Young readers benefit from a curated selection of books

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 December, 2014, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 December, 2014, 5:15pm

When children are little, part of the process of learning to read involves finding "just right" books. A just right book is one that interests a child and that can be read fluently without struggling over more than a few words on a page. This is an important step toward reading fluency, and the process is relatively straightforward.

But once children are older, finding these books becomes trickier. When children begin to read fluently, parents often encourage more advanced books, but sometimes that can backfire, either ruining a book for a child, or exposing them to inappropriate content.

Some parents think pushing children into chapter books early makes them more accomplished, or is an indicator of high intelligence. Instead, it robs them of the extraordinarily rich world contained in picture books. Some parents understand there's a richness in picture books that doesn't exist in trendy, but straightforward young adult fiction.

The language, vocabulary and humour in picture books are often more subtle and advanced than in chapter books, and can help children develop critical thinking skills.

A mother recently told me her second grader was reading a Percy Jackson book to himself. An eight-year-old who can read Percy Jackson is superficially impressive. But how can an eight-year-old emotionally relate to a story told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy?

Finding appropriate books for teenagers is even more challenging. Because they can read everything, a bookstore is akin to a minefield of unsuitable content. So keeping up with a voracious adolescent reader can be a full-time job.

So how do you help your young reader find the right books? The school librarian is a great start. Once librarians get to know your children, they can match them with great books.

"To pick a good book, you need to know your child, what mood he or she is in, their temperament, and you need to know a wide range of books," says Maureen McCann, Hong Kong International School's Middle School librarian.

McCann suggests listening for "appeal terms" when you talk to your kids. What did they like about the last book they read? Try to determine if it's the pacing, drama, an exciting plot, or a strong female character.

Think of your school librarian as your child's book stylist. McCann likens book selection to buying clothing. "Everyone wants the well-edited closet. There's an art to working a bookshelf, similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop," she says.

McCann offers the library version of boutique shopping by placing a suggestion shelf featuring her favourites at the front of the library. Some of her students select books exclusively from that shelf, she says.

There's an art to working a bookshelf, similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop
Maureen McCann, librarian

She has also initiated a suggestions wall, where children recommend books to their peers, and a special display for books about problems like bullying, eating disorders, divorce and other issues that teens might want to explore.

McCann uses a food analogy for picking books. Kids need nourishing literature and fun reads, or "snacks", as she calls the lighter fiction books, for a healthy literary diet.

Once you've selected a book, she suggests opening it to any page and reading a paragraph. Does it grab your attention? Do you like the character? These small investments in selecting the right book can save time.

McCann also advises families to have books around the house. To be a good adviser, you have to be a good reader; you must model reading for your children, and not just on your iPhone.

If you're not as familiar with a wide range of young adult literature, reading guides, essays and annotated book lists, like those designed by Bring Me A Book, are great resources.

Being a great reader is not about tackling the thickest tome you can plod your way through. It's about curating your reading selections as carefully as you do your art, and your closet.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.