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‘Can I read this book, Mum?’ Helping your child choose age-appropriate reads

June 25, 2015

This article was inspired by a question posted on our facebook page by Lizzie D. Lizzie’s dilemma is a common one, so we asked our Children’s Specialist Liz Bray to talk us through some of the issues.

Lizzie’s question:
My 11-year-old daughter (Year 5) seems to have jumped from enjoying younger books like Tensy Farlow and Tashi to suddenly wanting to read older YA titles that some of her older friends are reading, such as Twilight and Hunger Games. I feel these are way too old for her but then I want to keep her reading. Do you think it’s best to let them read what they want and avoid censorship or can you suggest any more appropriate series for that transition period? Thanks.

Liz’s response:
The short answer to this question is that I would actively discourage a Year 5 student from reading books like Twilight and Hunger Games. There are many other wonderful series I’d point them to instead. However, I wouldn’t ban them from reading them altogether – and if they were intent on reading them, I’d set up some rules.

It’s very common for kids to want to ‘read up’, that is, read stories about kids older than themselves. It’s aspirational, especially if older, admired friends are enjoying the books. But Twilight and Hunger Games are a long way ahead for most Year 5s.

Every family has some ‘rules’ about what they are happy for their children to experience, and what they’re not. Sexual content, violence and drug references are ‘no’s for many families, but some have others. (A friend of mine lets her young son read a surprising range of sophisticated content, but won’t allow him to be exposed to swear words.) Stick with whatever rules are important to you.

You will also be the best judge of what your child can cope with. For example, the Tashi books – which Lizzie mentioned her daughter loved – are one of my favourite kids’ series, and I recommend them often for reading aloud to kids as young as 4. But I specifically steered couple of kids I know away from Tashi till they were older, because I knew they would find the dragons, ogres and perilous situations too frightening.

I wouldn’t actively recommend Twilight or Hunger Games for a child in fifth grade. These books are written to appeal to a teenage sensibility, and I don’t think they’re especially interesting for younger kids. I’d prefer to offer a younger child something that will reflect their experiences and emotions and develop their understanding of the world right now.

Hunger Games and Twilight also have some concepts in them which I would rather not expose young kids to (though I can’t stop kids being exposed to difficult things in the real world).

That said, I think there’s value in encouraging kids to be critical readers, and allowing them to read something ‘not quite right’ for them is part of that.

Kids read and imagine through the filter of their own experiences, so they won’t necessarily give the same power to elements in a story that adults or teenagers would.

And fiction is a relatively ‘safe’ way of encountering sophisticated themes because as readers we see events ‘from a distance’, and through different perspectives, and we can make the choice to turn our minds away (in a way that we can’t, for instance, when we watch a violent movie).

(As a child, I was allowed to read pretty much anything, any time, and my opinions are obviously shaped by my own experience.)

If her daughter does end up reading Hunger Games or Twilight now, I’d suggest Lizzie set up some rules:

  • Be clear that her daughter has to read other books as well.
  • And make sure they have a conversation about the books, both to develop her daughter’s critical reading and get a sense of where to take her reading next. Did her daughter like the books? If so, what about them appealed to her? Were there some parts which didn’t appeal to her or didn’t resonate with her, and why? How did they make her feel, and what did the author do to create that emotional impact?

So what are some more age-appropriate recommendations for Lizzie’s daughter?

The following series combine fantasy and adventure, for readers who’ve grown out of Tashi:

  • The Keepers by Lian Tanner
  • Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (remembering that the later books in this series have fairly sophisticated themes)
  • Troubletwisters by Garth Nix.

The following series deal with teen themes and experiences (so might help satisfy Lizzie’s daughter’s hunger for stories about teens), but in my opinion are a little less sophisticated and confronting than Hunger Games and Twilight:

  • The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series by Ann Brashares
  • The Girl, 15 series by Sue Limb
  • Angel Cake and other books by Cathy Cassidy.

I’ve focused on series books here, but there are plenty of wonderful standalone reads that would suit an 11 year old girl, too.


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