Practical Tips for Parents of Exceptional Readers

How to find interesting, engaging, age-appropriate books for kids reading above their age or grade level. By Regan McMahon
Practical Tips for Parents of Exceptional Readers

Kids reading is something to celebrate. But if your kid's an advanced reader -- a preschooler who’s already reading, or an elementary or middle school kid who’s reading way above grade level -- finding appropriate books can be a real challenge. Your kid may be able to read the words, but is she ready for the material? And what about keeping kids interested when they can blow through a stack of books in an afternoon?

Simply picking books targeted to older kids may not be the answer. Some of those books might be too complex for them or have mature content they might not be ready for. The key is finding a book -- or series -- that's engaging, well-matched to your kid's literacy skills, and on target with his emotional development.

Here are some practical suggestions to help you pick books to suit your super readers. 

Feed their interests. The risk with precocious readers is that they'll get bored. But if you tap into what they love, they'll enjoy reading multiple books on that subject. If your child only wants to read books about dogs or chess or soccer this month, let her. Got a gamer who's hooked on Minecraft? You can find lots of books set in that world. Especially in elementary school, follow your kid's lead. These are the years when a lifetime of loving books begins. Let your children truly read for pleasure. These curated lists can help:

Books About Animals
Best Mythology Books for Kids and Teens
Books for Kids Who Love Math and Science

Ask the experts. If you're struggling to find books that fit both your kid's maturity level and reading capacity, head for the library. Librarians are stars at matching books to kids. Their specialty is "If you liked this, you'll probably like this." They know the buzzy new releases as well as children's classics and can recommend books for all ages and skill levels. Your kid's teacher also usually knows which books your kid tends to pick up during free reading time. Get that intel, and you're on your way. Independent bookstores with a substantial children's section also can be a great resource. Booksellers, like librarians, know the titles strong readers gobble up. Here are some books that have won awards from librarians:

Caldecott Medal and Honor Books
Newbery Medal and Honor Books
Award-Winning Books for Teens

Go series hunting. Engagement is key with precocious readers, and series are a great way to keep them interested and anticipating the next installment. If your kid is a particularly speedy reader, you can get all the books in a series so the next one is ready when he finishes the previous one. Not all book series are as high-quality as Harry Potter, but there are some good ones, and once your kid's engrossed in a series, you're golden for weeks -- or months. Ask other parents which series or authors have clicked with their precocious readers, and share your finds with them. And check out our lists:

Best Book Series for Early Readers
Best Book Series for Tweens
Best Book Series for Teens

Consider nonfiction. Strong readers enjoy digesting and retaining facts. For kids age 4 to 8, there are stellar picture-book biographies and informational picture books for every interest: animals, sportscars and trucks, planes and rockets, knights and castles -- you name it. Find some on these curated lists:

Best Nonfiction Books for Kids
Graphic Novels That Teach History

Pick a genre. Fantasy books tend to be longer and have sophisticated vocabularies without getting into social and other issues that parents might not want younger children reading about. Or if a fantasy does veer into that territory, the concept's often masked in metaphor. Science-fiction books have thought-provoking themes and explore mind-bending possibilities. Mysteries keep kids thinking, guessing, and problem solving. Consult theses lists to get some more ideas:

Magical Reads for Kids Who Love Harry Potter
Historical Fiction
Books Like the Hunger Games

Consider the classics. Your school may not be assigning them, but classic books are beautifully written and have universal themes, memorable characters, and rich vocabularies -- without the swearing and mature content sometimes found in contemporary middle grade and young adult fiction. Classic choices appear on these lists:

Classic Books for Kids
Love Stories: Classic Romance Tales

Make room for comics. "Illustrated" doesn't mean "easy." Graphic novels hold great appeal for all kinds of readers in all kinds of genres, including history, fantasy, and science fiction. Find lots of variety here:

Graphic Novels
Graphic Novels That Teach History

Read aloud to them. Parents of small children do this routinely, but once kids start reading on their own, parents often stop reading to them. Reading more challenging books to kids gives you an idea of what they can handle in terms of content, structure, and vocabulary. Ask simple questions along the way -- How do you like the story so far? Is it confusing? Is it too scary? -- and answer any questions your reader might have. Find some ideas here: 

Read-Aloud Books
Adventure Books
Fairy Tales for Kids

Read along with them. Exposure to the wider, messier adult world is part of what comes with the ability to read more challenging books. For tweens and teens, having a parent, teacher, or mentor to discuss with helps. You might try reading some of the same young adult books your kids read or rereading controversial classics. Consider some of these:

Frequently Challenged Books
Book Club Picks for Kids
Books for Fans of John Green

Nurture a nose for news. Steer your precocious reader to kid-friendly news sites such as Scholastic Kids Press Corps and magazines with kid appeal, such as National Geographic Kids, which has a companion website. Older tweens and teens can go straight to regular National Geographic magazine, newspapers, and news and sports websites. 

Don't rush them. Just because they can read Shakespeare or Jane Austen at age 10 or 11 doesn't mean they should. Some books are best appreciated by a more sophisticated reader. If kids are ahead of the curve, they're already doing great, and they have a lifetime to read the Great Books.

About Regan McMahon

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Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page... Read more
Which strategies have worked with your precocious reader? Which book titles or series might you recommend?

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Comments (4)

Kid, 12 years old

Honestly, as a good reader, I had a really hard time choosing books because I was already bored with the kids ones but my parents wouldn't let me read adult books. Now, at 12, I'm into James Patterson and John Grisham. I would suggest John Grisham's books for pre-teens who are out of the kids books. He writes in a way that is not overly graphic while being action-packed and exciting. For older kids, James Patterson's books are more graphic but I would recommend them.
Kid, 9 years old

I am in this. But I think Because of Winn-Dixie is a good start. P.S., I am a advanced reader.
Teen, 14 years old written by Isaac T

I really fit that category admittedly. I could read when I was 3 and that's also when I found my passion in drawing and art. I'm currently reading "The Host" by Stephanie Meyer which she said was for adults and I'm probably going to review that soon. I really liked the Harry Potter books took 11 months for me to finish reading all 7 novels. They're really thick books but are surprisingly easy reads. I'm not sure if this helps...but hopefully it will. So...Harry Potter could be the perfect start.
Adult written by Res Buen

Not a parent just yet, but was a precocious pre-K reader. Wanted to add another practical tip: let your child pick her own books. I have marvelous memories of being dropped at the library (my mom figured it was a great free babysitter) and going through piles of books like delicious stacks of pancakes. I understand much of this site is to help parents police their children's consumption of media, but good guidance is also maintaining thought-provoking dialogue with your child and then allowing them to exercise their own judgments. For example, throughout elementary school it didn't escape me that in books and cartoons (in the 80s at least, but still somewhat today) the clever protagonists were little blonde boys and the villains were dark-haired ladies. But it gave me something fun to gripe about with like-minded budding cultural critics in the grade school playground. I managed to enjoy Encyclopedia Brown while internally eye-rolling at his smugness. Also, I don't think "too adult themes" is much of a worry--in my memory, things that were "too adult" were either way too boring and easily glossed over, or laughable. If it is "adult" but well written, then it's meaningful and educational, more than inappropriate. My favorite tip here is the "controversial classics." Speaking of classics, sorry, I can't help but now unsolicited offer a few of my own formative favorites: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Alice in Wonderland, Watership Down, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and many others that are loved and famous enough to be on other people's favorites lists so don't need mention here. It's too bad libraries are struggling in this age of e-books and short public funds. It was easier for me as a kid to sample the world of books without having to pay much (just occasional overdue fines) for it!