The genre of early chapter books is a bit nebulous, because (surprise!) every kid is different. Reading levels vary widely, especially between the ages of 4-8. Some kids are fairly fluent readers by age five, while others are emerging or reluctant readers well into elementary school. All of which fall in the scope of normal development.
But guess what? Reading aloud is a fantastic remedy for this because ALL children can understand beyond their current reading level. Sure, some words will still be unfamiliar to them, and they may interrupt to ask for a definition; however, reading aloud provides wonderful exposure to new words, sentence structure, and the elements of a well-constructed tale. Not to mention, it creates meaningful memories and lasting bonding opportunities.
We started reading longer chapter books aloud to our first daughter when she was 2.5. Don’t get me wrong, we still read a ton of picture books, but for dinner time or on the road, we generally had a longer book at the ready. They became our “family books.” Some books we abandoned (which is completely fine), while others have become embedded into our family culture (meaning we quote them regularly). Now my oldest and I take turns over who gets to read the latest chapter book first.
The books on this list (each of them part of a series) range from 80-200 pages and are a great next step after early reader books. Some have full-color illustrations on every page, while others have black and white images scattered throughout. They all have clean content and an array of characters suitable to both boys and girls. I can personally vouch for each book on this list.
1 | MERCY WATSON TO THE RESCUE BY KATE DICAMILLO
Mr. and Mrs. Watson live perfectly content lives on Deckawoo Drive with their pig, Mercy. When the trio snuggles in bed one morning, they soon find themselves crashing through the ceiling falling to the room below. Mercy, unruffled, is off to find assistance (both in the form of firefighters and fragrant cookies). Perhaps no pig, apart from Wilbur, has ever been as beloved by a generation of readers. We also highly recommend the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series.
2 | THE PRINCESS IN BLACK BY SHANNON HALE AND DEAN HALE
Each book in this series takes about 45 minutes to read from start to finish. Filled with the active energy of a determined princess by day (monster fighter also by day), jubilant images, a steady steed sidekick, and a predictable yet varied plot make this an utterly engaging series for children of all ages. Do yourself a favor and just plan on buying the entire series at the start.
3 | MANGO & BAMBANG: THE NOT-A-PIG BY POLLY FABER
Mango lives in a big city in an apartment with her Papa. One day she discovers a tapir blocking traffic. Determined to help this befuddled animal, she takes Bambang home for a hearty meal, and together the two become inseparable. Mango’s soothing nature and gentle approach help Bambang break out of his shell and try new things. With a cast of strong supporting characters (including a nemesis neighbor named Dr Cynthia PricklePosset who is determined to capture Bambang), this is perhaps one of the best lesser-known series worth seeking out.
4 | HENRY HECKELBECK GETS A DRAGON BY WANDA COVEN
Henry likes to be efficient with his time, which is especially handy when getting ready for the first day of school. Henry is also a bit of a detective, which is helpful when getting to know people. When the teacher gives Henry’s class an assignment to bring in three items in a paper bag to tell their classmates about themselves, Henry ends up finding out his toy dragon (the one he put in the bag) can come to life due to his magic powers. Henry is a curious boy with a big heart, and this book will surely become a favorite with your young readers. We also really like the Heidi Heckelbeck series.
5 | MIA MAYHEM IS A SUPERHERO! BY KARA WEST
When an unexpected letter arrives, Mia is finally let in on her family’s secret: They are real-life superheroes and she, Mia Mayhem, has been accepted into the superhero training school. With a custom suit and an individual instructor, Mia is inducted into her new school. Will Mia’s klutzy maneuvers and training difficulties be enough to set her on the path toward superhero training?
6 | CLEMENTINE BY SARA PENNYPACKER
Clementine lives in an apartment building with her parents and little brother (who is always referred to as a different vegetable name throughout the series). Her best friend and polar opposite, Margaret, lives in the same building and goes to the same school. Unfortunately, Clementine’s intention to help Margaret with her hair ends up turning into a complete disaster. With such an affable main character, it’s impossible not to love these books. I’ll forever be grateful we picked this one up from the free library inside our pediatrician’s office.
7 | MY HEART IS LAUGHING BY ROSE LAGERCRANTZ
Dani’s generally happy outlook on life has plummeted since her best friend Ella moved away. At school, Ella’s desk sits empty, a constant reminder of the friend she desperately misses. When two girls at school start picking on Dani, she retaliates and then runs away to avoid the consequences. Told with empathy for the emotions of young children, this book (created by two Swedish friends) immediately made me want to read the rest of the series.
8 | DORY FANTASMAGORY BY ABBY HANLON
A mix of Ramona meets Pippi Longstocking, Dory is a vivacious girl—with a nemesis named Mrs Gobble Gracker—who lives equal parts in her imagination and reality. Reluctant or struggling readers will certainly relate to book three in the series, and youngest children will definitely identify with her plight of feeling left out. Dory is a pure delight.
9 | AMELIA FANG AND THE BARBARIC BALL BY LAURA ELLEN ANDERSON
Amelia Fang is a vampire who lives in Nocturnia with her rather self-absorbed and somewhat daft parents. With her pet pumpkin, Squashy, and a set of truly memorable friends (including the Grim Reaper and Yeti), Amelia steals herself for the annual gala her parents are planning. Soon, however, Squashy is stolen by the King’s spoiled son and a rescue mission begins. With laugh-out-loud lines, this may be best for slightly older children (although my voracious five-year-old reader loved it).
10 | BIG FOOT AND LITTLE FOOT BY ELLEN POTTER
Hugo is a Sasquatch being trained in all the ways to avoid humans. However, he secretly wants to see one in real life. When he sends off a note into the Wide World, he is surprised to get a response. Then a chance meeting with a boy, named Boone, leads him on an adventure he hadn’t anticipated. We look forward to reading the other books in this series.
11 | POLLY DIAMOND AND THE MAGIC BOOK BY ALICE KUIPERS
Polly is a precocious girl who receives a magical book out of the blue one day. It’s a book that makes everything she writes inside come to pass. A bigger house? No problem. An appropriate punishment for her little sister, Anna? Done. For a budding writer like Polly, finding the precise words to convey just what she means is part of learning how to control her talent. We learn about Polly through some of her lists and other doodles. In short, Polly is a near-perfect read.
12 | LULU AND THE BRONTOSAURUS BY JUDITH VIORST
Lulu, an only child, is determined to have a pet. Not just any pet—a dinosaur. Nevermind the fact that they are extinct, Lulu realizes she’ll have to take matters into her own hands when her parents don’t get her the dinosaur she wanted for her birthday. A moral wrapped into a series with a somewhat petulant/bossy heroine, Lulu reminds us all of how misunderstood we often feel as humans.
13 | SOME PIGTAILS BY JONATHAN EIG
Lola and her Grandpa Ed have a special connection (except when she wakes him up too early, that is). When the school principal says that Lola’s hair is a distraction, she schemes up a plan (with her family supporting her) to get the school behind her petition. With multiple references to other books throughout, this is an especially literary-centric book for emerging readers.