In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:
- Picture books (including board books)
- Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
- Transitional books
- Chapter books
That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)
In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)
Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?
Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:
- Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
- Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
- Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
- Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres
Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:
- Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
- Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
- WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
- Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
- Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
- Game On: books for gamers
- Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
- That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
- Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way
The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.
To explain, each list had an introduction like this:
3rd Grade and Up
Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!
If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!
Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.
Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.
Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).
Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.
Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the best book for them.
For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)
For teens, our themes were:
- Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
- Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars
- Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
- Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction
I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.
I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?
I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.
Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).
What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?