One of the most commonly asked questions I have encountered at the children’s reference desk is from parents wanting to know if a given book is appropriate for their child, based on his or her grade level. This could be a tricky question to answer, but over time, I have found ways of tackling it that satisfy parents and fulfill my desire to provide quality library service.
When dealing with a question like this, it is important to first identify what the parent actually wants to know. Some parents define appropriateness in terms of content. Are the action sequences violent? Do the characters in the book curse? Are there scary moments that are likely to cause nightmares? When other parents ask about the appropriateness of a given book, they aren’t concerned with content at all. Rather, they want to know if the book in question is too easy (or too difficult) for their young reader.
If the parent is worried about content, my answer would include everything I know about the book’s subject matter, either from my personal reading of it, or from review sources. Instead of deciding for the parents whether the book is appropriate for the child, I present the facts and let them make the call.
If the parent is worried about level, again, I can supply the facts that will help the parent make a decision. There are several decent resources online for finding out a given book’s reading level in a variety of reading programs, including the Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading System, DRA, and Lexile. If the parent has identified the system used by his or her child’s school, I can do a quick search and let parents know which level is listed for the book in question and where I found it. By providing a reading level from an objective leveling system, I’m able to assist the parent without passing my own judgment on the book or the child’s reading ability.
Librarians often feel strongly about promoting a blind love of reading, and some would go so far as to tell patrons they can’t help them with questions about reading levels, or that reading levels don’t matter. It’s true that the public library generally doesn’t support a prescribed curriculum, but it is still part of our job to support the users of our libraries by providing the information they truly need. However we feel about the reading-level-obsessed parents and teachers in our community, we need to be able to provide them with the information necessary to decide whether a given book is going to work for a given child.
Guest Librarian Katie Fitzgerald holds degrees in English and library science, and has seven years of experience in public libraries. She blogs about books at Secrets and Sharing Soda and about library service to children at Story Time Secrets. Katie lives in Rockville, MD with her librarian husband and their new baby.