When your first grader (or third grader) gobbles up Harry Potter, what’s next? When your eager reader begins to look past the chapter book section in the library to the middle-grade section and beyond, how should you steer that child? In a society that pushes early sexualization of children and treats tweens as consumers controlling parent purse strings, is it possible to help children grow their brains without cutting short their childhoods?
Guiding advanced readers to the books they’ll love and treasure can be tricky. A precocious reader, bored by “age-appropriate” elementary texts, may nevertheless have a hard time relating to relationship-heavy school stories aimed at middle-school readers. Some gifted kids nourish themselves by reading non-fiction, showing an insatiable hunger for facts. But others want stories, stories that are rich and complicated and challenging. Perhaps that’s one reason for fantasy’s popularity among gifted readers. Fantasies allow an author to spin complex and whimsical stories on resonant themes without having to address head-on the issues of adolescence.
A gifted reader is often intellectually ready for books he or she is not emotionally ready for. When my third-grade daughter read To Kill a Mockingbird, I had trouble explaining the concept of rape. Today, I would steer young readers away from The Hunger Games, not because they’d have trouble understanding the book (many would not) but because I see no need to populate a child’s dreams with images of such cruelty. Let’s leave that for a later day.
I have five kids who were all eager readers. They seemed to devour a pile of new books faster than a box of cookies. I enjoyed their childhood books and felt sorry when they graduated to chick lit and tales of teen angst. Perhaps that’s the reason I wrote Lost in Lexicon for my youngest child, Damian, as a present on his ninth birthday. I wanted to write something that would challenge, delight, and entertain him.
Damian is the kind of kid who plows through books and leaves them scattered everywhere, and who also likes to do logic problems in his head at bedtime. I knew I’d have to stretch my writing to engage his mind. But at the same time, I treasured Damian’s innocence.
Lost in Lexicon became a book that is intellectually challenging yet socially innocent. The thirteen-year-old protagonists have an old-fashioned quest adventure with plenty of puzzles and strange characters but very little violence and no intrusion of dark realistic themes of parental abuse, drugs, or boyfriend-girlfriend issues.
But children grow up. The IceCastle, the sequel to Lost in Lexicon, presents darker themes of injustice, betrayal, and class division. Some violence intervenes—physical blows and attempted murder—but the book still allows its protagonists to approach the world as children just on the verge of adolescence.
Young adult literature serves older kids well by giving them a field in which to work out their identity and ideas about relationships, sexuality, justice, rebellion, freedom, and purpose. But there will be plenty of time for such issues. Childhood is a time for a more open-hearted exploration of the world and imagination. Let’s allow even our quickest readers to explore as children for a little longer.
For more on writing and being a mother, visit Penny's blog.