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, January 5, 2015

Early chapter books, step by step

Dear Annie,

Happy New Year!

We're starting 2015 with an Emerging Reader, as we say in the biz.  Your pal (and guest blogger) Cyd's daughter Ellie is working her way into independent reading step by step:

We went from Learn to Read type books (Henry and Mudge, Pinkalicious, Fancy Nancy) to Mercy Watson and then to Stephanie Greene's Princess Posey series (perfect next step: chapter books but with large print, short chapters, and easy vocabulary, but high-interest level for a first grader, as they are about a first-grader) and now we've just started Julie Sternberg's
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie
, which is also perfect: very short chapters, slightly harder vocabulary (but only slightly), written almost like verse so not much text on a page.... I need something at either the same level or just above.  She gets overwhelmed by too many words on a page and too much vocabulary she doesn't know and then gives up, so taking it up notch by notch is very important.

I've grabbed a handful of books -- all from different series -- which I would talk with Cyd and Ellie about if they came to the store.  I'm not sure where Ellie's interests lie, but here's an assortment to consider, more or less in order of difficulty.

-- The Cam Jansen series by David Adler, now up to #33.  Cam is a fifth grader with a photographic memory.  She needs only to say "click," and she memorizes a perfect image of what she's looking at.  Very useful in solving a string of mysteries with her friend Eric.  The mysteries maintain interest, and  action.  Pictures on almost every page, with occasional lapses.  Here's a two-page spread from the first book:

-- I know I rail against Magic Tree House books, but this is the situation they were invented for.  They're great for kids who are getting their confidence reading on their own.  Think of these books, with repetitive plots and structure, as aerobics for the reading muscles.  The reader doesn't need to figure out who the characters are every time she opens a book, she knows more or less what to expect, yet has some variety from story to story.  She can keep exercising those muscles until they're strong enough to realize they're a bit bored, and ready for something more challenging.

-- Cyd mentions that Ellie's progressed beyond the Fancy Nancy readers.  Jane O'Connor has also put her character into a chapter book mystery series: the first is
Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth
.  The mysteries are tame, the emoting is high.  As with all Fancy Nancy books, these come with a Lesson to be Learned.  In this book, it has to do with her parents trying to convince her that everything isn't a huge deal to worry about.

-- Sometimes I feel the entire publishing industry is pushing Books About Girls, and Books About Boys, with not a lot in between. But hey, you may find the perfect book if you cross the line. 
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot
, by Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey, combines slick illustrations, a little bit of graphic novel, simple text and a sense of humor.  Ricky is a mouse who befriends a giant robot.  They have adventures that involve some cartoon physical combat and villains from many planets.  They're an easier read than Captain Underpants.

-- Moving to slightly harder, the Geronimo Stilton series is wildly popular.  It's translated from the Italian, about a newspaper editor mouse who has many many adventures.  The series has spawned several spinoff series as well.  Part of the attraction of the books is the playful use of typeface:

-- The same author has started a lovely mystery series called Agatha, Girl of Mystery, under another pseudonym, Sir Steve Stevenson.  It's a little harder read.  Agatha goes to a different country in each book (eight so far), and the mystery usually involves a missing object.

-- Has Ellie read Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown yet?  A classic: Stanley wakes up one morning and he's flat.  Flat enough to be a kite, to be mailed to California, and to solve a museum theft by hanging on a wall.

Three which you've probably hit as read-alouds are worth considering for reading alone:

-- The wonderful Anna Hibiscus.  Good stories, lots of pictures, just good.

-- The Ramona books.  Ellie's probably not quite there yet, but her familiarity with them might make them feel a bit less intimidating.

-- Lulu and the Brontosaurus comes in a nice oblong shape with illustrations on every two-page spread.  And it has that excellent repeating chant:  "I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, gonna get/A bronto-bronto-bronto Brontosaurus for a pet."

I've saved one of my favorites for last.  In the great sea of early chapter books, many of which are just great for this stage of getting used to reading, lovely writing is not always there.  Enter
Violet Mackerel
by Anna Branford, a relatively recent arrival from Australia. It has large type, fewer words per page, but a more sophisticated vocabulary than others with this typeface. Violet lives with her single mom (romance shows up as the series progresses) and has real-life feelings and mild adventures.  I love to sell this book: I just open it up and show the customer the first page:
Chapter One: The Red Button
Violet Mackerel is quite a small girl, but she has a theory.
  Her theory is that when you are having a very important and brilliant idea, what generally happens is that you find something small and special on the ground.  So whenever you spy a sequin, or a stray bead, or a bit of ribbon, or a button, you should always pick it up and try very hard to remember what you were thinking about at the precise moment when you spied it, and then think about that thing a lot more.  That is Violet's theory, which she calls the Theory of Finding Small Things.

Here's hoping Ellie will find many more books -- small and large -- to keep her happily reading.



1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Debbie! These are wonderful suggestions. I want to give a shout-out to my sister, who blogs at, for recommending the Princess Posey and Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie books to me in the first place. We will try some of these others! Ellie actually read a chapter to me from Anna Hibiscus last night (great minds think alike, I guess; it occurred to me that Anna H., which I did read aloud to her long ago, might be a good fit) and tonight she read me a chapter from Ivy and Bean (which I thought might be a good fit, and this turned out to be true). She is obsessed with the Rainbow Magic Fairy books, which are just as formulaic as Magic Tree House, but insists I read them to her, because "for some reason, Mommy, when I read them to myself, they're boring, but YOU read with such EXPRESSION that they're WONDERFUL!" (hmm. note to self: read with less expression). So Magic Tree House could go either way - we'll see. We did also try Violet Mackerel a couple of months ago and the vocabulary made it too rough going, but she has progressed a lot so worth trying again! Again, thank you!