THINKING OUTSIDE CATEGORIES FOR READER SUGGESTIONS by Ariel Bernstein
A child’s journey of reading books can seem pretty linear. They start with board books and picture books, usually read to them by an adult. Soon enough, many begin to recognize words in early readers. Sometimes an adult will read them chapter books, and often a young reader will begin reading those books on their own. The next step is middle grade, and eventually, young adult novels.
As a parent, I saw this happen with my daughter. We spent many nights laughing over Sandra Boynton’s board books until we gradually overlapped with Victoria Kann’s PINKALICIOUS stories, the huge world of Jane O’Connor and illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser’s FANCY NANCY series, as well as half the picture book selection at our local library. First grade led to her reading Mo Willem’s PIGGY AND GERALD books to me at night, plus a love for Grace Lin’s LING AND TING stories. I’ve never stopped picking out picture books to read to my kids at bedtime, but my daughter eventually left the world of early readers on her own to discover Monica Brown and illustrator Angela Dominguez’s LOLA LEVINE chapter books before getting swept into the non-fiction world of the WHO IS and WHO WAS series.
Before I knew it, chapter books were over and middle grade had her full attention. She gobbled up like Amy Ignatow’s THE MIGHTY ODDS and Tracey Baptiste’s THE JUMBIES. What held her attention the longest was Rick Riordan’s PERCY JACKSON series. It was with this series that her journey of reading became a lot less linear.
When she finally finished all the Rick Riordan books, my daughter asked for something similar. My first instinct was to look for another middle grade fantasy book. During my trip to the local library, I picked up Sayantani DasGupta’s THE SERPENT’S SECRET from the librarian’s suggestion. But as I browsed, I also noticed more books about the world of Greek gods and goddesses. Only these weren’t prose books. They were George O’Connor’s OLYMPIANS graphic novels. While my daughter enjoyed THE SERPENT’S SECRET, she also couldn’t get enough of the OLYMPIANS series. When she eventually devoured them all, I went back to the library. In the chapter book section I noticed Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’ GODDESS GIRLS series. I also checked the picture book area and saw ECHU & ECHO, a whole book of poetry about Greek myths by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse.
It didn’t matter that the chapter books and picture book were considered books for ‘younger’ readers. And it definitely didn’t matter that the graphic novels were filled with as much illustrations as text. All my daughter cared about was reading more books on her new favorite subject, Greek gods and goddesses. Reading different categories didn’t stop her from finding new middle grade novels to enjoy. In fact, she recently finished Erin Entrada Kelly’s YOU GO FIRST and Peter Brown’s THE WILD ROBOT ESCAPES. It simply expanded the type of books she wanted to find.
I realized that when a young reader loves a book and wants to find more like it, we shouldn’t limit them to just one category of books. To encourage their reading, it helps to find out what a reader loves so much about a particular book. If they love the fantasy element in the HARRY POTTER series, it makes sense to suggest other middle grade fantasy books such as Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and the more recent CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE by Toni Adeyemi. But detailed world building combined with magic and the supernatural can also be found in Molly Ostertag’s graphic novel WITCH BOY, as well as Jill Murphy’s THE WORST WITCH chapter books.
A young reader may appreciate the unlikely friendship showcased in Annie Barrows and illustrator Sophie Blackall’s IVY AND BEAN chapter books. You don’t have to look for other books about unlikely friendships just in the chapter book section. Early readers such as Arnold Lobel’s classic FROG AND TOAD stories and Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and illustrator Tony Fucile’s BINK & GOLLIE series also showcase unlikely and interesting friendships.
Almost every kid at some point feels like an outsider, struggling to fit in. It can be immensely helpful to read about characters going through the same situations in books. Characters who feel like outsiders can be found in middle grade books such as Kristin Mahoney’s ANNIE’S LIFE IN LISTS and Firoozeh Dumas’ IT AIN’T SO AWFUL FALAFEL. But there’s also no shortage of these stories in picture books, including Andrea J. Loney and illustrator Carmen Saldaña’s BUNNYBEAR, and Ethan T. Berlin and illustrator Karl Newsom Edwards’ THE HUGELY-WUGLE SPIDER. From my experience with my children and at school visits, older kids still find picture books compelling – really!
Maybe it’s the sports content of a book that a reader loves. If they enjoy reading about a boy who plays basketball in Kwame Alexander’s REBOUND, there’s a good chance they’ll follow the story of a girl who learns about roller derby in Victoria Jamieson’s ROLLER GIRL.
Perhaps it’s the wit and dark humor of Daniel Handler’s LEMONY SNICKET’s series that appeals to a reader. They’ll find similar giggles in Dana Simpson’s PHOEBE AND HER UNICORN comic books and hopefully my own chapter book series with illustrator Mike Malbrough, WARREN & DRAGON.
There’s no guarantee that a reader will embrace every book suggestion they’re given. But looking beyond age range and categories for readers will only increase the chance that they will find many more new books to love.
Ariel Bernstein grew up outside of Philadelphia (developing a cheesesteak obsession), went to college at Barnard in New York (developing a sushi obsession), and now lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with her family (developing a marshmallow obsession). She doesn’t have a pet dragon, but does have the occasional herd of deer show up in the backyard. Besides writing children’s books, Ariel’s worked in a movie theatre, at a Baskin Robbins, as a camp counselor, a paralegal, in human resources, and as a stay-at-home mom. Visit her at arielbernsteinbooks.com. The first two books in her chapter books series WARREN & DRAGON go on sale August 28.