list so far is pretty short, just a drop in the ocean, but here it is. I hope it will grow. I’ve divided it into three sections:

1. Right level, some old-fashioned content; 2. OK content,  more modern books; and 3. Other Solutions. (Our own ranking at the moment is based on the number and kind of monsters, but that’s just us.) I suppose I’m trying to do two things – find some good books, and start to understand why the current situation has arisen (and whether the situation is what I think it is).

1. Right level, some old-fashioned content

Anything by Roald Dahl

Dahl is an obvious choice – but some children find some of his writing just too spooky when they’re 6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory goes down well though. Some aspects of the books are showing their age. But he’s brilliant, basically irreplaceable and a lot of it is timelessly surreal.

Anything by Enid Blyton

Great in terms of level in many ways – no complex character motivations – but there’s always the problem with old-fashioned attitudes to women and to class. I think most people remember how Anne is treated in the Famous Five – but rereading recently I’ve also noticed the assumed superiority of the children over the servants – as well as the fact that there are servants at all, and that their speech is represented as inferior via phonetic spellings rather than the normal ones. So, again, explanations often needed – a middle-class readership, and certain out-of-date attitudes on their part, are assumed.

Anything by Arthur Ransome

One boy I know, now in Year 2, has been reading these avidly since the end of Year 1, and adores them; I loved them too, but I haven’t tried mine on them yet, the lack of monsters currently being a barrier. Again, though, there’s the problem that it’s not set in the same world that modern children inhabit, even middle-class rural ones like ours.

The Narnia series

Also brilliant, obviously, but also assuming post-war-era middle-class knowledge.

Any suggestions as to recently-published books of this sort of reading level, with this kind of depth, would be very gratefully received.

2. OK content, more modern books

The major problem is that they’re mostly so short, but I’m including them because somebody, somewhere, has loved them. I’m sure there are hundreds, possibly thousands of others in this category – Horrid Henry etc….

Greek Beasts and Heroes – Lucy Coats

A collection of very short books, each a very quick read for children reading at this level – but they’re getting some deep culture in a beautifully presented and appealing form – stories which will underpin all sorts of later reading (including J. K. Rowling, and, you know, Shakespeare…). Nice little books with lovely pictures – good for stretching the imagination. Lots of monsters.

Beast Quest, Sea Quest, etc.

Again, a quick read though longer than the above; lots of monsters, very pulp fiction really, but well done of its kind – lots of dialogue, lots of use of syntax, punctuation etc to create a sense of action in the descriptions. No depth to speak of, but lots of Adventures. Male central character, male viewpoint, but the girls aren’t silly and actually get to do stuff, which is something. One of my boys says there are some tricky words once in a while.

Dinosaur Cove

Lovely books, modelled on Beast Quest but with some paleontology for good measure and less fighting. Shorter & easier than BQ, and with entirely male protagonists, which is unnecessary. I wish OUP would produce some longer more challenging DCs with some girls in! They’re apparently aimed at 8-9 year olds, but they’re too easy for the confident Year 1 readers I know, who were whizzing through them early in the school year. The less confident but capable ones are motoring through them and similar at the moment (ie end of Year 1, mostly 6 year olds, some are still 5).

Rainbow Fairies

Argh. Some of the girls love these as initial chapter books, and whizz through them. Female point of view, obviously, but it’s all a bit Lego Friends for my liking. Luckily they mostly seem to get bored after 5 or 6 of them(!) and move on to Dahl and Blyton.

Jack Stalwart

Very similar level to Rainbow Fairies, very Boy Boy Boy; a smidgeon below Beast Quest in terms of difficulty. No depth, and, again, male protagonist. But fun if you like that sort of thing.

Anything by John Dougherty

Completely crazy – readable in an hour or two, but lots to spark the imagination after the book is finished. Good creative stuff, but so short!

The Worst Witch series

Similar to Beast Quest in level, but female protagonists. A wry sense of humour, but very boarding-school plotlines: the Harry Potter books owe a lot to these in terms of atmosphere and setting, though these are far less spooky, scary or complex. Very un-pink.

Dick King-Smith

His books aren’t massively long, but there’s a wryness, a craziness, a love of his characters, which creates depth. I like them. More to them than meets the eye.

3. Other Solutions

Comics, graphic novels, stories derived from these

Tintin a big favourite with some; DC Comics do a series of short ‘Super Heroes’ chapter books (again, an hour’s read at most, but great for kids who are into that stuff); the Phoenix Comic (a weekly comic with beautiful and very cool comic art, a range of levels of story, no advertisements, no weirdly oversexualized ladies…)

Horrible Histories

They like to dip in and out of these. Not for the squeamish child, though…

Usborne Beginners, Lift-the-flap reference books, etc

I’ve just recommended these for a confident reader in Foundation – the Beginners are book band 9+, beautifully illustrated, lots to think about. The Usborne non-fiction stuff is great, and I’ve found our two come back to them and get different things out of them at different stages.

Branded encyclopedias of Lego, etc.

Not a fan of tie-ins really, but our kids and their friends just love this stuff and will pore over them for hours together. They’re learning about reference books, too, and hierarchies of information, in spite of the made-up-ness of the ‘facts’. Great, actually, for feeding into complicated imaginative games in the playground.

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