In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

More on starter chapter books

Dear Annie,

I'm so fond of the books you list. I agree with Eleanor that the baby-sitter story is the best in Busybody Nora. My favorite part, though, is when both moms realize what happened, and they start to cry. In a funny sort of way. There is however, one important warning to parents about the Riverside Kids books. Nora and Mrs. Mind-Your-Own-Business (to which I am not adding a link to buy) should be avoided. One of the chapters is a major spoiler about the tooth fairy. I discovered this while in the process of reading it aloud. I recommend avoiding that experience.

Margaret posted a lovely comment on your yesterday (5/3) post, which makes me want to do a mini-essay on the transition to chapter books for any parents of 3-4-5 year olds out there. (Let me just mention that Eleanor is a bit ahead of the pack in liking chapter books as much as she does at age 3. Many kids aren't interested in the longer stories until 4 or 5 or 6 years old. Which is fine, and there are hundreds of great picture books to keep your reading time fascinating for all concerned.)

As someone who spends a lot of time talking with parents who read to their kids, I see two missteps which can get in the way of the transition to chapter books -- neither of them major, but you'll be happier if you avoid them.

The first I would call the Stuart Little Problem. We all remember a few wonderful books from childhood, but it's hard to remember at what age we read them. So, a relatively new parent who's been reading grown-up literature for the past 20 years will remember Stuart Little as a great piece of literature, but not remember that s/he was maybe 7 or 8 when last reading it. It's a fantastic book, but rife with really hard language and concepts for a three or four year-old. So I would counsel setting aside the wonderful memories and charging into the (possibly) unknown world of early chapter books that we've been talking about here.

The second obstacle to a smooth transition to longer books is the Magic Tree House Problem, well expressed by Margaret in the aforementioned comment. Somebody on the playground mentions there's this great series of short books about time travel and your kid will love them. Your kid might love them, but it will take you only two or three books (there are currently 43 of them, and counting) to realize they're pretty much all the same story, again and again and again. There's another series, about different kinds of fairies by "Daisy Meadows," which is equally addictive to the young and makes Magic Tree House look highbrow. You, the parent, will not be happy reading these books every night. As Margaret so tactfully put it, they're "a bit of a slog for Mom." These books are great when your child is reading on her or his own, but you can do better for
a read aloud.

Margaret and Annie both commented on the My Father's Dragon trilogy which, along with the abridged Wizard of Oz, (see 4/27 post) were my children's two favorites at this stage. The Jamie and Angus Stories (yesterday's 5/3 post) is great: my favorite chapter has to do with the family turning an outburst of paternal anger into an oft-repeated gentle family anecdote.
Toys Go Out
, by Emily Jenkins is another book which feels like a collection of stories. It's about the internal lives of three beloved but clueless toys. Both Jamie and Toys have sequels. They're okay, but definitely a step down from the first books. Dick King-Smith, a British farmer best known for Babe (too old for pre-school crowd), has done a number of younger novels.
Martin's Mice
is about a farm cat who keeps mice as pets: the mice resent it and the other cats think he's nuts for not eating them. A slightly edgier one is
Three Terrible Trins
, which is the funniest book ever about revenge -- in this case it's the farmhouse mice driving the cats off the farm. And let's end this long post with a golden oldie (1938)
Mr. Popper's Penguins
. Gives you the opportunity to explain both ice boxes and vaudeville (an act with 12 penguins, in this case), and to laugh a lot.


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