Friday 24 May 2013

A gap in the market? Age appropriate fiction for high ability young readers

Philippa Francis
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.

I used to be a primary school teacher and and a GATCO or G and T co-ordinator (Editor's note: Gifted and Talented, not the other G and T!). How very appropriate, I hear you say, but really I looked after provision for children with gifts and talents – no ice or lemons involved. [I think all children have gifts and talents – but that’s another debate].

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 statement
When 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
Not a great deal in it from this small sample.

Second statement
Fiction 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

A somewhat different response – my tentative conclusion is that they felt there was enough range in pre-teen fiction – without having to ‘move on’ to teen and YA books.

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.


It only remains for me to point out the breakdown of who answered –

28 Parents
4 Booksellers
4 Librarians
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


  1. This is really interesting. I had a conversation with a reception class teacher about exactly this recently as regards bright 5 year olds. I do wonder however if, when talking about books for younger children, in addition to providing books with more text for gifted 5 year olds, teaching children how to read the images and truly appreciate picture books could be another tack. It does seem sad that being gifted and talented can also be associated with being 'too bright' for and moving on from picture books, instead of appreciating them as sophisticated texts in themselves. I have been a reading helper at a primary school, and I found that the more 'advanced' readers often seemed to lack a certain Joy in regard to reading - their parents were proud of their advanced abilities, but I didn't feel they were having as much fun with stories as some of the less 'advanced' five year olds. If we give them more and harder words, let's not forget the pictures, or remember to keep the pictures as they get older. I think the Claude books by Alex T Smith are really good, as both text and illustrations are satisfying on many levels.

    As regards gifted younger teens & appropriateness of content, I have found that sometimes, giving them classic books for adults like Jane Eyre is preferable to some more explicit modern books aimed at teenagers. There are still some great contemporary writers - Hilary Mackay springs to mind - who manage to write brilliant, non explicit but emotionally mature and funny and sophisticated books. I would like to see more.

    1. Thanks for the considered comment. I remember when I was a child (and one of those gifted readers), the books I read came from the era where there were glossy illustrated plates inserted into the pages, as well as black and white line drawings. I always started a book by turning to those images and staring and dreaming for some time before reading chapter one. Yes, please publishers, illustrations! Being a good reader doesn't mean you have to abandon all the magic that illustrations bring.

  2. Hi Philippa,
    I'm currently working with G & T groups in Years 6, 5 and four. I use a variety of approaches including looking at stories related to a theme or a range of picture books, especially those with more complex undertones eg. FARther. I find authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Tim Bowler, Sharon Creech, Mildred Taylor invaluable for the Year 6 children and also dip into the classics such as Carrie's War, Goodnight Mr Tom etc invaluable too.
    Interesting to hear from someone else doing G&T.
    Best wishes,

  3. My oldest and youngest children are six years apart and I don't know whether it's because I've become more 'plugged in' to the children's book market and so more actively seek new books for the youngest two, or there is more ago-appropriate but challenging material now available for younger readers, but I do feel it's become a little easier recently. But three out of four of mine have been really voracious readers of old family books - some of which were first read by their grandparents. I've found E.Nesbit particularly brilliant for offering a nuanced and entertaining read - always funny - and she luckily wrote prolifically. Outside the obvious classics like Ransome and Frances Hodgson Burnett, American writers such as Elizabeth Enright, Edward Eager (very Nesbit influenced) and of course the late lamented E L Konigsburg have proved enormously successful. (Funnily enough, my daughter was delighted to find a passage from 'Thimble Summer' - by Enright - when she did her SATS six years ago.)

    On the optimistic side, I do think we are entering another 'golden age' in children's publishing and I think the bigger problem is the strain so many primary schools are under in terms of testing regimes and austerity measures, and the impact that has on 'reading for pleasure' (as if there could be any other way of reading...), money for outside speakers etc. And of course the cuts to libraries, including school ones, if they're lucky enough at primary to have a well-functioning one in the first place.

    1. I LOVE E.L. Konigsberg even though her titles were out of this world.

  4. Thought provoking stuff, Philippa, thanks.

  5. I have a six year old who isn't a high ability reader but she likes having quite advanced books read to her and I really have no trouble finding them. She loved Howl's Moving Castle and all of Eva Ibbotson's ghost stories - she got all the jokes in all of them and actually laughed uproariously at them (I would say that emotionally she's sort of... don't know what the right words would be, sweetly naive, compared with her more sophisticated younger sister). We loved King of the Copper Mountains by Paul Biegel (a book I loved as a kid) and a couple of rarer non-series Enid Blytons - but had no trouble with them not being contemporary. While she loves reading Beast Quest herself, I'm heading for the Willard Price adventure books next and was delighted to discover Anthony McGowan had launched a new set of these with a female protagonist (Roger's daughter!). These are books I've enjoyed reading to her, so I think they would work for sophisticated children well beyond the age of six. Another series I read by myself and was nuts about was the Mysterious Benedict Society books, and I don't see why Roald Dahls don't fill this gap - none of them have very sophisticated emotions to decode. I honestly have nothing but optimism about her reading options and just hope she has enough time to fit it all in and stays as interested in reading as she is now.

    1. What a great list! My son transitioned to more difficult books via Willard Price and football series - I know the thrill of discovering something that works for your offspring!

  6. This was an interesting post. As a teacher of pre-teens to tweens, I find plenty of fiction for the broad center of the bell curve, but for the high achievers and the ones who are reluctant readers, there is a dearth of appropriate material. Fortunately, I love book sales and second hand stores, so I'm constantly on the look out for good novels for my classroom.

    1. My son's school book stall at their Xmas fair is a great resource for second hand, age appropriate books.

  7. This is actually really good news to me. I published a book in March which is categorized as Young Adult, but has middle grade (ages 9-12) appeal. The content is clean/innocent in comparison to a number of YA books, but as a YA it offers a bit more "depth" than the traditional middle grade book. I know the crossover market in the other direction is finding popularity--YAs crossing into adult via the "New Adult" category. Perhaps more attention will soon come for the other niches hungry for books, too :-)

  8. I work with teens, some of whom have just come up from primary school, and find that the best way with gifted readers is to just let them read what they want. As teacher-librarian I let the students help in choosing books for the library. My main problem is that while a good look around may help find books for gifted readers, very little age-appropriate stuff is being published for teenagers with low reading skills. I teach 16 year olds who are reading at Grade 2 level. Trying to find books for them is a nightmare. I have asked publishers at SCBWI events what they have for such teens and the response is a shrug and a "we don't do that" and "oh, yes, there's a need, but no market." So even if you write it, they won't buy it. Very short sighted! There is some, but not much. And what there is, is often not available on this side of the world, or it's out of print. In sheer despair, I have written my own, very basic stuff, tailored to our own students and reading program, but am seriously considering adapting some of my regular fiction or writing something that can be shared with other schools.

    On another note, yesterday we started Literature Circles as a two-class exercise and choosing the books to offer and deciding who got to read what and why was a fascinating and exhausting process. Kids reading at Grade 3 level wanting to read horribly difficult books. Advanced readers trying to choose simple, thin books. Advanced readers choosing an appropriate book, but not enough other advanced readers wanting it to allow it to run. It says something about the stories, which I told them about first, that some age appropriate were not reading appropriate. :)

    1. Someone on Twitter told me (1) this is not new (2) it's too small a need for the market to respond. I wonder if print on demand is the answer to this great need of a small number.


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