The books I’m classifying as “Stage 2” are longer than those in “Stage 1,” but they still have large print and lots of pictures, with relatively simple vocabularly.
The easiest group of books in this stage is likely the Stink series by Megan McDonald, who also writes the more popular Judy Moody series. Stink is Judy’s calamitous and brainy younger brother, who must do things like find adoptive homes for 101 guinea pigs, defend the honour of non-planet Pluto, hype the newest installment of his favourite zombie book series, and become the ultimate thumb wrestling champion. Big type, lots of pictures, and comics to express Stink’s most excellent brain waves, 7-year-old style. We don’t own any of the Stink books, so when I bring some home from the library Roy and Geordie pounce on them and then hunker down in a corner somewhere to read (and laugh) undisturbed.
The Judy Moody series by Megan McDonald is one of the most popular in this age range; each book grows out of one of Judy’s many attempts at defining herself as she grows older. As her name suggests, she struggles to see the bright side of things, but she usually manages in the end.
There is a clear, hands-down, undeniable favourite in our house when it comes to this stage: The Ivy + Bean series, by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall. My 8 year old has been reading and re-reading them for two years now, and my 6 year old adores them just as much, if not more. It’s all here: the wistful hopefulness; the righteous indignation; and the world-weary ennui of being seven. But most of all: the relief and joy of having a best friend.
Me: “Geordie, how would you describe Ivy?”
Geordie: “Well, you may think she’s the quietest kid in the class, but when she grows up she wants to be a witch.”
Me: “Really? Why?”
Geordie: “Well, I guess because if witches need to creep up on someone they have to be really quiet so no one knows they’re coming.”
Me: “Okay. What about Bean?”
Geordie: “She’s the loudest kid in the class and she’s always getting into trouble
Me: “Got it.”
I realized the depth of Barrows’ genius when I found out that one of the books (No News Is Good News) grew entirely out of Ivy and Bean’s despair that their mothers never give them red wax-wrapped cheese in their lunch. Therefore, the unhappy pair must watch everyone else in their class open up their lunch boxes and use their red wax to fashion bloody noses, massive lips, unicorn horns, and then, at the end of the day when the wax is filthy dirty and brown: snot. The injustice of being denied such a glorious rite of the 2nd grade! The girls set about getting their hands on some of that cheese.
Here is a bit of Bean’s wisdom from the sixth book, Doomed to Dance: “When grown-ups asked you to sit in a circle, they were usually about to tell you something you didn’t want to hear. Ms. Aruba-Tate, Ivy and Bean’s second-grade teacher, was forever gathering them in a circle for bad news. Like, the class fish died over the weekend. Or, everyone has to start using real punctuation. Or, the pencil sharpener is off-limits. Circles meant trouble.”
Me: “Okay, Roy: what can we say about Clementine?”
Roy: “Well, for one thing she’s really funny and she’s a good artist.”
Me: “That’s two things, but I get your drift. Anything else?”
Clementine might be slightly more intimidating than Ivy + Bean because the print is smaller, and the vocabulary is a bit more difficult; the author, Sara Pennypacker, loves to mine words for humour. Clementine is a third-grader who typically finds herself in the soup more than once a day, but she’s completely without malice (unlike Bean, who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley….). I’d say that Clementine is a good option for reading together because of her malapropisms. For example, when Clementine agrees to help her frenemy Margaret “fix” a haircutting disaster:
“All of it?” I asked.
“All of it.”
So I did. Which is not exactly easy with those plastic art scissors, let me tell you. And just as I was finishing, the art teacher came in looking for us.
“Clementine!” she shouted. “What are you doing?”
And then Margaret went all historical, and the art teacher went all historical, and nobody could think of anything to do except the regular thing, which is: send me to the principal’s office.
I’m not sure how many kids in the second or third grade know the meaning of “hysterical” and “historical,” so reading with a parent would be valuable. Here’s another example of Pennypacker’s wit: “If they had a special class for gifted kids in art, I would definitely be in it. But they don’t, which is also unfair — only for math and English. I am not so good at English, okay, fine. But this year I am in the gifted class for math. And here is the bad surprise — so far, no gifts.”
Less well-known than Judy, Clementine and Ivy + Bean is Clarice Bean, from Britain. Many will recognize the author, Lauren Child, as the creator of Charlie and Lola, of picture book and television show fame. I think there are four or five Clarice Bean picture books, but really her tone is better suited for kids aged 6 and up, so she makes a good match with early chapter books. There are three: Utterly Me, Clarice Bean; Clarice Bean Spells Trouble; and Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Clarice is a master of the deadpan remark. Nothing gets by this kid: “I don’t think I believe in Santa Claus but Mom and Dad want me to, so I write to him anyway.” And: “I have to hop downstairs because I only have one slipper. Our dog, Cement, buried the other one in the yard and we can’t find it. It will probably be discovered in a hundred years from now by archaelogical diggers who will say it is fascinating and give it to a museum.”
Clarice is determined to write the best book report ever on her absolutely most favourite book character, schoolgirl detective Ruby Redfort. Full disclosure: my 8 and 6-year olds haven’t taken to Clarice. I’m not sure why, but they have yet to even finish one of the Clarice books, while they have read the Clementine, Judy Moody and Ivy + Bean books dozens of times. I’ve tried to press them for reasons, but all I get is: “She’s not as funny.”
Just Grace has fared much better than Clarice Bean at our house, but not so well as Judy, Clementine and Ivy + Bean (the Great Triumverate of early chapter book series). There are six books in the series by Charise Mericle Harper, and she had me at hello. Here is the first bit of the first chapter of the first book: “I did not get to be the helper to Mister Magic the Magician at my very own (so it should have been me) sixth birthday part because Sammy Stringer spit purple graph juice all over my special white shirt with a big six on it, and I had to change it right when Mister Magic was starting up. Mom said she was sure it was an accident, but I just know that spitting is pretty much an on-purpose thing, and it is almost impossible to forgive someone for something on purpose even if it was almost three years ago, which is a very long time.” She follows this with a diagram of her birthday shirt “Before” and “After” the spill, with the indignant marginalia: “It doesn’t even look like a ‘6’ anymore.” Lists abound in Just Grace, such as “What we are studying in school that is not fun” and “What I learned about Wisconsin before Mimi came over.” Grace is an excellent cartoonist and photographer of her cat, Crinkles, so pages are almost always graced (sorry) with her artistic / sardonic flair.
Lest this stage be dominated by girl protagonists, another option is Irene Punt’s hockey series: The Wicked Slapshot, The Funny Faceoff, Hockey Rules! and The Rink Rats. These are very manageable chapter books in terms of length and vocabulary, and there are lots of pictures to break things up. The themes are easy to recognize and relate to: making friends, keeping friends, and loving a sport and trying like heck to get better at it, despite disappointments.
The Canadian Flyer Adventures series, by Frieda Wishinsky, is slightly between stages: the books have large type and lots of pictures, and they’re quite short. Some of the vocabulary, however, occasionally (but not often) pushes at the boundaries of what’s typical for short chapter books with large type and lots of pictures. If you think that your child might need help with words like “halting,” “guffawed,” “charred,” and “bamboozle,” then you might want to either scan the book to go over the vocab beforehand, or read the book together. This series is similar to the Magic Treehouse series in that a boy and a girl travel back to various points in time to explore a different historical period or event. The difference, of course, is the Canadian content. I think, too, that these are better written than the Magic Treehouse books, which rely so heavily on repetition to reinforce plot points: “He’s nice.” “Nice?” “Yeah, I can tell. Let’s go down and talk to him.” “Talk to him?” Ugh. The sheer number of times the protagonists’ names are repeated in the space of one page is enough to make me want to throw the book across the room.
The classics have really stood up well, if my kids’ reading habits are any indication. First, Judy Blume’s Fudge series: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Super Fudge, Fudge-a-Mania, and Double Fudge, featuring the long-suffering older brother Peter and his tyrannical little brother Fudge. Second: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, starting with Ramona the Pest.
Judy Blume also turned her picture book, The Pain and the Great One, into a series of four early chapter books. Now the siblings have names — Jake and Abigail — but they still take turns telling their own versions of events, which works as well here as it does in the original picture book. My oldest two kids pick these up to re-read quite often.
Now for some edgy cynicism, kindergarten-style: Junie B. Jones. It’s an odd mix, really: it looks like an easy chapter book for a six-year-old, but would a six-year-old get the joke when Junie talks about someone on her street geting “rested” by a police officer, and being taken away for a nap? She’s doesn’t put too fine a point on anything, does Junie: her baby brother “is a dud,” and “school pictures is a racket.” A word of caution: Junie’s English skills aren’t stellar, so you might want to point out to your reader that words like “throwed” and “bestest” are there more for developing her character rather than for their legitimacy. Ages 6 and up.
A more recent publication to mention: in The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, Billy is afraid that he won’t fit in with his second grade class and he thinks his new teacher is mean (she forces her students to learn spelling!). The book is written in four parts, reflecting the four seasons of a year: in the first, he learns about his teacher’s love of spelling; in the second, he learns that his father is making something secret in his workshop; part three is devoted to his younger sister; and part four is about his mother. Essentially, the book ties together the most significant elements of Billy’s life — learning and family – and shows how these things come together to help him find a secure sense of place.
Brand new on the scene in 2016 is Sarah Dillard’s Mouse Scouts, with two sequels already. Fans of Ivy & Bean will recognize the dynamic here: Violet and Tigerlily are best friends, but complete opposites. Violet is shy and contemplative, while Tigerlily loves taking risks and gets bored easily. They’ve finally graduated from Buttercups to Acorn Scouts, and their project is a community garden. Snore! Gross! No worries: when veggie thieves start infiltrating the patch, Tigerlily spots opportunities for adventure and subterfuge. The rest of the Acorn mice gamely take part and help her vanquish the foes.
Lulu’s Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst is very funny: Lulu is such a disastrous child that her parents never go away. But this one time, they’re planned and vacation and they’ve hired the absolute best babysitter in town to look after Lulu for a week. At first, Lulu and the babysitter are sworn enemies, but then Lulu learns that the babysitter is actually a top secret, real life spy…. Loads of illustration and chapter breaks to make the text manageable and unintimidating, but there are some challenging words here (indignant, trespassing, briskly…) but not too many. They certainly don’t impede the story, and they offer some good vocab development if you’re reading together and you can stop and explain the words as you go.
In Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, Luke and Violet are fed up with their little sister Dory’s “baby” behaviour, so they warn her that a robber who steals little girls is coming to get her unless she stops having tantrums, talking to her imaginary friend, and so on. Their plan backfires, as Dory is just too funny and rascally to ever really be anyone’s victim. Really, this book is more about what it’s like to have two older siblings – poor Dory’s trials are very familiar at our house, and young siblings will probably relate right away. There’s a lot of negotiating, and always a treasured toy coveted by everyone at the same time. Loads of pictures in this one, sometimes across an entire page or even two: good for ages seven and up.
Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom, by Booki Vivat, is perfect for a reluctant reader. The pages are liberally decorated with funny illustrations that break up the text in manageable chunks. But the humour is wickedly funny and perfect for middle school kids. The protagonist, Abbie Wu, is totally freaking out because everyone has a “thing” except her. Spoiler alert: it turns out her “thing” is to be the VOICE OF THE PEOPLE! Nice twist – love it. Abbie finds out that collaboration and leading and having a few “things” that she really cares about are her strengths and her passion. The tone here is never preachy, either – just good fun and good heart.
UPDATES AS OF DECEMBER 2017
Mills, now 9, is ready to make her first chapter book recommendations! Woo hoo! She’s brought me two that she wants to put on the blog: first is Hilde Cracks the Case #1: Hero Dog! by Hilde Lysiak and Matthew Lysiak. The twist here is that the protagonist, Hilde, is based on a real girl who has a passion for investigative journalism and who publishes her own local newspaper (as reported in the New York Times). There are three Hilde books so far, and they are good beginner mysteries with lots of illustrations and snappy extras on the page to keep new readers engaged and happy.
Mills’ second recommendation is Coyote Tales, by Thomas King, made up of two short stories about that classic trickster figure of First Nations lore: the coyote. King is an institution in Canada, having won so many accolades it would be hard to list them all here. Never mind: the most important thing to say is that these are funny stories that ask important questions about why the world is the way it is. King writes Coyote so well you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.
Roy was really taken with Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-El, especially with how skillfully the author creates individual voices for all the barnyard characters. Farm animals trade first-person narrative to tell the story of Audrey, a cow, who feels very strongly and wistfully that she is a brave cow meant to escape her dark destiny. Very gentle tone; the story is engaging and the plot and suspense are well-structured to pull the reader along.
Fans of Clementine rejoice! Sarah Pennypacker’s started a new series about one of Clementine’s classmates, Waylon. In Waylon! One Awesome Thing, Pennypacker creates a whole new cast of characters, just as engaging, funny and heartfelt as those of the Clementine books. Roy, Geordie and my nine-year-old, Mills, all fans of Clementine, pronounced Waylon blog-worthy.