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Advanced Pre-Teen Reads #6: Junior fiction for all!

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APTR6: Everyone should explore the children's section.

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts by Emma focussed on Advanced Pre-Teen Readers (APTRs). Find the first one here.

Why I think everybody should read How to Bee (and other books in Junior fiction)

Welcome to the sixth blog post in our series on advanced pre-teen readers, where we recommend books for older children who read a lot. We sometimes talk about these kids ‘outgrowing’ the children’s section, but this blog post is about not giving up on junior fiction! There are some real gems in here, and I think everybody does themselves a disservice by not considering books from this part of the library. Even adults!

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble is shelved in junior fiction, but it’s not just a children’s book. It’s about a girl named Peony who’s nearly 10, but children, teens and adults will all enjoy this story of a fiercely brave kid who refuses to give up.

Set in a future without bees, agile children like Peony, her friend Applejoy, and local bully Pomegranate take on the task of climbing trees to pollinate fruit blossoms by hand. Straight-talking Peony doesn’t hide her disdain for people in ‘ancient times’ (thirty years ago, before the famine) who used poison that couldn’t tell the difference between bees and pests on their food crops. But she loves her world and her role in it. Living in a shed with her Gramps and her sister Magnolia, she thinks she has everything she could ever need, even if she only sees her mother once a month, and even if food is scarce sometimes, and the only apple she’s ever tasted is “bits from the pulp bin on its way to be juice.”

Inexperienced readers may struggle in the beginning, but that’s what makes this book perfect for advanced readers. MacDibble doesn’t explain every little piece of slang as it comes out of the character’s mouths, and the reader needs to infer what’s going on by combining clues from the text with their own knowledge about the world. This skill, inference, is a vital part of a child’s development. It’s known as a ‘higher order’ skill by educators and gives access to deeper levels of comprehension. On page two, a sleepy Magnolia protests her sister’s noisiness in the morning:

“ ‘Stomp yourself, Peony-pest,’ she groans.

‘You won’t diz me when I’m a bee,’ I say.

‘P the bee? Yeah, dying for that,’ Mags says and flops back on the bunk.”

The language itself isn’t particularly complex, but the reader needs to adjust for the unexpected way in which it’s delivered.

The magic of this book is the way it explains the importance of bees and how ecosystems work, but without seeming to teach or explain anything. It addresses concepts like urbanisation, issues of class, relationship violence, agoraphobia, neglect and poverty as well as the main themes of bravery, friendship and family. There are two deaths, of adults close to Peony, and it made me cry, but I’m a big crier.  

How to Bee won the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction in 2018.

 Another discovery I recently made in Junior fiction is The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. It, too, has a pre-teen girl at its centre, and deals with family, friendship, and bravery. Set in the early twentieth century on a leper colony in the Philippines, it is rich in descriptive language and imagery. I kept thinking, as I read, that there’s no reason this couldn’t be shelved in Adult General Fiction. Looking back now, I concede that the villainous character is a little two-dimensional, but not to the extent of those in David Walliams’ books or other children’s antagonists. And sometimes it’s nice to have a proper baddy, without having to delve into their traumatic past in order to redeem them.

I think what makes a book more satisfying for older or more advanced readers is a sufficient amount of metaphor, or leaving a little to the imagination. Children’s literature can sometimes be heavy-handed in communicating its message, but no-one likes being told exactly what to think or feel. No-one likes being treated like a child. Especially children. Yes, we read with the expectation that our emotions may be manipulated – that’s the point of storytelling, and what makes it so effective in developing empathy and self-awareness. The best books are more sophisticated, or less blunt, in the ways they make us think and feel.

The Island at the End of Everything and How to Bee are just two examples of the excellent quality of storytelling available on the shelves in the children’s section. Come and browse next time you visit any of our libraries, or ask for a couple of books from the junior fiction shelves to be included in your next Pick’n’Mix.

Other recommendations:

*The covers of these books look like they’re aimed at a younger audience, but they read at a good level.


Come back for more

This series of blogs covers a selection of books from the children’s, YA, and even adult collections that are suitable for advanced young readers.

Look out for other APTR blog posts on:

If your APTR has read something great, let us know so that we can let other parents know! Email us or leave a note with staff at any of our libraries, letting them know to pass it on to Li and Emma. 

10 December 2021

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