I was an avid reader growing up. I consistently tested several grade-levels above my age bracket, and left teachers puzzled as to what to hand me next. In fact, my first exposure to Dickens came from a ninth grade teacher who was running out of books to challenge me with and resorted to raiding the “bookroom” in my high school where the class sets were kept. As a strong reader, my mom had to be particularly diligent in checking the content of whatever books I brought home, checking to make sure that the subject wasn’t beyond my understanding. Not to say that reading about teen experiences as a kid would cause me specific harm, but my mom firmly believed that there was plenty of time for me to read about those experiences when they were closer at hand, and I could fully understand what I was reading about. In other words, just because your seven-year-old can read Forever, do you really want her to? As someone who was a pretty sheltered and innocent kid, I can tell you that I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the book’s true message, eventhough I certainly would have been able to tell you what it was about.
In fact, the ability to discern meaning from text is a skill that teachers are placing a growing emphasis on, and they are realizing that many kids, while able to read the words on the page, and recite the plot doesn’t actually reflect whether or not they truly comprehended what they are reading. (This is personally why I object to any kind of test that involves quizzing kids on minute details that even I don’t remember after I’ve read the book.)
So how do you solve the problem of finding material for the advanced reader? One way is by reading up.
It is a generally understood that kids like to read about characters who are older then themselves. When I started bookselling, a seasoned indsutry vetran explained the three year rule, which works well for advanced readers. A three year gap is a small-enough gap that the situations (more so in realistic fiction) don’t too far exceed the experience of the reader, and the content isn’t too mature. When I make shelving decisions for my teen novels, I usually go by the three year rule to make the divide. Characters 16+ go in the true teen, while characters 15- go in the tween area. There are obvious exceptions to this and it isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a guidline.
Another suggestion is to look for what I call, “Books that Make You Go Hmm….” Size can be deceiving. Skinny doesn’t mean fluffy or easy necessarily. It’s taken me longer to read some 100 page books than some 500 page books when the content was more challenging. A couple of years ago I read a fabulous dystopian novel called Genesis by New Zealand author Bernard Beckett. It’s a philisophical discussion about thought, consciousness, and intelligence that will keep you guessing and give you lots to think about. It’s an adult book that works for sophisticated teen readers, and it’s only 144 pages long!
Lastly, when in doubt, go for a classic! Some of you may think that classics are old and boring books that teachers assign in school, but they endure for a reason! Not all of them do resonate with modern readers, but the language and the writing style can challenge a reader, and won’t be as content heavy as some of their modern contemporaries. Love fantasy? Try Edward Eager or E. Nesbit- both of whom are credited by J.K. Rowling as influences. Several of Charles Dickens’ books featured children as main characters, and while I found some of the description a bit tedious at 14 when I was reading them, (he did afterall get paid by the word) I was engaged by his characters, and found the challenge I needed.
How many of you are or know an advanced reader? What kinds of solutions have you come up with to challenge yourself in your reading?