I think this is the stage — moving into smaller type, more challenging vocabulary, and fewer pictures, if any — where things take off in terms of the sheer amount of choice readers have. Mostly, these were given the seal of approval by my son when he was between 6 and 8 years of age.
Some Classics to Consider
By the time my son (my eldest) was five years old I’d built up a small library of second-hand chapter books, and things really started to take off when he was six and he picked up Charlotte’s Web. He liked it so much that he found the other E.B. White books on his shelves — Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan — and read them next. Now, you’ll notice that I don’t say “WE” read these books. Our house is littered with books that Roy has opened, read, and then left opened and face down, to be picked up again at a later date. He will skim some parts and then come back to them, re-reading books over and over again, dipping into pages the way some dip their toes into water. I’ve tried reading aloud to him or taking turns but he’ll have none of it. I interfere with his process, so my job remains to have his shelves stocked and ready when he wants something new. My daughter, now 6, seems to be following the same trajectory.
Long story short: if you want to start reading a chapter book to your child, or if they’re ready for more text with smaller type and fewer pictures, Roy (and I) would recommend E.B. White!
Dick King-Smith is another author whose proven popular at this stage — you’ll know him as the writer of The Sheep-Pig, which was turned into the movie Babe. He’s written dozens of children’s books; my son has really enjoyed The Golden Goose, Martin’s Mice, A Mouse Called Wolf, and The Fox Busters.
This seems like an appropriate time to put in my two cents about movie adaptations of books. A huge number of early readers are versions of films — Disney films in particular — and many kids’ films were books first (I’ve mentioned five of them in this post). Part of my job teaching Cultural Studies is to talk about how much participation we have in our popular cultural texts. The idea is: if we have more participation in making meaning, then we have a greater democratic process. From a childhood development standpoint, when children make meaning it also flexes their imaginations and their creativity. If kids read a book after they’ve seen the movie, then a lot of that process is wiped out, because the movie has already dictated the properties of the characters and settings. If kids see a movie after they’ve read the book, then the meaning they made — how they imagined it — is replaced by the movie’s version, because movies are so saturated with sensory stimulation, which is like candy for the brain. I’m not suggesting that kids not watch films, but I am suggesting that kids should be allowed to really engage in the reading process (which means using their imaginations to construct the story along with the writer) without it being disrupted by films.
If your child enjoyed Judy Blume’s Fudge books and is ready for something slightly more challenging, you might try Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which follows Sheila from the Fudge series, who must adapt after she’s transplanted from the city to the suburbs. I asked Roy to tell me what it was about and he said, “Mostly about Sheila writing her own newspaper and yelling. It’s good.” Now I realize why I like Sheila so much: I, too, am a newspaper and yelling enthusiast.
Similarly, fans of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books might also like the Henry Huggins series, which begins with Henry finding his soulmate in the shape of a skinny old stray dog. Hijinx ensue.
I asked Roy which of the Roald Dahl books he’d recommend (he’s read them all — even the book of poetry, Revolting Rhymes) and he responded seriously and without hesitation, “Matilda, Mum. Always Matilda.” Okay then. When pressed for a runner up, he shrugged and picked James and the Giant Peach, and I recall seeing him with The BFG a few times, but clearly Matilda has etched her name on his heart as the best of Dahl’s novels, so I’ll go with his expertise on this one. Matilda has a gift for making her truly awful parents crazy, but has she met her match in Headmistress Trunchbull? Not bloody likely.
Do you remember Mr. Popper’s Penguins? When I saw it on the charity shop shelves I could vividly remember it being a hit at my elementary school library — I picked it up for a few pennies for my kids and it was money very well spent. Howls of laughter came from the sofa where Roy set up camp to read it.
You might also consider trying Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods on children at this stage. They’re pretty thick (um…the books, not the children), but they have large type and many pictures, and the vocabularly is quite simple. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about her pioneer family in the American Midwest are still enticing — even to my 21st century son. I think, of all the books he’s read so far, this was the one that invited the most questions. The mechanics of pioneer life — the covered wagon, the sod house, the well, the log house, the hunting and growing of food, the breaking of a colt, the one room schoolhouse, the making of candles, the cobbling of shoes, and on and on — were fascinating to him.
Some “Off-Broadway” Selections
Okay, now for some books that have scored major points at our house that you might not have heard of. Roy tells me that I absolutely must start off with the Waggit series, by Peter Howe, beginning with Waggit’s Tale — a doubly great title given that Waggit is a dog. On his own in the city, young Waggit is taken in by a pack of stray dogs who help him learn how to survive in a big city park. We love the improvised language used by the dogs, who call birds “flutters,” rabbits “hoppers,” winter “the long cold,” and cars “rollers,” teenage boys “stoners,” humans “uprights,” rats “scurries,” etc. Not to worry — there’s a map and a glossary to help out if need be (but if it was at all confusing I don’t think Roy would have taken to it so quickly and completely!). There are two sequels: Waggit Again and Waggit Forever.
If Waggit is a hit with your reader, you might also try The Good Dog by Avi, who must be one of the most prolific authors of kids’ chapter books. Told from a Malamute’s perspective, it’s a classic dog story: freedom or domestication? Avi seems particularly strong when it comes to introducing mid-level vocabularly with strong contextual grounding. Words like “sloped,” “braced,” “surge,” “proclaiming,” for example, all occur in the same paragraph, and they might be new to a seven-year-old, but the context in which they’re used makes them comprehensible rather than intimidating. If your reader likes The Good Dog, you might also try Avi’s Tales From Dimwood Forest series, which starts with Ragweed.
If any one contemporary Canadian author could dominate this reading stage it would have to be Gordon Korman. He deserves his own post, but let me just say here that Roy has read his Slapshots series so many times the pages now turn themselves. PLEASE NOTE! IF YOU HAVE A RELUCTANT READER WHO LOVES SPORTS TRY THE SLAPSHOTS SERIES! The first book, The Stars from Mars, introduces us to an Ontario atom hockey team whose players make it from zeroes to heroes in classic ragtag style. The narrator — the sports writer for an elementary school newspaper — has an unhealthy appetite for jawbreakers. The coach, Boom Boom, doesn’t seem to know any nouns (unless you count “whatchamacallit” and “thingamabob”). One player can only skate forwards while another can only skate backwards. Their key enforcer is a girl who bodychecks with a vengeance. Hilarity ensues! (No pictures, but the type is generously-sized and the chapters are only 7 pages long, on average.) I am particularly appreciative of books like this because the humour appeals to kids but isn’t harsh the way recent pre-teen novels have been, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I Funny. If you’re looking for another Korman book at this stage, Roy recommends the Swindle series, which starts with a bit of a caper involving a haunted house and Babe Ruth baseball card.
Sports fans will also appreciate the Scrappers series by Dean Hughes, about a kids’ baseball team. And the team has more than one girl! This series is far more earnest than Slapshots: the players deal with genuinely believable struggles; one, for example, has to figure out how to play like she used to — without fear — after getting hit in the face with a ball. (Again, no pictures, but fair-sized type and short chapters, so these aren’t intimidating for young readers.)
One part mystery, one part comedy, and one part talking animal story, Bunnicula (the vampire rabbit) by James Howe was first published in 1979. Narrated by Harold the dog, it tells the story of his family’s adoption of a strange rabbit and the family cat’s attempts to get rid of the vampiric bunny. After that came Howliday Inn, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, Nighty-Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, Bunnicula Strikes Again!, and Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow. Mr. Howe seems to have caught onto the fact that most children delight in that oft’ underappreciated comic gem, the pun. Titles aside, the writing has a rich vocabulary, with meaty sentences. Check this one out: “‘Alive and yet not alive,’ said a voice as well-oiled as the door.” Or this one: “He stood in the doorway, his pale face a shroud of skin on ancient bones, his lips red with life like overripe berries.” Zounds! A great intro to the gothic style.
Yet another animal series, but this one has a historical angle. I first bought a Horse Diaries book because I saw it at a toy store just before Christmas and I need a stocking stuffer for my eldest daughter. It had a horse on the cover, it wasn’t pink, it was seven dollars, and it would fit in the stocking. Blammo. I was a bit surprised, therefore, when I saw my son crouched over the book on Christmas morning, where he remained until he’d finished the last page. Then he went straight to the computer to see if the library had any more Horse Diaries books. Each book is told from the perspective of a horse, and each book is located in a specific historical context. The first book, Elska, is about an Icelandic pony’s life, circa 1000 AD; others tell the stories of a Tennessee Walking Horse on an 1856 Alabama plantation, a Lipizzaner stallion in 1938 Vienna, a mustang colt in 1950s Nevada, a racing thoroughbred in Depression-era California…. Horses lives are hard, and there are plenty of sad moments in this series (which is the only reason I’ve put it at stage three rather than stage two), but it’s also deeply heartfelt and the historical contexts are varied and engaging. Illustrations occur every few pages and they’re accomplished, realistic black and white drawings that add to the stories’ quality. Oh, and my daughter did eventually get her hands on her book shortly after Christmas, and she’s enjoyed the whole series as much as her brother.
German author Cornelia Funke has published across the children’s book genres, from picture books to weighty young adult novels. Her very funny gross-out ghost series, Ghosthunters, is four books long, and good fun. Nine-year old Tom and Hugo the ghost make an excellent team, taking on ghosts far worse than Hugo, who is, after all, only an Averagely Spooky Ghost (or, ASG) and not an Incredibly Revolting Ghost (or, IRG).
Olivia Kidney might be considered the next step up if your reader was particularly taken with the likes of Judy Moody. Olivia is a lonely girl who’s just moved for the fourth time in two years. Her dad is loving but inept, and her brother is hardly ever around. The sadness and poverty of her life are alleviated when she discovers that her new apartment building is full of magic and secrets.
I’m not a fan of graphic novels because I often have to pause and figure out what’s being said by whom and in what order, I miss the narrative voice, and I find the artwork too similar from book to book. But I have brought home several graphic novels for my kids that I thought looked interesting, in an effort to provide some variety. The Fog Mound series by Susan Schade and Jon Buller is a creative, original take on the genre, alternating between sections of prose and cartoons (so it’s not a 100% graphic novel), and Roy’s loved all three of its books: Travels of Thelonious, Faradawn and Simon’s Dream. It’s a post-apocalyptic setting, where talking animals speak of the “Human Occupation” and “The Story of Bob.” But are these myths or were there really humans? And how come the animals can talk whereas before, long ago, they only knew “the low language?” Thelonious the chipmunk sets out to find the truth along with his friends Olive the bear, Fitzgerald the porcupine and Brown the lizard. Bill the shrunken human arrives on the scene a bit later.
Daughter of the Great Zandini, by Cary Fagan, is a well-crafted story with language that feels completely authentic in recreating the look and sound of its setting, 100+ years ago. Fanny’s father is the Great Zandini, a successful magician, and she must stand by and watch as her brother, Theodore, is groomed to be the next Great Zandini. It is, of course, Fanny who has the passion and the aptitude to inherit her father’s crown. Oh, this is a tale as old as time. Illustrations and news articles break up the text – a very unintimidating chapter book that is, however, well-written and rewarding.
After he discovered the Smells Like Dog books (see “Chapter Books: Stage Four”), Roy went straight to the library’s website and ordered up Suzanne Selfors’ Imaginary Veterinary series, starting with The Sasquatch Escape. This series is an easier read than the Homer Pudding series – it’s slimmer and the text is broken up with some kind of illustration or graphic element on nearly every page. Ben and his friend Pearl discover a fantastically strange, secret vet’s office that caters to creatures that should only exist in our imaginations. Keeping track of the creatures while keeping them secret from the townsfolk is one suspenseful challenge after another. Two sequels: The Lonely Lake Monster and The Rain Dragon Rescue!
Over the summer (2015) Geordie (age 9) really enjoyed Beryl: A Pig’s Tale by Jane Simmons and Lizard Meets Ivana the Terrible by C. Anne Scott. I’d put these at the top of the Stage Three range — fewer pictures, more text, but still very manageable. Here’s a look at a page from the latter:
There’s a whole world of British chapter books that we rarely get a glimpse of over here in Canada, which is a shame. Thankfully, once you do find out about them it’s easy enough to order them via used book sellers on amazon or abebooks.com. Darcy Burdock by Laura Dockrill is one Geordie (age nine) tried and loved, and would suit fans of Clarice Bean and Katie Davies “Great” series (The Great Dog Disaster, etc.). Another fun one in this style is Agatha Parrot and the Zombie Bird, but Kjartan Poskitt. Several sequels for both Darcy and Agatha.
A zany bit of fluff is The Odd Squad: Zero Tolerance by Michael Fry. It’s perhaps best described as similar to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but with greater heart, inclusiveness, and irony. It’s a big step up. AND: three female protagonists!
Mac Barnett has emerged as a comedic force to be reckoned with, especially in the Terrible Two in which Miles and Niles battle for the title of best prankster at their school. The principal gets the brunt of it, of course, when the two join forces for the greater good…er, prank. And there’s a sequel, aptly titled The Terrible Two Get Worse.
Some Pretty Okay Filler
If you have a particularly voracious reader who needs a steady stream of new books, I’ve had some unexpected successes courtesy of the second-hand and charity shops. None of these are going to win any prizes for originality or carefully-crafted writing, but they’ve been read, enjoyed, and then read again by my older kids nonetheless, and there are scads of copies waiting to be scooped up second-hand for pittance. The Animal Ark series by Ben Baglio chronicles the efforts of Mandy and James Hope to rescue, rehabilitate, relocate, and/or otherwise help a whole menagerie of animals that come to their parents’ vet practice. The titles are all annoyingly alliterated (Bunnies in the Bathroom, Colt in the Cave, Dolphin in the Deep, Hound on the Heath, Tabby in the Tub….).
The Boxcar Children mysteries by Gertrude Chandler Warner are written in a similar vein: earnest, well-intentioned, good-hearted children try to fix problems and succeed.
Last, The Magic School Bus series, which my 6 and 8 year olds often pick up to re-read, and find pretty funny. I don’t see it, but I’m not a kid. As a bonus, each book teaches scientific concepts by exploring subjects like the skeletal system, the solar system, electricity, germs, bats, whales, etc.
Speaking of science, and to briefly divert from books for a moment: we’ve just discovered the CD/DVD set Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants. All I can say is that my 8 year old son has learned the periodic table of elements, my 6 year old daughter is singing about how a shooting star is not really a star at all, and my 4 year old daughter informed me that everything is made of elements. They are now officially smarter than me.
New in 2017: Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, by Kate Beasley, in which Gertie is determined to reach great heights of fifth-gradedom in her new school. Alas, another girl in her class has the same idea…. Let the rivalry begin!
Another 2017 release: The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, by Kara LaReau. Jaundice and Kale Bland from Dullsville lead a very intentionally boring life…until they’re kidnapped by an all-female band of pirates! With heavy helpings of dry wit and swashbuckling, the sisters have more adventures than they’d ever thought possible as they try to unravel their parents’ roles in all this mayhem.