Tuesday, March 6, 2012

For the Bigger Kids – Chapter Books

Here we go.  Deep breath.  The post on picture books took me all day to write, and I’m figuring this will be the same, so I’m gearing up my stamina to sit and THINK all. day. long.  Let’s hope I can manage it.  I’ll probably be drooling by the time my kids arrive home from school. 

Here’s my list of favorite chapter books for kids.  Most of these I read to my children; they are still quite young (seven, five, and three), and only Eloise (my oldest) is a really fluent reader as of yet.  She usually reads beginner chapter books, and there are some decent ones out there in that genre – but I wouldn’t call them literature, exactly.  Rather, they are solid books designed to grab a young reader’s attention and increase their fluency.  Plus, these are usually written in series form (quantity, not quality), so they follow a predictable pattern – kids know what they’re in for when they begin one, and I think that’s probably attractive to them.  (I’m talking Magic Tree House, Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, Junie B. Jones,* things of that ilk.)  But these are not what I’m interested in, here.  I’m concerned with the stories I loved as a child and love even more as an adult reading them to my kids – because they are timeless.  Because they are literature.

Anything by Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary is a genius.  Eloise and I have read the entire Ramona series together and they are not only laugh-out-loud funny, they are poignant and sweet and touching and relevant.  They are perfect books, really.  One of my favorite chapters is the one where Picky-Picky (remember their cat?) dies, and the girls decide to bury her on their own, before their parents get home from work, to save their mother from the extra chore.  (We should all be so blessed, good grief.  Some days I wouldn’t even mind if my kids buried our dog ALIVE before I got home.  Yet I digress.  This is why these posts take me all freaking day.)**  But I loved this anecdote, and all the others, because my experience reading them as a child versus my experience reading them as an adult were completely different, yet equally rewarding:  in each reading, I took away completely different things.  As a child, I recognized myself in the girls – the awkward funeral, their squeamishness about touching the dead cat; while as an adult I connected with the parents – their misplaced guilt at not having been there, their pride in their thoughtful, resourceful girls.  All in all, you really can’t go wrong with anything by Beverly Cleary – Ellen Tebbits was another of my favorites when I was a kid, and I think the Mouse and the Motorcycle novels would be great for boys.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

This is such a beautiful book.  I know you all know the story, have read it, have seen the movie, so on and so forth.  Some parents might be concerned about its mature subject matter – death, dying, enduring friendship – and while that is all understandable, I’d probably urge you not to underestimate your child.  I’m always amazed when a writer can tackle complicated emotional terrain and make it accessible to the maturity level of a child, which is precisely what White does here.  Anyway, this is a fantastic book that can pave the way for some important discussions with your kids.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

Wikipedia recommends this one for children in grades two through four, but I read it to my kids about a year ago, when Eloise was six and Owen about four.  (But who am I to argue with Wikipedia?)  At any rate, they loved it.  It’s a fun, well-written novel, and its chapters are quite short, making for an easy read-aloud to young kids.  It would be an ideal introduction to chapter books.

Anything by Roald Dahl

We’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and my favorite, Matilda (the Matilda movie is excellent as well).  I think my husband also read Chocolate Factory’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  What’s wonderful about Dahl is his ability to present the disturbing, the grotesque, the bizarre – Augustus Gloop is morbidly obese, Matilda is neglected and abused, James’s parents are killed by a rhinoceros – in a way that is somehow still child-appropriate and completely entertaining.  Plus, Dahl is an exceptionally artistic writer whose special gift is his ability to create visuals with words (this is probably why his books make fabulous movies).  It’s the Gothic Novel Lite, for kids.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

This book was published in 1944, but I had never heard of it until a couple of years ago.  I promptly bought it for Eloise and we read it together, and it is one that she now rereads often.  It is short, only about 70 pages or so, with plenty of pictures, but what is special about The Hundred Dresses is how it teaches empathy.  It’s a story with a moral.  A little girl is bullied, and subsequently moves away.  After her departure, she wins an art contest, the content of which causes her classmates to feel remorse about their treatment of her, and they write her a letter apologizing.  Interestingly, the end is left open – we never learn whether the girl receives the letter or not.  It is a lovely tale; another one that makes for some thoughtful discussion after reading.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Eloise and I read this when she was about six.  We also attempted The Secret Garden, which was much harder – DAYUM, that one was hard to make it through.  I think Sara Crewe is one of the most loveable characters in children’s literature:  brilliant, patient, kind, and imaginative.  Anyway, I loved both books when I was young and I expect that Eloise will reread them many times as she grows up.  Both are classics, not to be missed.  The 1995 movie is beautiful too; as is the 1993 Secret Garden film. 

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child

I read the Pippi books when I was little, but this recent edition is especially delightful.  Lauren Child, the author and illustrator of the Charlie and Lola series, does the artwork, and it is magnificent.  Her style is perfectly suited to crazy Pippi – flamboyant, colorful, and lively.  Plus, the stories themselves are a fitting introduction to tall tales, a genre that many kids enjoy.  I wish Child would illustrate the other novels in the series as well, but haven’t seen them yet. 

The Laura Ingalls Wilder books

So far, we’ve only read Little House in the Big Woods, but Eloise recently received the entire set, so I’m thinking that our next chapter book will come from this series.  These are a bit more mature since they are non-fiction.  I think my son, Owen, will love them for this reason (he was too young when we read Big Woods).  These are actually my husband’s favorite read-alouds as well, because he has a thing for the descriptions of farm chores: churning butter!  Tapping trees for syrup!  Salting meat for storage!  (I know.  He’s something of a Renaissance Man.)

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald

I cannot tell you how many times I read these as a child.  If you’re not familiar with them, you need to read them right away.  They are hilarious.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a little old lady who supplies her neighbors with “cures” for their progeny’s annoying behaviors (not going to bed on time, for example, or picky eating).  The books are set up so that each cure is contained discretely in its own chapter, so there is really no reason to read them in sequence.  These might be good read-alouds to a child who is a little older (maybe first grade) since some chapters are quite long.  They are wonderfully well-written and so ingenious.

Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

I feel a little disingenuous mentioning this one, because we actually haven’t finished it yet.  I’m currently on the second installation of the trilogy and so far, so good.  Owen ADORES it.  As much as I hate assigning gender to books, I admit that many of my selections are probably more interesting to girls:  female protagonists, etcetera.  But these tales are great for boys (or anyone who likes dragons, which is usually boys.  Sue me.).  They are an introduction to the genres of both fantasy and adventure, and lots of fun. 

The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

You’ve all read them.  And if you haven’t, what are you doing here, reading THIS?  Go check into a hotel for a week with all seven volumes.  You will thank me later.  I haven’t read them to my kids yet (they are still too young), but I cannot wait.  They are as extraordinary as you’ve heard.

Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe

To date, this is my kids’ favorite chapter book we’ve read aloud.  Eloise and Owen both loved it:  a novel so funny that we literally laughed until we cried while reading.  Bunnicula is a complete original.  Told from the point-of-view of Harold, the linguistically-talented family dog, it is the story of the Monroe household and their acquisition of a pet bunny, Bunnicula.  Over the course of the tale (tail?  Heh), Harold and Chester, the ill-tempered pet cat, become convinced that Bunnicula is a vampire bunny.  Fabulous, huh?  The story continues with their misguided attempts to somehow convince their human family of Bunnicula’s sinister ways and true nature.  Additionally, there are several sequels and I can’t wait to introduce the entire series to my kids.

That’s my list!  What’s on yours?

*An aside – I actually despise Junie B. Jones.  She’s rude and annoying and there is nothing charming about her.  She has no manners.  Still, it’s not like I’m going to ban the books from the house – I’m not a prude, and they are enormously popular.  (Good grief, I was probably reading Danielle Steel at that age, my mother censored nothing.  Even the things she should have:  like Danielle Steel, for the love of God.)  Plus, one problem I’ve noticed is that there’s just not much available at the beginner chapter book reading level, so we work with what we have, right?

**I’m noticing a disturbing trend on this blog.  I think that I’ve talked about dead animals twice in the last few weeks, and I’m certain that by anyone’s standards, this is twice too many.  I promise I’m not a homicidal lunatic.  [Insert creepy smirk and inappropriately waggling eyebrows.]


  1. We've read all the Ramonas - the kids both love them and ask for them over and over. I had totally forgotten about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. I loved those and now cannot wait to start them with the kiddos! Thanks!! You're doing a great job on your blog!

    1. thanks merrick! so glad i reminded you about mrs. piggle wiggle, that makes me so happy. and thanks for reading!

  2. I HIGHLY recommend The Penderwick series. We have adored them and anticipate the next one in the series!

    1. Great recommendation, Erin! I'm so glad people are chiming in with their favorites, I love to get new book ideas.

  3. LOVE.THIS.POST. Thank you a million times over for taking the time to do this service to our reading community. I absolutely CANNOT wait till Lola is reading Harry Potter. I told her as a treat for starting third grade we could read them together next school year. I cannot wait.

    1. Yes. We might have to do HP next year, to coincide w/ Lo. Appropriate schmappropriate.

  4. Thank you, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! For some reason I can remember very few specifics of what I read in elementary school (besides Ramona and Laura Ingalls) and have felt too overwhelmed by all the choices to bring home from the library.

    I have a 6 year old and an almost 4 year old, and we've been reading A Little Princess together this week. But I had forgotten all about so many of these -- Mouse on a Motorcycle? Pippi Longstockings? Matilda? YES, PLEASE!!

    Excellent recommendations. And as of this moment, we've still not cracked a Junie B. Jones book. Hoping we can sail RIGHT past those...

    1. Yay! So glad when I write something useful. I look forward to hearing what your kids think of these!

  5. P.S. Great minds think alike:

    1. I'm putting SHOOTING KABUL on our library list now. And did you notice the mention of MIXED-UP FILES? Awesome.

  6. Great choices! Aside from the fact that I'm a mom and I like reading to my kids and all that, I just LOVE children's chapter books. I mean, I really love them. You've chosen some of my favorites -- and some new ones too! I've never read *The Hundred Dresses*, but I can't wait to find it. Oh, and I'd add Peter Pan to your list; it's hilarious!

    As for the early readers: I've never liked Junie B. Jones (for all the reasons you mentioned) so I was relieved this year when Kat confessed she didn't really like her either. Have you read the *Ivy and Bean* series? The girls are spunky, they're simple enough for Katherine to read by herself, and they're a great Junie B. alternative.

    (Oh! And I just started reading *The Gathering* on your recommendation. It's heavy (like you said), but so far I like it!)

    1. I haven't read Ivy & Bean, but Eloise has read some of them & likes them (but also likes Junie B., so I think your rec holds a bit more weight). You will LOVE *The Hundred Dresses*! Seems like a lot of people hadn't heard of that one. Looking forward to Peter Pan, thanks!