Good Books for Kids Who Read Way Above Grade Level

The 1911 edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden - IMO, the pinnacle of precocious-reader literature. (Image via Wikipedia/Project Gutenberg.)

In my recent post on what we talk about when we talk about “inappropriate” books for kids, I discussed how a book’s treatment of a particular topic is the key to whether or not it is “appropriate” for a certain reader – an approach that takes a lot more work than merely banning taboo categories across the board.

One commenter asked what I’m sure is a burning, and very common, question: What do you do when your child’s reading abilities exceed their emotional understanding for what they’ve read?

I was one of those kids, and I’m sure my parents tore their hair out trying to deal with it.  I still have nightmares from when I got into my father’s Stephen King collection at age eight and read Four Past Midnight.  The Langoliers were no biggie, but the Sun Dog will haunt my dreams forever.  (My father learned to store his books on a shelf I could not reach, after that – though I wouldn’t have read any more Stephen King at that point if you paid me.  I didn’t read King again for almost ten years.)

In no particular order, then, are several of my best-beloved precocious-reader picks from my own childhood.  For more recently-published titles (remember, I’m that age you can’t trust anyone over), see this handy list of books for precocious readers, compiled by gifted-child educator and A Different Place blogger Nancy Bosch.  Horn Book magazine also has a fabulous list from yesterday and today.

What were some of your favorite books?  What are your young readers enjoying?  Share in comments!

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  My mother and I read The Secret Garden together when I was six, and my copy (a beautiful hardbound edition with colour plates, a Christmas gift from my aunt) still holds pride of place in my own collection.  The Secret Garden is the tale of Mary Lennox, an orphaned girl sent to live with her reclusive uncle on the moors of Yorkshire.  While there, she unravels two secrets – of her uncle’s hidden rose garden and the mysterious crying she hears in the old house at night – and puts a family back together.  A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, who goes from being super-rich to super-destitute and back again, yet who never stops trying to treat people with real kindess and decency.

Book 2 of the Little House series, after which the TV show - which actually takes place around the time of fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek - was named. (Image via Wikipedia.)

The Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These staples of American children’s literature follow the pioneer travels of the Ingalls family through most of Laura’s childhood; later books by Wilder detail her adult life in the Ozarks. My father actually thought these books were too sanitized – they downplayy many (though not all) of the dangers of frontier life, and they never once mention how anyone uses a bathroom. Still, they’re exciting and detailed and a wonderful historical-fictional escape into American pioneer history. (The Ingalls museums in De Smet, South Dakota are also well worth a look, if you’re ever in that neck of the, er, prairie. My dad took me in 1992 and we had a blast.)

Ramona Quimby, kindergartener, presents her doll Chevrolet at show and tell in Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest.

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, Ellen Tebbits series, and assorted other books. Ramona the Pest, which is about Ramona Quimby’s adventures in kindergarten, was the very first “chapter book” I ever read. I was four years old. These books aren’t written for four-year-olds, per se, but they’re easy enough for a precocious four-year-old (or five- or six-year-old) reader to enjoy and identify with.  Ramona’s nervousness about kindergarten, her impatience to learn to write her name, and her struggles to fit in and win her beloved teacher’s approval are all pitch-perfect for kids who are going through the same things themselves.  If I had to choose one “chapter book” for a reading-way-above-grade-level young kid, it’d be these.

The famous Yorkshire veterinarian. (Image via jamesherriot.org; click to visit.)

James Herriot.  My father, an avid all-things-nature-man, was reading James Herriot’s books to me before I had even mastered my alphabet, and the illustrated children’s edition of The Cat Who Came for Christmas he gave me for Christmas when I was two remains one of my favorite holiday traditions.

James Herriot was a Yorkshire country veterinarian, and in his many books, he discusses his life treating everything from cows and sheep to household cats – often in the same day.  Some of the scenes in his adult-aimed books may be too graphic or confusing for young readers, but several of his tales have been turned into children’s boooks, and many stories are positively heartwarming.  Precocious readers ages eight and up (emotionally) may do well with these books, especially if they can discuss them with a parent, love animals, and/or want to be veterinarians.

Those of you who waded through the comments on the “inappropriate books for kids” post will probably notice I’m leaving out a lot here, including the Narnia chronicles, Anne of Green Gables, the Five Little Peppers, and all those children’s series books I so avidly collect.  More in a later post!

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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4 Responses to Good Books for Kids Who Read Way Above Grade Level

  1. euphqueen1 says:

    My parents let me read Lord of the Rings when I was seven or eight years old. Even though they had both read it and were big fans of it, they didn’t seem to think it was any more adult or frightening than The Hobbit. I still have nightmares about orcs and actually cried several times during the first and third Lord of the Rings movies because the bad guys looked too much like how I had envisioned them as a child, even though I was in my 20s when those movies came out and too old to be panicking over a film. But despite the fact that I spent three or four years of my childhood sleeping with the light on because the Nazgul were going to get me, my parents went ahead and let me read adult novels (as long as there was no sex, because apparently that’s worse than violence?) because they could not afford to keep me in new children’s books and didn’t want to take me all the way across town to the library constantly. Did their lax approach to my reading material warp me? Um…yeah, probably.

    Anyway, The Hobbit is a great book for precocious young readers who aren’t bothered by the mention of spiders and goblins, although some might need a little help since some of the language is very British in parts. But you know, just lock LOTR up until they’re tweens, okay? For somewhat older precocious readers, I love Watership Down, but it does have violence and some talk about mating, so it’s not great for very young readers.

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  4. Sai says:

    I have a 6 year old precocious reader (of Indian origin).. She reads book 3 grades above her grade level with good comprehension. I saw “Secret Garden” repeatedly coming up in the best book list.. So, I got this book for her from our library.. 2 days later, she came to my room and asked, “Appa, what is wrong with my dark skin”.. I was curious about where she was getting this from.. Then I got to read the first couple of chapters from Secret Garden.. I found these chapters extremely insensitive and upholding and apologetic to the colonial sensibilities.. Next time, I will read the book before deciding whether the book is appropriate for her age level and not blindly pick books from the bestsellers list.. because books written by white, of white, for white may not be fit for general consumption!

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