Last weekend at the SCBWI retreat, I got a chance to spend some quality time with KM Lockwood aka Philippa Francis MA. It was wonderful to finally have a proper conversation, at all the writing events, Philippa is one of those people always roaring past with great purpose. She's also SO on the brink of publication, it ain't funny - longlisted for the Times/Chickenhouse competiton and shortlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition!
We were talking about a school I'd visited that day, where I met Year Fives and Sixes who were clearly reading way above their alleged reading age. The teacher told me it was a struggle to find books of the right level that were appropriate for their emotional ages. So many teen books had relationship, love, sex elements that were not appropriate for these young readers. Are authors missing a trick? Was there a gap in the market for more difficult books aimed at a younger audience? Philippa decided to go off and do a survey. Here's her report.
Despite a wonderful school librarian, one of the hardest things was finding enough interesting books to satisfy our most voracious young readers. I spoke to other GATCOs and they had the same problem.
The chief difficulty was finding challenging texts at their emotional level. We had children who understood subtext, coped with complex syntax and took tricky vocabulary in their stride. But what they didn’t want or enjoy was watered-down teen books.
I would scour second-hand bookshops for fiction from earlier decades – but of course, that was often dated. Reprints could be handy – but we generally felt there was not enough for bright young readers that we could honestly recommend – especially to parents.
Now this was a decade ago.
Have things changed, I wondered? Anecdotal evidence from Amazon discussions suggests not – though there may be some parental boasting going on.
I like data – so I sent out a random survey. The responses, though not numerous, were very interesting.
First statementWhen looking for new fiction for high ability young readers
• 26 of the 54: it is easy to find interesting books that suit the emotional age of the reader
• 28 of the 54: it is hard to find interesting books that suit the emotional age of the reader
Second statementFiction targeted at older children and teens...
19 of the 54: is suitable for high ability younger readers
35 of the 54: is unsuitable for high ability younger readers
The respondents were so hugely positive one wonders if there's a Golden Age going on. Here are some of their comments:
• ...a lot of young people's books have surprisingly sophisticated emotional content
• I find there to be MUCH more material available now, than there was then.
• ...amazing writing being published for all ages/ abilities in children's fiction at present... I'd say there has never been more choice.
Although there were concerns expressed ...
• There are some not very nice themes out there for children. Thankfully I have a bookcase full of the faithful old books my mum read as a child!
• Absolutely relate to this! Have a six year-old who is reading voraciously. Reading schemes at school can't serve her as the contexts in the higher levels are beyond her knowledge.
• Too much hanky-panky in YA books these days - not suitable for younger readers, however clever they may be.
• Contemp stuff often rude / violent 12 plus. And hard to vet all in advance. In fact, impossible, as they are borrowing from school library and parents lose control.
And sometimes, it seems the parent/gatekeeper will just have to trust the young reader's judgement ...
• However much I suggest books, usually my high ability reader daughter wants to choose them herself and actively disregards my choices.
• I've found a wide variety of interesting books that suit high ability young readers, as long as their parents aren't concerned with censoring the content. I find most high ability readers also have a degree of emotional maturity that allows them to take on more mature stories.
• I think such readers are intelligent enough to find a book that works for them, and are able to draw their own lines
I find most high ability readers also have a degree of emotional maturity that allows them to take on more mature stories.
FinallyIt only remains for me to point out the breakdown of who answered –
18 Other [teachers and authors]
... and to say a heartfelt thank you to all my respondents.
Philippa R. Francis MA
So there you have it (even if it was an exceedingly random sample. As an author, I'm curious to find out if publishers have identified this need for age appropriate books for age-inappropriate reading levels. It goes the other way too. My good friend who teaches in special needs tells me of a gap in age-appropriate fiction for young people with learning disabilities - thrillers, adventures, romances - the hunger for story is there but there isn't a lot of fiction to access. Thank goodness for publishers like Barrington Stoke who specialise in books for reluctant, struggling and dyslexic readers. With thanks to Philippa and her respondentsfor the impromptu survey! Candy Gourlay