I think it is important to encourage kids and teens to read books that challenge them, soothe them, teach them, make them laugh, and make them think. I like matching a book to a reader, making sure that it fits his or her emotional age as well as his or her mental age to a book. I factor in the person's personality, maturity, hobbies, and other interests. A reading level should not be based solely upon age and grade level. I pride myself on personalizing book recommendations, on listening to the person and making certain that I recommend something he or she will truly enjoy.
Ah, age-appropriateness. I could discuss this topic for days.
There are oh so many ways to divvy the pretty pages that fill the children's section. Many book bloggers use the phrase "middle grade" - "MG" for short - when referring to children's literature that is more difficult than early chapter books but easier and/or more age-appropriate than teen fiction at large. I do not say MG, preferring other phrases.
If we're breaking the children's full-length fiction department in half, I say "juvenile fiction" and "teen fiction." Better still, I can quarter the entire kids department like so: early readers, elementary school, middle school, and high school. I would say "pre-school" instead of "early readers," meaning "prior to attending a formal school," were it not for the fact that more and more kids are enrolled in pre-school and pre-kindergarten programs now than ever before, so the word "pre-school" indicates that grade level to the general populus.
If I say, "This book is for an eight-year-old," even though the plot might be something a ten-year-old would enjoy, that ten-year-old might not want to touch a book for a younger kid. Some kids are sensitive to character ages and tell me things such as, "I'm ten, and that book is about an EIGHT year old! That's for a BABY! I need an older book!" When said like that, "older" doesn't always mean "more difficult."
This extends in both directions. At the other end of the spectrum are readers like me, who defy age levels from the younger end of things. I read books thicker than my arm as a child. I tackled the classics head-first, demanding that they be unabridged, because I didn't want the "easy" versions. I lapped up The NeverEnding Story. When adults who didn't know me well thought I was just looking at the pictures in a book, I would turn the book around and show them that the book HAD no pictures.
If someone DOES ask me to split books up into age-based categories, I like to use overlaps and wider ranges, to really acknowledge the full spectrum. I recently reorganized my archive of booklists into these quarters, with both grade and age indicators:
Early Readers - Infants and Toddlers
Elementary School - Ages 5-10
Middle School - Ages 10-13
High School - Ages 13 and up
I would have divvied the booklists up even further but I feared that it would make the page messy. (I like things to be orderly, as friends and frequent customers know.) I prefer to say "ages blank and up." Here are some breakdowns with prettier overlaps:
Ages 1 through 3
Ages 4 and up
Ages 5 through 8 (early independent readers)
Ages 7 and up (Ages 7 to 10)
Ages 8 and up (Ages 8 to 12)
Ages 10 and up (Ages 10 to 13)
Age 12 and up
Age 16 and up
Kids read all over the map. Their mental age and/or emotional maturity may not match their chronological age nor their physical appearance. There are books that seem to be absolutely perfect for a certain age or a certain grade, of course, but there are plenty of books that are suitable for a more extensive age range than would be assumed. There are books that appear to be suitable for young kids - ooh, pretty cover! cute title! young looking cover model! totally tween! - but are better for older kids due to mature content or writing style. Likewise, there are many books in the teen section which are fine for tweens to read.
There are twelve-year-olds who comprehend the vocabulary in heady books such as Wuthering Heights and David Copperfield without a moment's hesitation, while their classmates - same age, same grade - stare at the page, bewildered, due to any one of a number of things including but not limited to: emotional maturity; reading disabilities; a lack of interest in the subject matter, setting, characters, writing style, or plot; or issues with the language (I am not referring to swearing here, but rather language indictative of a place or time not their own, something unfamiliar and not - in their eyes - contemporary).
Kids may read below, at, or beyond their grade level. It's subjective. Just like adults, some kids read quickly and some read slowly, depending on how they are wired, how much they enjoy the reading process, and how much they comprehend and retain.
Say three kids with the same reading level obtain a book they have all been waiting for, but the first kid reads the book slowly, purposefully, wanting to savor every sentence, the second reads it quickly because he or she can't wait to find out what happens, and the third kid reads it quickly simply because that is how he or she is wired.
This post was prompted by Liz B.'s link to Mitali Perkins' blog, which recently asked, "Is a sixth grader a young adult?"
Author Justine Larbalestier is asking "What is the difference between young adult literature and plain old adult literature?" Some people have replied to Justine seriously. Some comments are snarky but well-meaning.
Let's go back to my very first point: Who else sees more of a division that simply kid lit and teen lit? Who else uses a phrase other than MG? Sometimes - when it is used lovingly, to acknowledge an age when kids aren't little kids either but aren't quite teenagers yet either - I like the word tween, and other times - when it is used a demeaning fashion or when it is/was really trendy to say it with! every! breath! tween! tween! tween! - I abhor it.
I feel like inventing words and phrases here, people, and I just might do it.