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Empty Shelves for Gifted Readers

This article was originally published on the Write4Kids industry blog. I was inspired to republish it (since it has dropped off their blog in recent times) by this notice in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin ( “There is a lack of age appropriate books for elementary children who read at a higher level than their grade… The only fiction available for their reading level are young adult books and the middle/high school subject matter is not appropriate for younger readers.” What I said a few years ago!

Most parents wonder how to get their kids to read more.

In our house, we had to have a penalty for unbridled reading! We’d send our son to his room to get dressed, and twenty minutes later we’d find him on the floor, pants half on, reading. He’d read anything he could get his hands on. He’d probably have starved if I didn’t physically take his book away at lunchtime.

Green glass sea

This is a lovely book for aspiring girl scientists—or any girl who doesn’t fit in.

Though voracious readers like my son aren’t the majority, there are many. Enough, in fact, that their parents find each other online to ask the same question, over and over:

What should I do? My child has run out of books!

Specifically, at two points in these readers’ young lives, there is a dearth of books aimed at high reading capacity but lower social/emotional development. I’ll use my son as an example.

Most, though not all, gifted readers start young. My son didn’t start young; he started to read at the boringly average age of 6 3/4. But unlike the other kids in his first-grade class, he didn’t slowly progress from ABC books to early readers to chapter books. In October, he was still pronouncing “the” as “tuh-HUH.” In November, he was reading anything he got his hands on.

The problem was, he was still six, and an emotionally young six at that. He blew through all the classic children’s repertoire in about a year. I remember my gratitude upon finding that there were over 30 books in the Oz series.

The advice we got from other parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers was almost always off. Sure, Dick King-Smith books are adorable, but a kid like this can eat one up in half an hour. Harry Potter started out a boy, and the early books were just on the edge of too scary, but as Harry ages, the books get more terrifying to a young psyche and further from her experiences.

What these kids need is good, thick books with compelling storylines, rich vocabulary, and little-to-no violence. Writers could look to the past for models: White, Baum, and Wilder got these kids.

Somehow, we got our son through this period. We thought it would be smooth sailing till one day in the library he said, “I’ve read everything here.”

It was true, sort of. He’d read every possible book that wasn’t aimed at young adults. He was now going on 11, and entering that period of human development when all kids become more sensitive. Correspondingly, highly sensitive kids experience a fearful change in themselves and in the world around them.

And so I turned to my friends online again, and found out that once again, our kids were in synch. Though some of their kids had graduated to YA fiction with no problem, many of them tried it and responded like my son, with nightmares, repulsion, or just plain boredom.

Once again, my son needed more depth, more breadth, bigger stories and bigger conundrums. But he did not need more things to make him feel fearful, awkward, and uncertain. As an adolescent, he had enough of that racing around with his hormones.

A great lover of kids’ fantasy, he couldn’t take YA fantasy with its violent imagery and scary plotlines. As an emotionally young 11-year-old, he had no interest in the teen emotional world. He had read all the older classics for middle grades years before.

Though some of these kids can just skip straight into adult classics, my son found them difficult. (Also, when I read Oliver Twist out loud to him, I remembered that even nineteenth-century writers can’t be trusted not to include a horrific, vividly described murder scene!)

Some books that we have found to work really well for him include the Mysterious Benedict Society series, Carl Hiaason’s books, and Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series (which is, like early Harry Potter, just on the edge of too much graphic violence).

Writers could fill this hole with more books that offer the exciting plots, highly imaginative worlds, and character complexity of the best YA fiction, combined with a slightly safer world view, less visually stimulating violence, and no need for teen-level understanding of interpersonal relationships.

One of the common reactions of writers and readers of fiction who read this request is, “Well, fiction is all about conflict, so you can’t ask us to take out conflict.” And of course, that’s not at all what’s being proposed.

Instead, I ask writers to reconsider how the recent acceptance in our culture of the violence in visual media has affected their writing, and more importantly, their perceptions of “what YA readers want.” I suspect that my gifted readers aren’t the only ones turned off by the, frankly, stomach-turning and heart-wrenching violence in many YA books.

Recently, my son, 7-year-old daughter, and I listened to the audiobook of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn in our car. It was so gripping that when we got near the end of the book, we sat in the car for a while and then finally I said, “OK, I’ll pop the CD and play it inside.” We just couldn’t put that book down.

The book turned out to be a perfect example of what we’ve been looking for: Though there is plenty of sexual yearning and a good measure of violence in the book, it was written with the slower pacing and moral footing of the Victorian fiction it was modeling.

The kids were fully able to ignore the romance, and the violence was never gratuitous. When one of the three main characters is killed, his death is properly mourned and relates to the theme of the novel. (Unfortunately, the second book in the series, with its creepier villains, frozen dead bodies, and weird flying squids, was way too much for my son and gave him nightmares.)

For both the age-groups I’m concerned with, modern fiction has done a great job of filling in the holes left in the classics for struggling readers: books that offer ease of reading and more excitement, books that take cues from visual media, books designed to tempt kids away from other pursuits.

But for the gifted reader, the library is shrinking. As the classics recede further into the past, and thus further from our kids’ experiences and language, very little is taking their place. The child who dashes through easy readers at the age of four can finish the whole of English language children’s literature by nine or ten. And the child who has done that might just have to skip to adult classics to fill the hours of reading she yearns for.

Gifted readers, especially adolescents, want to read current fiction just like their peers. Writers were often gifted readers themselves; perhaps they can channel that hunger they had for meaty, compelling, but not too scary books, and offer them up for their future biggest fans.

Visit my book lists for gifted readers:


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3 Responses

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  1. Cait @ My Little Poppies says

    He could be my son, only older. I just had to read aloud to my husband the line about getting lost up in his room with pants half on, and starving if not eating. Love it! Thank you for recommending these titles. We’ve surpassed our children’s room at the library and we are always looking for more 🙂

  2. Marcy says

    I am struggling with this with my son. He is 6 1/2 and in first grade. He is a very young and immature 6yo and definitely can’t handle mature themes or anything scary. He is supposed to be reading AR books between level 6.0 and 6.9 right now and it is unbelievably hard. Even the non-fiction books assume a level of maturity and knowledge about the world that he doesn’t have. He was reading a book about exploring the arctic and had to stop to ask me, “What is World War I?” I really didn’t want to explain about wars to my innocent and naive boy whose idea of war is Lord Garmadon fighting the Ninjas in Ninjago.

  3. Suki says

    Hi Marcy, It’s really hard when a child has asynchronous development like this. Both of my kids had their own versions at this age, which is why I made this list. I would suggest, first of all, that you answer his questions in a straightforward way without too many details. For example, war is pretty much impossible to ignore in this world, so keeping him from knowing about it will just mean he’ll find out some other way. So when he asks a question like that, you can consider it your chance to plant the answer you’d like him to hear rather than letting some other adult, child, or book tell him. Most kids don’t ask for details they aren’t ready to hear, so something simple like, “That was a really big war a hundred years ago in which many countries fought each other” is probably sufficient. You can even put a positive spin on it by saying something like “since then the United Nations was formed to try to deal with problems between countries.” As far as reading material goes, it might be hard to find nonfiction that doesn’t have some strong content. Most famous people, for example, went through something awful. So you should probably preread if you know there are certain topics that upset him. I hope the list above helps with his fiction reading! Good luck, Suki

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