3 Ways to Pick the Right Book for Your Child


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Photo by ZapTheDingbat

As we encourage our children to read, it is important for us to have tools at our disposal for how to help them to find the right books to read.  True, sometimes they don’t want our opinions and want to choose the books entirely by themselves, but it is always a good plan to have a few ideas just in case they ask for help.  Kids sometimes pick books based on criteria that we (as the more experienced adults) might not use:  they might be drawn to the cover, they might have seen a friend reading it and it looked good, or maybe they have seen a movie or TV show and want to read the book that accompanies it.  Who am I kidding, we often use many of those same criteria as adults!  However, we should keep several other things in mind when selecting a book for (or with) a child.

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1. Reading Level

Especially when they are young, it is important for children to have books available to them that are close to their reading level.  I am not a firm believer in children only reading books that are exactly on their level, because I feel that that limits them.  Plus, I’ve seen a child tackle a book that he really wanted to read that was “too hard” for him and do really well with it.  However, if a child is trying to read a book that is way too hard for her, she may become frustrated with reading, and we don’t want that to happen.

Schools use different tools to measure reading level.  I’ve seen use of grade level equivalents, guided reading levels A-Z, and Lexile numbers just in the schools I’ve visited near me.  There are different ways to do it, and your child’s school likely has determined a specific reading level for your child.   If that level hasn’t been shared with you, ask the teacher, so you can encourage the “right level” books at home.  Once you know your child’s reading level from school, and want to encourage books around her level, you can use a guide to help you.  This one from Scholastic allows you to type in the title of a book and it will tell you the level of the book.  (You can use a drop down menu to select which of the various leveling systems you want to view, so you can choose the one that your child’s school uses.)

Or you can search by level, and titles will appear that you can then either purchase from Scholastic, on Amazon, or search for in your public library.  (Note: There is a login feature on this page, but you should be able to access this book level information without logging in.)

2. Quality

Not all children’s books are created equal.  This is so true.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the difference in quality of text between various books your child has brought home from school and the library.  So, how do you know what you are getting when you are ordering a book online and can’t open it up to actually read it?

When I was in my graduate program studying school library media, I learned about the importance of editorial reviews.  We all know about how we can read reviews on Amazon, but which reviews are important?  There are so many reviews!  How do we know which ones to read, and which ones to trust?  The most important reviews, I learned, are the “Editorial Reviews” listed on Amazon and often in the catalog at your public library.   These are from sources such as School Library Journal, Booklist, Library Media Connection, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and more.  Read these reviews, see if the book was “recommended,” a “best book,” or better yet: “starred.”  If these sources recommend a book, you can bet it will probably be a good one.  )  Hint:  If there are no editorial reviews listed, there’s a chance that it might not be a high quality children’s book.)  Check out this example of a great book!

Other great places to find great books: Newbery and Caldecott winners and honor books, as well as other books winning awards.  Here in Virginia, we have something called the Virginia Readers’ Choice books.  These usually include great titles that I try to read with or recommend to my kids.   With such a huge selection of wonderful children’s and young adult books out there these days, you should be able to find something great that your child will love.

3. Appropriateness

I have talked to both of my boys at different times about the difference between what someone is able to read, and what is appropriate for someone his age to read.  Sometimes reading levels and recommended age levels are different, and as parents, we need to keep that in mind.  This often comes into play when a child is a really strong reader.  Just because a book is on the right reading level, it may contain content that could be hard for a child to process.  The editorial reviews I mentioned previously contain a crucial tidbit of information that I suggest you use.  They usually include a recommended age/grade level, usually at the beginning or end of the review.  This is different than the recommended reading level by the publisher, which I have found to not be as reliable.

When one of my sons comes to me and wants to read a certain book or a certain series that I know is right on the border of what I think he’s ready for, I often turn to Common Sense Media for help.  This is an excellent online tool that reviews books, movies, video games, apps, websites, TV shows, and more.  I will type in the title of the book that he’s interested in, and see what comes up.  Not every book is reviewed, but many are, and those that are usually have detailed information included online.  I am able to quickly see the recommended age, and what controversial issues might be included in the book.  Sometimes my suspicions are correct, and I see that it is really recommended for a slightly older child, while other times I see that it will probably be fine.

As parents, we also need to know that sometimes books within a series are surprisingly different in appropriateness from book to book.  An example of this occurs in the Harry Potter series.  The first in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is recommended by the publisher for ages 9-12, by School Library Journal for grades 4-7, and by Common Sense Media for age 9+.  However, by the last book in the original series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the author assumes readers have grown up as well as Harry.  It is recommended by the publisher for the same ages 9-12, but by School Library Journal it is recommended for grades 6+ and by Common Sense Media for ages 12+!  I’ve known many kids who want to read through the whole series as 3rd or 4th graders, and they are willing and eager to do so.  But there is a darkness in the later books, and many parents aren’t aware of the difference in recommended ages and just take the publisher’s word for what is appropriate.

It may be best to consider other options for books that may be too mature for your child:  read it first to see if your child can handle it, pause a year or so before completing the whole series, or read it aloud together and discuss the upsetting/more mature parts together.  We’ve had this happen in our house.  My boys understand now, at ages 9 and 11, and seem to trust my judgement for the most part, but it has sometimes led to disagreements in the past when I’ve asked them to wait a year or two before reading a specific book.  It is a really tough call to make as a parent when “all” their friends are reading it, but I think it has been for the best for our family to sometimes wait.

Keeping these three ideas in mind when picking a book for (or with) your child will help you to select a book that is a good fit, and a book that is a good fit will encourage more reading in the long run.

“Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself.”  George Bernard Shaw

Happy Reading!