I was asked (again) recently what I recommend for gifted children to read in their leisure time. It can be quite challenging to find material in our bookshops and libraries that suits the pre-teen gifted child with a reading age well beyond his or her years. Books written for older children and teens are more sexualised, more violent, darker and more spiritually diverse than books published when most of today’s parents were growing up. Put books like these in front of a gifted kid, and the awkward questions will flow… usually in front of guests, or when parents feel too tired to do all that explaining! Also, little minds will worry, in ways that parents of gifted kids are all too familiar with, so it is no wonder that the “what to read” question comes up often.
Gifted kids often do get a kick out of reading things written for children their age (or even younger), especially if they are humorous or use words in beautiful ways. The best children’s books appeal to adults as well as children, and these same books will interest gifted kids of all ages. Such books are a relaxing rather than a challenging read, but relaxation is important. Some children will happily read young-but-wonderful books to themselves just because they are there. Others will read them when they are offered as models for the kind of writing which the children themselves aspire to produce, or when they have the opportunity to read them to younger children.
Non-fiction books are usually emotionally safe to read. Books on war, poverty, disease and disaster are often exceptions, of course, and art books may show more flesh than your child has any wish to see; it is well worth glancing over your children’s selections even if they do come from the non-fiction section of the library. Books with lots of pictures are easier for parents to vet – a quick flick through the photos may be enough to reveal an author’s fascination with less genial aspects of his or her topic. Interesting pictures are also very face-saving for the gifted child who has selected a book that is out of his or her depth. Giving a book the coffee table treatment – just “reading” the pictures and the best of the captions – should be as permissible for the gifted child who is reading for pleasure as it is for adults.
If the non-fiction shelves seem a little sterile and devoid of human warmth and narrative intrigue, do consider the biographies, the travelogues and some of the D.I.Y. books, in which information is often shared in a warm and personal style. With regard to biographies, however, there are certain lives that should remain unexamined by the pre-teen child. Discretion is in order.
Some children are specialists – they have a particularly strong interest in one area of informational reading. These specialist readers often feel quite bereft when they have read all the books in the local library on their topic of choice. If the avid non-fiction reader is encouraged to borrow one book on a new topic at each visit to the library (alongside as many as you can carry on the pet topic) secondary interests are more likely to develop before the favourite topic is exhausted.
In terms of fiction, classic children’s books are often emotionally safe reading for gifted children. They do tend to contain a lot more death than books written for children today, because they were written when life expectancies were shorter. A kiss on the cheek is as raunchy as most of these books get, however, and most of the violence is corporal punishment. While corporal punishment is neither legal nor politically correct here in New Zealand today, it probably doesn’t do kids any harm to know how lucky they are in that regard.
Some books from the past that have modern versions for children were not written for children in their original form. Charles Dickens wrote to shock a middle class audience who were ignorant of the seamier side of society. Oliver Twist was written to expose profound societal problems, and not to entertain children, although lighter versions for screen and stage may lead us to believe that the original book would be suitable.
The Wikipedia list of children’s classic books links to pages about most books listed, and a quick skim of these linked pages can be helpful in establishing whether the books concerned are likely to be entertaining and emotionally safe for your child.
A book written for eight year olds a hundred years ago is usually surprisingly challenging for an eight year old to read today. The vocabulary is different – words such as “meddle” and “careen” are much less common than they once were. The linguistic style of children’s books written before illustration became affordable is markedly different from picture book writing today. Rich descriptions may distract attention from the plot until readers become accustomed to the depth of descriptive detail. These books also require the reader to develop some understanding of history, in order to make sense of the writers’ viewpoints and experiences. Not every book from the past will be to your taste, or to your child’s, but most will give your child plenty to think about.
Your child’s voracious reading habits need not be your financial downfall. Many classic children’s books are now in the public domain, and can be found for free online, sometimes in ebook format – use free ereader software, there is no need to buy more hardware. Project Gutenberg now has quite a large collection of children’s literature, and an internet search for free children’s ebooks will show many more. Books that parents and grandparents remember may turn up in forgotten cupboards, and can lead to great discussions of family memories along with new adventures in reading for your child. Classic children’s books also turn up at garage sales, in second hand stores, and in online auction sites. Keep looking, and enjoy the hunt!
Please note that I have used the term “classic” loosely here, to mean written a long time ago but still interesting. Older children’s books is too ambiguous to be a useful description.