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.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Good starter chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Ramona excerpt makes me want to run right out and get a bunch of Beverly Cleary books. I read a few as a kid, but never became a huge fan of hers, not the way I was with Judy Blume or, later, Madeline L'Engle. For some reason, I had a Cleary/Blume opposition in my mind: I felt like I had to choose one of them, rather than reading both. Why I thought that, I have no idea. Looking for a team rivalry, but not interested in following sports?

Because Eleanor is so into stories, and her attention span for books is really quite good, we've tried a number of books over the last year that she was interested in but ultimately too young for: Mary Poppins,The Jungle Book, Little House in the Big Woods. They're all great books, and their time will come. A couple of your suggestions, however, have helped us get started on chapter books.

The Riverside Kids books, by Johanna Hurwitz, are perfect first chapter books. Unfortunately, some of them are out of print, but we've found a number in our library system, and you can find most of them pretty cheaply online. Here's a place where I'd try Alibris if IndieBound didn't get you what you were looking for.

The books focus on kids in two different families living in an apartment building in New York. Each book contains six linked stories which can be read together or stand alone (helpful at bedtime when you don't want to read all night). Nora and her little brother Teddy are the protagonists of the first two books: Busybody Nora and Superduper Teddy. Their neighbor Russell and his little sister Elisa star in some of the later ones: Rip-Roaring Russell, Russell and Elisa, and others. There's a complete list of them on Hurwitz's website.

Busybody Nora

We sat down with Busybody Nora, and Eleanor was rapt -- she wanted us to read the whole thing that day, and then asked for specific stories over and over in the days and weeks that followed. Her favorite is "Nora the Baby-Sitter," in which a miscommunication between two moms leaves five-year-old Nora in charge of her three-year-old brother and two-year-old neighbor for most of a day. There's some sweet misbehavior, but everything turns out fine, which sums up the tone of most of the stories. Hurwitz knows exactly how much plot a little kid can handle in one story. The prose isn't always gorgeous, but the stories tap into small desires and worries that little kids have. Eleanor refers to incidents in these books regularly.

I have a habit of tucking a slim book into the back of the diaper bag when we're going on a long subway ride. It has to be the right kind of book: enough stories to keep us occupied for a while, high-interest, not too big or bulky, paperback. Our current diaper bag book is The Jamie and Angus Stories, by Anne Fine, another of your excellent presents.

The Jamie and Angus Stories

I love Fine's tone in these stories. Jamie reads like a real kid, thoughtful and curious, and his relationship with the stuffed Highland bull Angus is creative and sweet. I love the adults in the stories too, the way you can hear Jamie's parents and Uncle Edward and Granny letting a little dry wit into their conversations with him. It's not at all treacly, but feels both warm and realistic. Eleanor's favorite story, by far, is "Strawberry Creams," the one in which Jamie, hospitalized for an unexplained stomach ailment, steals his hospital roommate's last 3 chocolates and then feels intensely guilty about it. This story prompted Eleanor's first real discussion of guilt, which is nice, because toddlers are essentially immoral. Are the sequels as good?

Love, Annie


  1. Hi, Annie! I love your new blog for the most selfish reason -- you're doing all the work finding the best books for me to read to Virginia! Finding great books for George has been a (albeit fun) challenge, especially when it comes to early chapter books. At 4, he was riveted to The Magic Treehouse (all 30-some-odd of them -- a bit of a slog for Mom) and loved the My Father's Dragon series (Virginia liked the first one at 2 1/2 -- each chapter is a nearly stand-alone encounter with a different wild animal). But our very favorite series so far is Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree. Virginia liked listening and picked up quite a bit about the characters and repetitive plot points -- Eleanor would definitely get something out of them now, and I guarantee you won't mind reading them again later.

  2. Thanks, Margaret! We'll be sure to check out The Magic Faraway Tree -- I'm excited. One of the perks of starting this blog has been people sending me recommendations right back. I love it. We recently read My Father's Dragon, which I loved as a kid as well, and will soon be revisiting the other books in that series. Nice to hear from you!

  3. Hey Annie,
    It's funny you mentioned this: "This story prompted Eleanor's first real discussion of guilt, which is nice, because toddlers are essentially immoral." Seems like these guys at Yale would disagree with you. Take the few minutes to watch the video. I absolutely love baby experiments like this.
    -Anna Belc

  4. Really interesting article, and video. But being able to identify right and wrong actions isn't, I think, the same as acting morally yourself. At least not for my 3-year-old.

    Glad you're reading!

  5. Lots of recent evidence showing how even babies are empathetic and extremely moral, in their context. Why a three-year-old makes a different choice is not about morals, necessarily.

  6. Thanks to Annie's gift of Busybody Nora, we started reading the Riverside Kids series... the only problem is that these are the ONLY chapter books Rebekah will read now! If Nora, Teddy, Elisa, and Russell aren't there, Rebekah's not there either. I'm assuming this will change at some point... in the meantime, at least there are a lot of these books and our library has most of them!