Young fiction spans the divide between picture books and novels. A critical stage in a child's reading development comes when they are ready to move on from picture books into more 'grown up' texts they can read for themselves.
Young Fiction: why it is so vital
Content - what enjoyable young fiction stories are about
Story structure and format
Characteristics of emergent readers and young fiction texts
Creating a Young Fiction section in the library
Series: how to hook them in
Choosing the right books
Publishers and libraries have many terms for these transition books:
- young fiction
- chapter books
- junior fiction
- stepping stones
It is an easy to please, but hard to write well for stage of reading. A lot of books in this area are the fast food of the book world. Kids devour them, are momentarily satisfied then feel hungry again. If they can find, or be helped to find, stories they enjoy and characters they relate to, reading is put on the daily menu for life.
The mantra is always:
The right book at the right time for the right child.
Many children have learned to read but haven't experienced the 'joy of reading' all on their own. Beginning readers who want to read independently often look for books that reflect the developmental needs of their age group. It is an adventurous age where they are keen to do things on their own and are starting to understand and accept others' viewpoints. They feel more grown-up and want the books they read to reflect this. They don't want life or stories to be too complicated, but they do like to push the boundaries.
Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon has written one of the world's best selling series for 5-8 year olds. She presents situations children of this age would love to experience. The stories offer the young reader a chance to explore, enjoy and identify imaginatively with extremes of horridness, which would be unlikely to resort to (or would not be allowed to resort to) in real life. This escape from the humdrum realities of life with its rules and codes of behavior clearly has tremendous appeal for this age group. In Books for Keeps, Janet Evans attributes Henry with converting the most reluctant readers to enthusiastic ones.
The challenge is finding stories that are appealing, easy to read, entertaining and look like 'real novels' with chapters. They need a plot that grabs the reader's interest immediately and a central character they can admire or relate to. Most stories are predictable and uncomplicated. They carry the hopeful assurance that life will turn out all right in the end.
Some key features and recent titles are:
- Child as heroine in ordinary or extraordinary situations. In the Wild Rescue series Zoe and Ben have been recruited into Wild to help rescue endangered animals and find themselves in constant danger as well.
- Animals, real or imaginary. The stray in Dustbin cat provides not only friendship for Billy but understanding of others' feelings and attitudes.
- Families and daily life are dealt with realistically, often wisely, confronting issues and relationships. Hollie Chips is rebuffed by her new neighbours but perseveres in befriending and uniting them to save their houses from demolition.
- Humorous disasters such as Hooey Higgins and the shark with slapstick humour, money-making attempts, a large shark, an explosion and custard.
- Scatalogical adventures like Andy Griffith's The very bad book which features numerous references to bodily functions, naughty nursery rhymes, negligent teachers and killer koalas.
- Problems reflecting emotional and physical ups and downs. In Toppling, Sally Murphy simply and movingly relates John's feelings and fears for his best friend who has cancer.
- Fantasy heroes, quests and imaginary worlds. Readers can escape from the ordinary and explore a fairly benign extraordinary world of fairies, dragons and super heroes. The dream stealers by Newbery medallist Sid Fleischman has young heroine Susana pitted against the wily Dream Stealer.
- School stories are often subversive and empower students such as in The alphabet war. Adam starts school, and although he loves stories, he can't seem to get the words to make sense. His dyslexia is diagnosed and slowly his confidence returns.
Primary school class enjoying a read aloud, Auckland (NZ). Image used with permission.
Reading aloud is critical at this stage of reading at school and home. Reading books aloud tantalises students with what is available, encouraging them to read and look forward to all the great stories they will soon be able to read for themselves. And children are never to old to be read too!
Find out more about read alouds and download Young Fiction book suggestions.
This stage of reading can span months or years and has to cater for a wide range of reading needs. Young fiction stories aim to quickly capture readers' interests and imagination. Designed to create a sense of confidence, they have large clear fonts, easy vocabulary and supportive illustrations. The wide range of design features, visual prompts and choices of length, sentence structure and vocabulary scaffold capable and reluctant readers.
A Year 4 teacher noticed a group of her students during library sessions flicking through books, hogging the search stations but never searching. They made last minute rapid selection, which they pronounced dumb and boring during the following week's book sharing time. She knew their reading abilities and interests, had shown the class different ways to select books and was a great reading role model herself. She shared favourite authors and titles and buried herself in a book and refused to be interrupted at Sustained Silent Reading time.
She was frustrated on several levels. They were reading far less than other students so their reading showed little improvement. And their attitude and behavior was impacting on other students.
Together she and the school librarian arranged:
- to have a display of recent young fiction, which her pupils would help 'select' for the library
- to read the first couple of pages of the books the reluctant readers had selected aloud with each of them
- promised first chance to read them when the books were processed and more in the series if they were keen.
The teacher also arranged for reading buddies from Year 6 to listen to them read and encourage them. Parents were asked to support more reading at home and every 15 minutes they signed for put their names into the lucky draw for free time and small gifts.
One boy's issue rates went from 5 books in the first term to 27 in the third. Their reading improved because they had great books to choose from, a fantastic determined role model and a sense of control and satisfaction over their reading.
|Characteristics of emerging readers||Text support|
|Short concentration spans.||Action starts straight away and finishes two or three pages later. Plot often linear.|
|Decoding and comprehension still requires lots of effort.||Vocabulary is limited, high frequency words and difficult words in context with strong picture clues.|
|Visual appeal and props important.||Cartoons, speech bubbles, quirky characters.|
|Characters and settings simple and familiar.||Characters stereotypical or formulaic and settings minimal.|
|Stories range from short and simple to complex with wide choice and hundreds of series.||Very simple short sentences without paragraphs to more complex sentences, more description. Longer books and larger sizes.|
Format: Key features of young fiction book design include:
- length 30-60 pages
- smaller books and larger type
- short sentences of approx 5-10 words
- fonts informal and typeface larger and more variable
- text broken up by sketches, illustrations, cartoons and visual props
- comic relief and lots of white space between lines between chapters and between paragraphs
A lot of young fiction provides great models to support the various texts and genres in the National Curriculum. English Achievement Objectives stress the need for students to
identify an increasing range of text forms and recognise and describe their characteristics and conventions.
Level 4 lists genres such as diaries, letters, lists, poems and fractured fairy tales.
Creating a Young Fiction section helps younger students, and also older, reluctant and struggling readers find books too.
Spots work and don't seem to carry the stigma of labels. If older students feel uncomfortable about going to the young fiction section they can easily find books with a spot and spine label amongst the fiction. Colourful bins with series labels and pictures can be used to sort, store and promote popular series.
Promotion is easy as themes, topics and outrageously titled series lend themselves to props and displays and pupils' art efforts. Talks from the SPCA, a sports person, animal rights spokesperson, a fairy, the local pet shop, a pony club could all help to promote books in this area.
Issue rates for Years 3 and 4 were low. Reading results were stagnant. Discussion with staff and students highlighted the problems they had finding 'good' or 'right' books for the 6-9s. The librarian developed a new display area for Young Fiction. A trial of five shelves face out and five conventional shelves, spine out, was held.
Over the next month 97% of the students went to the face out shelving.
A collection of Young Fiction was expanded to 500+ titles, labelled and vigorously promoted. For example, the principal was bribed to extend playtime and then apologise over the intercom that he had forgotten the bell because he was reading an amazing book from the Young Fiction display. All books were displayed face out. Students chose covers and series.
In a year, issue rates tripled and attitude and reading achievement improved so significantly the Board of Trustees approved a special grant to redesign and restock a new Young Fiction area.
The huge increase in series publishing signifies a market where quantity is far more important than quality. Series books often draw in reluctant readers. Children identify with the central characters. They relate to them and see them as fantasy friends and role models. They get hooked.
Series have an important role in helping children move from graded readers to reading. Reading stamina is built up and each time they read another title in the series they are having a successful, independent reading experience.
A National Library facilitator tells of her 6 year old niece being delighted to discover as she finished a Milo and Jazz mystery title that on the back of the cover were another five titles in the series. She promptly asked her librarian aunt to get them for her - an example of having a "reading plan", an important element in becoming an avid reader.
Donald Graves, quoted in Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone, said he thought a revealing measure of the effectiveness of a reading programme or literature curriculum was whether students had plans as readers: ideas about what they want to read next or who they want to read next.
Selecting books for your collection
There is no problem in finding titles and series for this age group. There are hundreds and they range from old favourites such as Goosebumps and Judy Moody to Space Scouts. Librarians find that Andy Griffiths and Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants are still top favorites for boys, and all the horsey books and fairy stories for girls.
To buy well in this area consult senior staff, the syndicates and reading specialists and check reading assessment results for targeted levels. Publishers' and booksellers' sites feature series and titles, author interviews, activities, videos and fun and are worth featuring in the library and during reading time.
Terry Deary is responsible for drawing in a huge range of students of all ages who love information presented cleverly and comically. His non-fiction or faction series such as Horrible Histories combine fascinating and extremely accessible reading material. The facts, the fun, the stories and the layout are perfect for readers who like to read, rest, look at pictures and browse around the page. Terry Deary is interviewed in BFK and explains how children's literature to him represents 'discovery, challenge and change'.
The secret of their success? ‘Dead simple,’ Terry says.
It’s the fact that I’m a children’s author, not an expert. So instead of the author’s voice being “I know this. I’m going to tell you”, it’s “Cor, you’ll never guess what I found out about these terrible people called the Tudors? Would you believe it?
Rather than shelving by alphabetical order of Young Fiction authors or Quick Reads - or whatever title you decide to give this section of your library, you may want to group them by series. The attached list of young fiction series may be a useful starting point for making labels.
Promoting and purchasing series titles
Try these promotion and purchasing ideas:
- Buy a few of each title and check issue rates after a few weeks
- Have a serial swap day
- You choose: get a local or specialist bookseller to set up a display and have students read and rank the ones they want to buy with good reasons
- Serial stars: photos of students who are hooked on a series, with breakfast cereal frames
- Book fairs, local second hand shops, garage sales and discount book sales are cheap options for picking up lots of good titles in good condition.
Younger readers feel they have progressed to real books and older, less able readers also feel they have a book that looks similar to their peers. Choosing the right book is often harder at this stage than any other. Having a wide range of up-to-date Young Fiction, labelled and displayed on dedicated face out shelving with posters and signage makes it much easier.
The challenges and difficulties of making the transition from picture books to novels are tied in strongly to confidence and instant gratification. Snap judgements are based on the cover, an engaging character, the blurb, print size and a favourite series. Lots of children pretend to like a book, choose quickly and opt for the familiar. They need selection skills and motivation.
Every Friday for years all 4 kids hopped in the car and went to the Otara library. Excitement reigned. Books and hamburgers afterwards. Mum was proud of her keen readers and loved helping them select new books and authors. But daughter No 3 proved resistant. She was 8 with a strong personality and a high reading age. For the last 2 years she had gotten 10 to 15 Young Fiction books out and read them in a couple of days. She refused to read longer novels saying. 'This is what I choose. These are just right for me.' No coaxing. No threats. No withdrawal of hamburger privileges would change her mind and one day when she was ready she read novels.
I had to accept that I was a well meaning, pushy parent who nearly pushed her away from books.
Emergent readers are the 'in-betweens'. To ensure reading life is a feast and not a famine, read, buy, borrow, praise and promote the easy reads, the series, the quick picks and the chapter books that are just right.
Put reading on their daily menu for life.
Image: Five Dock Library, sign for children's area, by State Library of NSW, on Flickr