On my Ink Spells blog, I've tried to give parents some content guidelines to help in choosing books for their kids. Even so, finding good books is a constant challenge as my kids are always reading faster than I can keep up. There's three of them after all; it's hardly fair.
Usually I check the AR guide first, to see what the "target" audience for the book is: publishers develop these targets so that booksellers (and parents) will know the intended audience for the book (MG=grades3-8, MG+=6 grade+, UG=grades 9-12). I also check Common Sense Media, which has book reviews for many popular books and has very detailed content descriptions. Of course, if I've reviewed the book, you can find guidance here, plus I've assembled some middle grade and young adult book lists (and even some for the wee ones) with some rough content guidelines where available. There's also Reading Teen, with lots of reviews of young adult books with content guidelines.
In looking for other strategies for finding books, I came across this article from Parent Magazine about choosing books for advanced readers, and thought it had some really great tips, including this:
Many advanced readers are gifted in other subjects and may feel isolated or different from other children their age. Books about real-life geniuses and exceptional children, such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; Ordinary Genius: The Story of Albert Einstein; or Beware, Princess Elizabeth are great choices for your child. Novels about kids who are different will speak to him and help guide him as he grows.
Another great post over at The Book Club Guide had similar ideas, along with this wonderful snippet:
Will reading a book that is not age appropriate damage a child for life? I doubt it. Will reading a steady diet of books that are not age appropriate influence a child's social and emotional development and way of seeing the world? I imagine so.
It's funny. I've found that once a child gets a taste for books that are beyond them in terms of content, it's difficult to pull them back to something more age appropriate, because the child often views these titles as "babyish" even when they are not. Once they head in that direction, it's hard to go back again. Childhood is short enough as it is, I think.
This thoughtful post was made by a teacher after my own heart, who has her own blog with reviews for both middle grade and young adult books called Shelf Elf. I like her emphasis on not just protecting the innocence of youth, but realizing that even advanced reading children are often only able to understand and absorb concepts that are appropriate for their age. This is why it's so important to know your kids, know what they're reading, and help guide them to books appropriate for their age: there's a right time (and age) for every kid to learn about all the good (and bad) things in the world.
As always, your teacher and librarian are great resources for finding books the next time that young one comes to you and says, "Mom, I'm out of books again."
My blog: www.ink-spells.blogspot.com (writing and reading kid's books)
My novel: www.LifeLibertyandPursuit.com (a teen love story)