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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Good, non-scary chapter book reads

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Keeping Quilt has long been a favorite of ours, and I'm happy to hear that Patricia Polacco has updated it again -- the edition we have includes her children as adults, but neither of them was married yet.  One of my favorite things about the book is that only the quilt is rendered in color (in the early pages, the dress and babushka which will be used to make the quilt are also in color), while the rest of the illustrations are black and white.  This choice foregrounds the importance of the quilt, and makes the pages feel like black and white photographs.  We also have a special feeling about the book because my mother-in-law is an amazingly talented quilter, and has made multiple baby quilts for each of our kids, as well as the full-sized quilts we sleep under.  The image of Polacco's family quilt being used in active child play is a familiar one around here.

We can't wait to have you here for Thanksgiving!

Recently, an old college classmate of mine, Laura, emailed via the blog to ask about reading suggestions for her 4/12 year old daughter (also named Eleanor).  Here's her letter:


I would love book suggestions.  I am having trouble figuring out what to read to my Eleanor.  She turns five in March. I feel like it should be easy because she loves books and has a very long attention span.  I read the first two Little House books to her last year and she is in love.  They are nearly the only thing she has wanted to reread since shortly after she turned two.  She spends all of her spare time pretending to store food for winter. The next two didn't resonate with her as much because the girls are older and she is definitely not ready for The Long Winter.  I tried Ramona the Brave but the first chapter really upset her.    The Magic Tree House books are "too scary."  After some time reading your blog, we just read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  It was a great success and she even wanted to reread a chapter tonight.  I will pick up another one of those books,  but I don't know where to go after that.  I tried to start Pippi Longstocking, but she was really upset by the beginning and asked me to stop.  I asked her to listen for another paragraph and then decide.  The image of Pippi lifting her horse made Eleanor smile but she still wanted to stop.

I think she is really worried by books where children don't have adult supervision.  They all nearly died in every chapter of the Little House books (which I probably would have held off on had I had the sense to preread them) but Ma and Pa said things were okay so she didn't worry.   In the Magic Tree House, the kids go off alone and she is sure they will be eaten.  I had to page to the advertising in the back of the book to convince her that they couldn't die because they starred in at least 43 more books after this one.  I talked her through The Littles and she even read a couple on her own after. 

She already gets sucked into books just walking by them.  I find her, only half in her pajamas, leaning against her bed, lost to the world, book in hand.  She loves the Magic School Bus books, including the chapter books.  She likes Horrible Harry.  She reads reams of non-fiction.  The Cat in the Hat Learning Library and the Read and Find out Science series have been huge hits.  She enthusiastically describes how carpet pythons eat fallen baby bats but she hid an Animal Ark book about a lost puppy because it was scary.  I wouldn't mind suggestions about what to give her to read to herself.  My friends tell me that it doesn't matter because she already loves reading so much.  I think it does, especially since some books scare her enough that she hides them behind furniture. 


First, let me just say that I loved this letter.  Laura clearly knows her child, and is doing a wonderful job of finding her the right books to read, both on her own and together.  And her Eleanor sounds like an awesome kid.

Now, some thoughts on books for the younger Eleanor:

My first thought was the Betsy-Tacy books.  Like Little House, they're full of specific historical detail, and both Betsy and Tacy come from close, warm families.  As both of us have mentioned, the first book contains one difficult episode involving infant mortality which needs to be handled when reading it with younger kids. But this shouldn't stop you! The first four Betsy-Tacy books are quite wonderful in their depiction of friendship -- Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are tremendously imaginative and fun. (I'm less enamored of the later books, which take Betsy into high school and beyond. Eleanor and I are reading the fifth book right now, and it's heavy on descriptions of clothing and crushes on boys.)

She might also like the Riverside Kids books, which are similarly grounded in families with parents, and interesting without being scary.  Ditto for Anna Hibiscus, with the added benefit of containing lots of good detail about living in Africa.

Especially if she's interested in animals, Laura's Eleanor might enjoy the Doctor Dolittle books, which I adored in childhood and my Eleanor was very much into at age 4 as well.  Or Mr. Popper's Penguins, in which a house painter obsessed with Antarctic exploration receives a penguin in a box from an explorer he's written to.  In short order, he has a houseful of penguins, which he trains to perform in a vaudeville act.

Our list of Early Chapter Books has a bunch of other good possibilities as well.  Do you have further thoughts, especially on the non-fiction front or other books we haven't yet covered?

Love, Annie


  1. I second the suggestions on your FB page for All of a Kind Family and Clementine. Cheaper by the Dozen is good except the dad dies at the end. I wonder what scared her about Ramona - that one perplexes me - unless that first chapter is the one with the dog? What about the Henry Huggins books? My daughter is also easily scared but not of exactly the same things. There are lots of books with orphans who have other parental figures - like Heidi. Would that scare her? What about the Fudge books by Judy Blume? I also second animal books - but Charlotte of course dies at the end of Charlotte's web. I'd suggest Babe (Dick King-Smith) and Trumpet of the Swan. I'd also recommend longer and/or more sophisticated chapter books. There are wonderful picture book biographies or historical fiction out there (I'd suggest The Boy Who Loved Math; Snowflake Bentley; Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride) and perhaps she could even sit through a Who Was book about a scientist if she is into nonfiction. Some of Patricia Polacco's books would be too scary for her but some would be delightful. I'd also recommend nonfiction picture books about science - there are lots to choose from. Good luck!

    1. I completely understand being scared by Ramona the Brave. One of my girls had lots of nighttime-scared issues, and we eliminated it from the Ramona rotation. Not just the dog, but the hole in the wall during renovations late at night. I'd recommend trying any of the others -- they're all much gentler.

  2. Oh, and Understood Betsy, which is about an orphan but with parental figures is wonderful but the language would probably be too hard, combined with the historical context.

  3. Thanks for your suggestions! We actually just found the Riverside Kids books. She has read E is for Elisa and Make Room for Elisa so far. They are a big hit. Near them we found the Cobble Street Cousins series by Cynthia Rylant. They are almost totally devoid of dramatic tension, but she is reading them happily.

    A library near us carries Anna Hibiscus so we will check it out soon. We have Mr. Popper's Penguins already because I had good, if fuzzy, memories of it. I never read any of the Dr. Doolittle books, but I will give them a try. I am still on the fence about Betsy Tacy. I loved those books and I want to be sure she gives them a chance.

    I am not quite sure what the issue was with Ramona. The first chapter is Ramona defending Beezus from teasing boys and then finding out that her sister was more embarrassed by her than upset by the boys. It is emotionally intense if not scary. It is an uncomfortable chapter if you identify with Ramona.

    We do read a lot of picture books. She likes them. I just really enjoy longer books.

  4. My daughter (5) also gets scared early but is reading chapter books...actually found this post looking for more material for her to read. So far her favorite series is Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo.