On recommendations and reading ages

I’ve been picking up some extra shifts in the bookshop this week, which has meant that a) my dissertation has been taking a back seat again (ARGH!), and b) I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the things that happen in bookshops. Here’s one from the children’s section.

One of the things I enjoy most about bookselling is recommending children’s books. As you’ve probably all noticed by now, it’s a subject that’s very close to my heart, and one I know reasonably well – in addition to having spent my entire childhood with my nose in a book, I’m still very interested in picture books, I enjoy reading children’s SFF as much as (sometimes more than) SFF aimed at adults, and I’m pretty good on non-fiction and activity books as well, having worked for Usborne Publishing for four years. I love it when somebody comes into the shop and says ‘my child/grandchild/other small friend or relation has read all the books by this author and they loved them. What do you think they should read next?’. I love it just as much when somebody comes in and says ‘my child/grandchild/other small friend or relation hasn’t really got into reading yet, and I want to find them a book they’ll enjoy. Can you recommend a real page-turner without too many hard words?’.

The thing that makes me sad, though, is that most people who come into the shop to buy for children don’t say that. They say ‘the child I’m buying for is x years old, but they have a reading age of y…’.
If y is smaller than x, they often spend the rest of the conversation explaining and justifying the low reading age – the child is being raised bilingually, or is really good at maths, or is super-intelligent but just can’t concentrate in school, or whatever. If y is greater than x, they’ll just drop that fact into the conversation over and over again: ‘are you sure this is suitable for a child with such a high reading age?’ ‘They’ve read all of Harry Potter, so I’m looking for something more challenging than that – do you think this book is more difficult than Harry Potter? Are you sure it isn’t less difficult?’

So, this is an open letter to anybody who ever finds themselves in a bookshop trying to find a book for a child.

Dear everybody,

Reading is not a competition, or a game of levelling up. It is not imperative that each book your child reads must be more difficult and contain more hard words than the previous book they read. Let them read books that they enjoy, and they will keep on enjoying reading books. I know you might be a bit worried because their reading age is lower than their best friend’s and their teacher isn’t very understanding and you don’t want random booksellers to think your child is stupid, but I am not here to judge your child. I don’t need to know the extenuating circumstances behind your child’s low reading age – I just want to find you a book that they will love. And if they’re top of their class at reading and you think they’ll get into Oxbridge in ten years time…congratulations, I suppose. But guess what? I just want to find you a book that they will love.

So tell me about your five-year-old grandson who loves animals and wants to live on a farm – and meet Dick King-Smith’s Sophie, who feels just the same way. Tell me about your thoughtful niece who is always re-reading A Little Princess because she ‘doesn’t like “modern” stories’ – has she tried anything by Eva Ibbotson, or Natalie Babbitt? Tell me their reading age once, if you like, but you don’t have to tell me over and over – it’s far more helpful if you tell me just one author or book that you know they’ve enjoyed. I am not a parent and I am not a teacher, and I barely know what ‘reading age’ is even supposed to mean. I’m just a former child who thinks reading is great fun.

Let’s talk.

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2 Responses to On recommendations and reading ages

  1. Joanna says:

    Oh I love Eva Ibbotson! Although I’ve read all the little-princess-y ones, my favourite book by her is Madensky Square, which is very much for adults, and sadly out of print.

    • Lydia says:

      Journey to the River Sea is my favourite – though I have to admit, I didn’t even know she wrote for adults! I’ll have to keep an eye out for her grown-up writing in future 🙂

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