Making Sense of Age Categories in Kid's Lit
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
While working for children’s bookstores and volunteering in literacy programs at schools and libraries, I can’t tell you how many parents, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other caregivers have asked me the question “What kind of books should my child be reading?”
Bookstores try to put a neat bow on this question, trying to directly relate grade level to reading material. One bookstore I worked in, for example, shelved their children’s books by age: 0-2 years, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, and 13-18. While well-meaning, these age ranges ultimately mean nothing when it comes to your child’s skill level and interests.
Anecdotally, I know for myself that at the age of seven I loved the Animal Ark series which is labelled as being for children ages 6-8, but I also loved Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – both classified as being for readers aged 9-12. When I was thirteen, I was really into the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy (which is ranked for kids aged 9-12) and Graceling by Kristin Cashore (recommended for readers aged 14+). I also know I wasn’t the only kid defying these age ranges. While working in bookstores I helped hundreds of kids find books loved that were either below or above their technical age range. Some of it has to do with relative skill and maturity. Kids grow and learn at different rates, that’s just part of being human. Part of it also has to do with content. If you have a kid going through a phase where they love horses, they may need to grab books from a variety of sections to meet that interest.
The moral here is that it is a disservice to the young reader in your life to expect that you would be able to walk into a bookstore, pick a high rated book from their age range section, and have them love it. If we want kids to develop a love of reading, we need to make sure that have access to books that both challenge and excite them as an individual. So, if humans don’t fit neatly into the cookie-cutter shelves of the bookstore, then how do we help them find books they’ll love?
Let’s start with the skill level. The goal with young readers is to find the sweet spot between building them to progressively more challenging reads without them becoming frustrated and getting them to practice familiar skills without it becoming boring.
My general rule of thumb is to change one thing at a time. If you are working on building vocabulary, pick books that are at the same length and challenge level, but that might introduce a couple of new words. If you want to challenge them to read more complex sentences, let the plotline deal with familiar problems. If you are working on building their confidence to read longer books with more complicated plots, stick to ones that use familiar vocabulary.
Below, I will outline a general progression for young readers and what type of books you ought to look out for. I want to note again that no reader’s journey is linear and that it is common to move both forwards and backwards along this progression as many times as needed and desired.
Board books are similar to the more familiar picture books (and often offer identical titles), but their pages are, as the name suggests, made of a thick printed board instead of paper. They are more durable and are therefore recommended for any child that tends to be rough with their things, most commonly those who are grabby or at risk of ripping or chewing the pages. Board books commonly have two-five simple sentences per page and feature large illustrations. These are typically intended for caregivers to read aloud with children, with the large illustrations providing visual interest. You can also find board books that feature flaps, puppets, textured areas, or sound for any children that have more tactile interests or who may not be willing to sit still for long periods of time.
Pictures books come in either a paperback or hardcover format. Like board books, they feature only a few sentences per page and are dominated by large illustrations and are usually intended to be read aloud by an educator or caregiver. The large size of picture books makes it easy for multiple children to engage with them at once. The main purpose of picture books is twofold.
Firstly, reading these books helps teach kids basic elements of storytelling such as characters and plot. Even without the words, the illustrations of these books demonstrate concepts like cause and effect, emotions and facial expressions, or actions.
Picture books are also designed to teach kids basic values. Often the plots of these stories revolve around some sort of lesson or moral like sharing, trying new things, being yourself, or standing up to bullies. Most kids will continue to engage with picture books, either being read to or reading them themselves until they are fully invested in novels.
At these early stages, kids don’t transition from reading picture or board books, rather they introduce new books into their repertoire. The focus of learn-to-read books is not on plot, characters, or morals. These books are designed to teach phonics, vocabulary, and sentence structure. They are designed for children to read them aloud to a caregiver or educator, receiving assistance and additional explanation as they do. In general, there are six different levels of learn-to-read books. Once a child has shown they can read through a variety of books at the same multiple times with minimal intervention or assistance, they are ready to start trying books from the next higher level.
The first level is a phonics book. These books typically have less than 20 pages with short simple sentences and have large bold typesetting that kids can easily read. Phonics books pick a single letter or sound and introduce different words that have that sound. A set of phonics readers will usually all have the same characters, but each book will look at a different letter or sound combination (like ch, sp, sh, or th). Once kids can identify all of the sounds different letter combinations make with little or no assistance, they are ready to progress to the next level.
At the next level we are focusing on learning new words rather than just sounds. These books may come with word lists or additional reading activities. These books are structurally simple with little plot and short sentences.
At this level, we start to explore sentence structure as well as vocabulary. Here you want to look for books that have multiple sentences on one page and that include things like dialogue or commas.
At the next level up, we want to see a paragraph per page rather than just a few sentences. Here, the stories have more plot and more characters. I find that some books will highlight new vocabulary words and may include activities that include these words at the end of the book.
At the next level, the goal is to get kids comfortable reading longer books. These books will increase to being about 50 pages long and will start to introduce the concept of chapters.
The final level of learn-to-read books gets kids comfortable with reading books with few pictures. Where pictures at all previous levels may have dominated full or half pages, in these books you will see paragraphs with complex sentences and a wide variety of vocabulary words interspersed with only a few small images. Once kids are comfortable reading this type of book, they are ready for early reader chapter books.
Early Reader Chapter Books
Kids picking up early reader chapter books should be able to read them independently or aloud with minimal assistance. At this stage, while they may need help with new or challenging vocabulary words, they should be able to follow a complete plot with multiple characters. These books may include some illustrations, but the majority of the pages will only have text divided into paragraphs and chapters. What characterizes early reader chapter books from other young adult novels is that they tend to be shorter (only 100-200 pages), they may still include illustrations, and the font size is typically larger. Books in this category often come in long series (think 25-50 books in a series) that can be read out of order. So if your young reader finds a story they love, they can latch onto that and still have ample reading material. If your young reader if confident reading on their own and is not frustrated by length or lack of pictures, they are able to bounce between early reader chapter books and elementary/middle-grade novels based on interest.
Elementary/Middle-Grade Novels and Young Adult Novels
There is no salient difference in the length, structure, or style of books categorized for elementary and middle-grade kids and those recommended for teenaged kids. The only real difference is the age of the protagonist and the type of content handled.
So let’s jump into choosing books for kids based on content!
To begin with, most board books, pictures books, and learn-to-read primers are created fairly equally. When in doubt, I recommend finding adaptations of movies and shows kids love. When kids recognize the characters in the book, they are more likely to be immediately invested in a familiar story. Once the habit of reading has been established, it's easier to start branching into new books with new characters!
For the rest of this discussion on content, I am going to focus primarily on early reader chapter books, elementary/middle-grade novels, and young adult novels as there are huge discrepancies in this category about what kind of content a reader can expect.
First and foremost, the main goal at this age should always be to get young readers excited about books! If a young reader tells you that they are interested in a certain book, and you know the book is within their skill level to read, there is no reason to dissuade them from doing so. With that in mind, I have three tips to help guide you if you are looking to recommend something new to a young reader or if your kid does not show any particular interest in a certain book.
1) Know the Genre your young reader loves, and then ask for help
The problem with bookstore sorting kid’s books by age is that such a wide variety of books get mashed together on the shelf. That means books about crime fighting skeletons end up next to true stories, books with animal protagonists, books about wizards, and books about best friends overcoming bullying. If you don’t know the title you are looking for, it can help to come armed knowing the last three books your child read and loved and one topic they are currently interested in. I can’t speak for all booksellers, but where I worked my co-workers and I made an effort to read new releases so between us we knew more or less what every book on our shelves was about. If you ask your local librarian or bookseller for help and you can tell them that your kid loves magic and wants to be a veterinarian, they can find you a book about a veterinarian who cares for magical animals at the same skill level as your kid is currently reading. If you only know the kid’s age, the best they can do is point to a bestseller that may or may not be in the right reading level for your kid.
2) You can guess how heavy the content will be by the age of the protagonist
If your young reader is sensitive to certain topics, you can usually guess whether they will be included based on the age of the protagonist. For example, a protagonist who is eleven will almost never have a romantic subplot or any type of crush. A protagonist who is 13/14 will probably have a crush but they likely won’t get together until the end of the book and when they do, at most there will be one kiss, more likely they will tell each other they like one another and then hold hands. If the protagonist is fifteen or older, romance will likely play a major role in the narrative and there will likely be multiple instances of non-graphic intimacy. We can also see this pattern in other themes, like whether violence is used in the narrative.
Paying attention to the age of the protagonist is also important for identifying whether a character will be relatable. In general, I recommend books where the protagonist is within three years of age of your young reader. For example, if a character is 15 it is likely the book might be set in a high school. Someone who is twelve and entering middle school could still relate to these stories. Someone in elementary school probably could not.
3) Beware the new trend in YA of “New Adult Books”
Personally, I never advocate for censorship. Speaking from the bias of someone who watched the Lord of the Rings movies in theatres when I was four, I don’t believe there is any type of content short of graphic sex and violence that kids can’t enjoy or understand, so long as you are willing to hold discussions with them afterwards and answer any questions they may have.
That being said, the publishing industry currently has a trend where fantasy books written by and aimed at women, or books intentioned for readers in their early twenties, are being categorized as Young Adult (or for readers aged 13-18) because they believe they will sell better there than in the adult section. The problem with this is that we are ending up with books that deal with topics like trauma, prostitution, or books with graphic depictions of sex and sexual assault being shelved side-by-side with books like Harry Potter. While these books are great for young readers interested in these topics, it makes it harder to tell what books are appropriate for readers who are uncomfortable with or unprepared for these subjects.
These books will typically have notes saying that they are recommended for ages 16 or 18 or older. If you see these type of warning, it might be worthwhile to step back and research why so you can make an informed decision about whether this is a book your young reader would be interested in and, if so, to be sure that you are ready for any conversations that go with it.
So that's how I consider level and content when I work with kids in schools, bookstores, and libraries to get kids reading! If you are looking for actual titles to recommend to your young readers, talk with your local librarian or bookseller or check out this list of my favourite diverse reads for kids!