A Parent’s and Educator’s Guide to Children’s Literature

Parent's and Educator's Guide to Children's Literature


Choosing the right book for a child or youth can be difficult, especially for those not particularly familiar with the publishing industry or its terms. Below is a guide to children’s literature and what types of books are most commonly read by various age ranges.

Board Books

Board books are books specifically designed for the littlest reader, newborns to ages two or three. Printed on paperboard so that they can weather rough handling and chewing, these books should have bold illustrations and short text. Newborns and infants do not have the attention span for long stories, so steer clear of full-length picture books printed as board books, or books clearly aimed towards adult caregivers. Look for short, rhyming text; contrasting illustrations; and interactive elements.

Picture Books

Picture books are generally understood to be written for young children, such as toddlers and preschoolers, but, really, a picture book is just a book where the illustrations and the text combine to tell the story. That is, without the pictures, the story does not quite work. So picture books can actually span a large age range and deal with a variety of topics such as historical events, politics, and more. Parents should review picture books to make sure that they are choosing ones that are developmentally appropriate for their child. And adults should keep in mind that, because picture books are typically meant to be read aloud, they can often have a larger vocabulary and more complex sentences than other types of children’s books.

Beginner Readers

Also called easy readers, early readers, or leveled readers, these books are for children just starting to read on their own. As a result, they tend to feature short sentences and repetitive text. They are usually read by children roughly from ages 5-7. The “levels” on the cover (ranging from the numbers 1 to 4) indicate the complexity of the text, and take readers from just beginning to read on their own to transitioning into chapter books. Some parents use the levels on the covers to find a suitable title, but the levels are not standardized across publishers. The best practice is for the adult to review the books beforehand to find the ones most suitable for their child’s experience. Examples of beginner readers include the Piggie & Elephant books, the Fly Guy books, and the Henry and Mudge books.

Chapter Books

Contrary to popular belief, chapter books are not any book divided into chapters. This term refers to books for newly independent readers, usually around the ages of 7-9. They are shorter books that contain some illustrations, but not necessarily one on every page. Examples include Magic Treehouse, EllRay Jakes, and the A-Z mysteries.

Lower Middle Grade

Typically, middle-grade is said to be for children ages 8-12. However, middle grade is understood by librarians, teachers, and even authors as typically being split between upper and lower categories. Lower middle grade books are for ages 8-11, or roughly third to fifth grade. These books are usually shorter, simpler, and not as dark as upper middle grade books. However, they are longer and more complex than chapter books.

Upper Middle Grade

Although middle-grade books are marketed for ages 8-12, the audience for upper middle grade actually spans a larger age range. As YA (teen) books become darker and cater to an adult audience, many younger teens are continuing to read middle-grade. In fact, some books that used to be considered teen books (Harry Potter, The Giver, etc.) are now shelved as middle-grade to reflect the trending maturity in YA. Upper middle grade books are thus suitable at least for ages 11-15, or roughly sixth to eighth grade. Books such as the Percy Jackson and Keeper of the Lost Cities series are upper middle-grade books and certainly appeal to readers older than 12.

Young Adult (YA)

Young adult or YA is the current label for teen books and these books are supposed to be appeal to teens from 13-18. Many librarians and educators, however, see the YA label as more appropriate for ages 16+. Parents should be aware that YA books do not necessarily contain more difficult vocabulary or sentence structure than upper middle-grade books. It is the content of the books–content that may include sex, substance abuse, violence, etc.–that warrants the teen label. So younger teens who want to “read up” or “above grade level” do not need to seek out YA books if they are not yet ready for some of the content they may encounter.

Adult Books

Some teens, especially teen boys, may choose to skip YA altogether and start reading adult books. The current theory seems to be that most YA books are written by women for women. They also tend to start female protagonists. Teen boys may not see themselves or their interests reflected in YA books, so they jump straight to the adult section


Finding the right books for the right reader is more art than science. Not every reader will be ready for the same books at the same time. And that’s okay! This guide is truly meant to be that–a guide–and not a rigid rule book.

7 thoughts on “A Parent’s and Educator’s Guide to Children’s Literature

  1. Zalia | All My Other Lives says:

    This is a really great guide. Choosing an appropriate book for young people is such a challenge: balancing age, reading level, maturity, interests, attention span and so many more factors. And it doesn’t help that the middle grade, young adult and new adult categories are constantly shifting and being redefined.

    In my opinion, as long as you avoid inappropriate or triggering topics, choosing a book that is too difficult to read, or too long, or too boring isn’t the end of the world. Children can still learn about themselves from books that aren’t ideal for them, which helps to inform their book choices going forwards.


  2. Zezee says:

    This is so helpful! When I was working in the kids section of the bookstore, I often got confused about the age range for chapter books vs. middle grade.


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