Young children who are just beginning to read independently love chapter books. While they still enjoy picture books, they also like more grown-up reading material. Being able to sustain reading a longer book through episodes is an important reading experience. And real readers of all ages appreciate getting to know characters through different plots and settings. The books we recommend have simple sentences without sacrificing rich language, and are enhanced by lively and intriguing illustrations. Today’s kids are fortunate to have lots of terrific early reader chapter books to enjoy—some their parents may have read as children as well as many on-going series by contemporary authors.
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
Sigh– it’s hard not to gush. This is simply the best series ever. Frog and Toad are true friends, with all the ups and downs this entails. The two friends have distinctly different personalities: Frog is usually cheerful, while Toad tends to view things from a darker side. The simple stories are warm and funny, based on everyday experiences that even very young readers understand and delight in. Children love these stories, and parents get to chuckle and appreciate them as well. And of course, your family will want to go on and read Frog and Toad Together and Frog and Toad All Year. Two other great series by Lobel: Mouse Tales and Owl at Home. (You might want to check out the article “I Just Want to Read Frog and Toad” by Melanie Quinn for an insightful look at the differences between children’s reactions to quality children’s literature and those dreadful reading series with controlled vocabulary.)
Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
The best word to describe Mercy the pig is charming. Adopted by a loving human family, Mercy is funny and adventurous—and simply irresistible to young readers. The stories have enough humor and conflict to be quick and interesting reads. The cartoon-like illustrations are the perfect complement to the stories: they are fun, retro, and extremely vibrant, and they capture Mercy in his adventures. There is a whole series of Mercy books to savor—and more Kate DiCamillo characters for children as they grow as readers.
George and Martha by James Marshall
These two best friends happen to be hippos. There is a simple and sweet quality to the stories—a bit like Winnie the Pooh, but written so even beginners can read them. The illustrations make these big hippos seems cute and cuddly. Another series that the whole family can enjoy together.
Houndsley and Catina by James Howe
Another best friend couple, this time a cat and dog. In the introductory book, Houndlsey is distressed to read Catina’s novel-in-progress and discover that it is a pretty terrible book. Houndsley himself enters a cooking contest and botches it. The friends are there for each other through these embarrassing experiences—and confess that they were really motivated by fame and fortune rather than a passion for writing or cooking. James Howe is a master at writing humorous and well-constructed tales for young readers. Besides the other books in this series, check out the classic Bunnicula, about a bunny vampire, narrated by the family dog Chester.
Little Bear by Elsa Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak
These simple stories about Little Bear and his family are loving, playful, and charming. His imagination leads him to adventures in outer space, as well as his own backyard. Children find the stories compelling and satisfying, always with a comforting conclusion. Little Bear has a close and tender—yet teasing relationship with his mother. The illustrations are pure Sendak—heartwarming with subtle humor and imagination.
Zelda and Ivy: Candlewick Sparks by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
The fox sisters are sassy—and lively–siblings who lead adventurous and creative lives. The big sister/little sister dynamics add to the fun. Zelda tends to order Ivy around, but Ivy knows how to stick up for herself—and with a dramatic flair. The illustrations are bold and whimsical—very appealing to new readers. This is a newer series, with 8 books so far.
Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Marc Simon
Sam Spade for the younger set. In this wonderful series, beginning readers are introduced to Nate, boy detective, who “likes to work alone” as well as the detective novel—and the world of mysteries and clues. There are over 20 Nate the Great adventures, featuring Nate and his friend Annie and her dog Fang. Nate always solves his mysteries, eating pancakes as he ponders his clues. The books are clever, humorous and well-written. It’s amazing what Sharmat can do in terms of story, plot, character, and humor with so few words. The illustrations help reinforce certain points in the case and are wonderful in their own right. Besides being good for young ones to read by themselves, these books are also great readalouds. (Try using your best Dragnet voice.)
The Case of the Missing Monkey (The High-Rise Private Eyes Book 1) by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Cynthia Rylant is a giant in children’s literature, and this series is a wonderful way to introduce young readers to her work. Another detective series, this time with animal characters: Bunny Brown (a rabbit) and Jack Jones (a raccoon). They also happen to be pretty sharp detectives, gathering clues and solving cases in and around their big-city apartment building. The dialogue is snappy and the situations Rylant creates make this series great fun.
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Parks
In this first book in the series, Junie is almost six years old, and not a bit happy about having to ride a “stupid smelly bus” to kindergarten. Parks has created a feisty and really engaging character in Junie B. She narrates the world in her inimitable style, interacting with the reader with comments like, “Cause guess what? “ and “Only guess why?” First graders love to have the Junie B. books read aloud to them—and soon, they are picking them up on their own. Luckily there are over 2 dozen in the series, and they are all laugh out loud funny.