When dealing with a question like this, it is important to first identify what the parent actually wants to know. Some parents define appropriateness in terms of content. Are the action sequences violent? Do the characters in the book curse? Are there scary sequences that are likely to cause nightmares? When other parents ask about the appropriateness of a given book, they aren't concerned with content at all. Rather, they want to know if the book in question is too easy (or too difficult) for their young reader. Asking a few questions up-front goes a long way toward making sure librarian and parent are on the same page and having the same discussion.
Once I establish what the parent is actually concerned about, I do my best to answer the question they have asked with objective information. If the parent is worried about content, my answer would include everything I know about the book's subject matter, either from my personal reading of it, or from review sources. I might say, “Well, the story contains a sword fight, a rabid dragon, and some swear words. If you’re concerned about exposing him to those things, you might want to read the book first and see how you feel. I also know of two other books on the same subject that don’t include those things, if you’d like to see those.” Instead of deciding for the parents whether the book is appropriate for the child, I present the facts and let them make the call.
If the parent is worried about level, again, I can supply the facts that will help the parent make a decision. The local schools here use the Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading system. There are several decent resources online for finding out a given book's guided reading level, and I let parents know which level is listed for the book in question and where I found it. Sometimes, kids attend private schools or come from out of town, and they prefer to know the Lexile number, or another system's reading level, and I do my best to look those up, too. By providing a reading level from an objective leveling system, I'm able to assist the parent without passing my own judgment on the book or the child's reading ability.
I know that public librarians feel strongly about promoting a blind love of reading, and some would go so far as to tell patrons they can't help them with questions about reading levels, or that reading levels don't matter. It's true that the public library generally doesn't support a prescribed curriculum, but it is still part of our job to support the users of our libraries by providing the information they truly need. However we feel about the reading level obsessed parents and teachers in our community, we need to be able to provide them with the information necessary to decide whether a given book is going to work for a given child.
I have found the following resources to be especially useful in assisting parents with questions regarding appropriateness:
- CommonSense Media's Book Reviews
The reviews on this site are designed to inform parents about the content of books. The reviewers assign a particular age to each book, which represents when the book is most appropriate for kids to read.
This site features a group of parents who blog about kids' books. It was "founded to [...] help [parents] seek out books that may reflect the experiences, interests, strengths or weaknesses of their own children."
- Novelist K-8
This subscription library database provides access to professional reviews of children's books, as well as subject headings indicating what is covered in a given book.
- Scholastic's BookWizard
This tool allows users to search for a given title, and it will provide the Grade Level Equivalent, Guided Reading level, DRA level, and Lexile measure for the book. Some more obscure titles might not be in the database, but it is not restricted to just Scholastic's publications.
Search for a given book's Lexile number and create reading lists.
- Local schools' websites
Many school librarians and classroom teachers provide leveled reading lists for students and parents to access online. These are not always readily available, but many times they are right there for the taking and the parent just hasn't been made aware of them. It helps to bookmark pages for quick and easy access whenever a question comes up.