No matter your minority language, one investment you definitely should make in your young child’s literacy development are chapter books produced in a series.
Believe me, I know firsthand how daunting it can be to buy the 10 or 20 (or even more!) books that make up a series, but, in the long run, it’s a small price to pay for the enormous impact chapter books can have on a child’s enthusiasm for reading and, consequently—as I outline in The Power of Reading—his or her overall language ability. Chapter book series are at the very heart of my efforts to nurture a love for literacy and strong English skills in my own kids, and in my students. To get your children hooked on books, build a home library of some proven titles (some recommendations for English titles follow) and then lean daily on the inherent power of series books, with their familiar characters and plot conventions, to captivate young minds and stoke their passion for reading.
Ideally, you should begin reading chapter books to your children from the age of 3 or 4—while continuing to read picture books, too. (Remember, children are capable of listening at a higher level than they can read so your 3- or 4-year-old can generally follow chapter books written at a first or second grade reading level.) The choice of series will depend, of course, on the language level and interests of your child. Perhaps the best way to judge the suitability of a series for your needs is to consider my descriptions of the books on the list below and then click through to amazon.com to see further reviews and, most importantly, study some sample pages. I have my own favorites, naturally—series that I consider to be especially enjoyable and effective—but each one is well worth considering for your home library. (The links will take you to amazon and a discounted boxed set, when available, or the first title in the series.)
As your children grow, and begin to read on their own, you can then read the same series books with them—the ones you’ve already read aloud. With Lulu and Roy, we simply take turns reading, page by page, for about 15 minutes each day. (As my kids are reasonably close in age—as of this post, Lulu is 8 and Roy is 5—I’m generally able to read aloud to them together, from the same book, because their listening levels are similar. However, when they read with me, we have to read separately, from different books, because their reading levels are different.)
The larger aim, of course, is for children to then start reading chapter books independently, and gladly, at progressively higher levels. My own kids are at the threshold of this stage right now, and I’m currently searching for suitable titles that will help motivate them to read more by themselves—books that we haven’t already read together. I figure if I can find books that might pique their interest, I’ll flash the covers and give them a dramatic introduction—then just sit back and see if they’ll “take the bait” by picking up the books on their own. Because they’ve already been hooked by their experience of chapter book series, I think it’s now mostly a matter of adding appealing titles to our library. Lulu and Roy will then (hopefully) do the rest.
(You know your children are hooked on books when they plead with you to read another chapter during a read-aloud session. When we were thick in the middle of The Magic Treehouse series, they would demand that I continue reading the story by chanting the names of the two main characters: “READ JACK AND ANNIE! READ JACK AND ANNIE!” In that chant, which will probably echo in my head forever, is the sound of their first love for literacy.)
Suggestions for chapter book series
The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osbourne
The Magic Treehouse series has been the backbone of our collection of chapter books. It’s a terrific series in so many ways:
- the writing is good, even poetic at times (though I think it took a few books for the author to really hit her stride)
- the stories are entertaining and suspenseful, with magical adventures and encounters—in fact, books themselves prompt these magical adventures, which works well as a plot device but also serves as a lovely metaphor
- the characters are strong and engaging, and the brother-sister pair lends appeal to both boys and girls
- the series celebrates a number of positive themes, including courage, caring, and imagination
- the books feature a wide range of places and people throughout history, which not only offers variety to each story, but also provides a steady diet of background knowledge
The Magic Treehouse series actually consists of two sets of books:
- the first 28 volumes are shorter books, with simpler plots and a reading level of roughly second grade
- the next set, which consists of another 20 books (and counting), are somewhat longer and more sophisticated, written for a third grade level
I initially bought the first 28 books (as a boxed set) and read those aloud about three times each before moving on to some of the books in the other set. (We only have about half of the titles in the second set because they’re being issued in hardcover first, and I hold out until the cheaper paperback version appears!)
For shared reading, too, The Magic Treehouse books have been a hit with both Lulu and Roy. Some time ago Lulu and I completed all the books we have (that’s dozens of books in just 15 minutes a day!), while Roy, who has been reading the books since he was 4, is now nearly finished with the first set.
Mary Pope Osborne, the author of The Magic Treehouse , has said: “Learning to read and loving to read can be a passport to freedom. With books, children can travel over boundaries and borders. They can gain knowledge to help overcome the hardships they face. They can discover the best in themselves—and then use their talents to help others.”
These sentiments, I think, sum up the splendid spirit of The Magic Treehouse, an outstanding chapter book series for young children.
Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park
The Junie B. Jones series is very funny, and can be surprisingly touching, too. The main character is a high-spirited little girl who makes endless mischief in kindergarten, then in first grade, and her comical adventures are told from her unique first-person point of view. The series currently numbers 28 books, with the first 17 titles set in kindergarten. In our case, I obtained all the “kindergarten” books, but haven’t yet pursued the “first grade” stories. (As a matter of fact, since Lulu and Roy loved the first 17 books, they might be encouraged to read “independently and gladly” if these other titles were in our house.)
The Junie B. Jones books are quick, lively stories, and written at a low second grade reading level. In my experience, they’re rollicking good fun, for both parent and child, though I should add that some parents have two reservations about these books:
- Junie B. is a sassy, larger-than-life character, and isn’t the sort of child most parents would want as a role model for their kids.
- Junie B. regularly makes (amusing) errors in her use of English, so isn’t always the best model for proper English, either.
To these concerns, I would simply say that such reservations can be actively addressed by attentive parents, and turned into “teachable moments.” When I was reading aloud the books to Lulu and Roy, we would stop whenever necessary to comment on Junie B.’s behavior or her errors in English usage. And now, in the aftermath, it doesn’t appear that the stories have made them any more sassy than they normally are, or done some sort of damage to their English ability.
On the contrary, the beauty of these books, to my mind, is that the exuberance of the storytelling keenly conveys the fun and joy to be found in reading. They may not be every parent’s cup of tea, but shared in the right spirit, children will drink them up, to the benefit of their language development and their affection for books.
Dinosaur Cove by Rex Stone
The Dinosaur Cove series consists of nine books which follow the adventures of two boys who travel back in time and encounter various dinosaurs—one type of dinosaur is featured in each book, starting with “Attack of the Tyrannosaurus.” Although the reading level is a bit higher—roughly third or fourth grade for independent reading—the stories are entertaining and suspenseful and have been a favorite of both my kids and my students. (Note: I believe the series was originally published in England, and then republished—with different titles for the books, and presumably some minor changes to the text—in the United States.)
Pirate School by Brian James
The Pirate School books—eight in all—are lighthearted romps about the adventures of a boy and his friends who want to become pirates. The stories are humorous and action-packed and may appeal particularly to boys, though two of the would-be pirates are girls and Lulu seemed to enjoy this series just as much as Roy when I read them aloud. The reading level is roughly for third grade, and though the stories are straightforward, some of the vocabulary—like the frequent “pirate speak”—will probably need some explaining for younger children.
Marvin Redpost by Louis Sachar
The Marvin Redpost series is a fun and funny set of eight books. Though the main character is in the third grade, the books are written at a low second grade reading level. Along with the author’s quirky trademark humor, the stories raise thoughtful issues that young children often experience. The Marvin Redpost books are a rare combination of wit and sensitivity, and an excellent introduction to Louis Sachar’s many fine books, including There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom and Holes , which won the Newbery Award.
Wayside School by Louis Sachar
The Wayside School series, also by Louis Sachar, is written at a somewhat higher reading level than Marvin Redpost —from perhaps third grade—but the zany stories about the children and teachers at this unusual school are pretty easy for smaller children to follow and enjoy. (The school building is 30 stories high, with just one classroom on each floor.) The three books in this series push absurdity to the limit—and perhaps over the limit, at times—but they’re nevertheless unique and comical and a lot of fun.
Catwings by Ursula Le Guin
The Catwings series was written by the acclaimed author Ursula Le Guin and consists of four short, sweet stories about a litter of kittens who are born with wings. The writing and illustrations are lovely and have a rich, timeless quality. Although the author’s use of language is somewhat sophisticated, and the reading level is perhaps third or fourth grade, younger children can enjoy hearing them read aloud. The Catwings tales make a wonderful introduction to fine children’s literature.
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
My Father’s Dragon is a series of three books (all three can now be found in one volume entitled Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon ) that dates back to 1948. The first book, about a boy who rescues a baby dragon by making use of ingenious tricks, is especially charming. Although some of the language is a bit dated or difficult (the reading level is third or fourth grade), the stories are fun and easy to follow. The lovely black and white illustrations (by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, the author’s stepmother) are a perfect match for the material, resulting in three whimsical books that have become classics, continuously in print since they were first published many decades ago.
Ramona by Beverly Cleary
The beloved author Beverly Cleary wrote eight books about spunky Ramona Quimby, books that have rightfully become classics of children’s literature. The stories explore Ramona’s head and heart so fully, with such humor and warmth, that the modest details of her life become compelling adventures. Still, it should be noted that the language is sometimes dated, and the writing is fairly sophisticated (at a fourth or fifth grade reading level), so younger children may have a harder time following and enjoying the stories. To date, we’ve read The Ramona Collection, Volume I (the first four books) and look forward to reading the others.
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
Another winner by Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and its sequels, Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse, are humorous tales of an adventurous mouse and his cherished motorcycle. The books are full of thrills, and laughs, and the author’s special ability to get inside her characters’ heads, and emotions, gives the storytelling warmth and depth. The mouse is a rich, well-rounded character—spunky, of course, but sometimes bratty, too—and the lively illustrations capture the spirit of his escapades. The Ralph Mouse Collection is a fun, wholesome read-aloud choice and my kids and I were sorry when the three-book series came to an end.
Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
The outlandish stories and illustrations of the Captain Underpants series won’t appeal to every parent, but there’s no denying that the absurd and subversive humor of these books quickly hooks most children. In fact, like Junie B. Jones , this series can serve as a springboard for experiencing the fun and joy of books—and then branching out into more “serious reading.” We have the first four books (of a ten-book series, geared for a third or fourth grade reading level) and they were a read-aloud hit with Lulu and Roy. At this point, I’m thinking the other books may be a good bet for further material that will encourage my kids to read more on their own. My only concern for independent reading are the pages of “comics” drawn by the main characters, a pair of mischievous fourth-grade boys. These “comics” are riddled with spelling errors—a poor model for young learners—but perhaps I could turn the errors to our advantage by playing a game of “find the misspelling.”
Disney Fairies (“Tales from Pixie Hollow”)
The Disney Fairies series about Tinker Bell and her friends consists of nearly 30 books, as of this post. Each book features a particular fairy’s adventure. The stories are well-written (by various authors), and the sophistication of the language has no doubt benefited Lulu’s English ability—we’re reading through the first eight books together right now—but she hasn’t been as smitten with this series as I had hoped. One reason may be that the stories are rather long, and because the adventures themselves aren’t particularly suspenseful, the books have a hard time maintaining our interest for over 100 pages. (That’s twice the length of titles in most chapter book series.) Perhaps, then, they could be used more effectively as read-aloud tales, or as independent reading for girls who have reached a strong third or fourth grade level.
Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows
Ivy and Bean , about the humorous antics of two 7-year-old friends, is another series that appeals to girls. The writing (geared for a second or third grade level) is quite good, and the characters are well-conceived, but the stories (we have the first six books) seem to ramble on and Lulu grew tired of reading them on her own. Ivy and Bean was my first attempt at encouraging her to read a chapter book series by herself, but it may be that she didn’t yet have enough stamina to read these books independently. In retrospect, I think we would have enjoyed them more if I had read them aloud first—and as the characters can get a bit bratty, some commentary from a parent might be useful, too.
Ready, Freddy! by Abby Klein
Ready, Freddy! is a series of 25 books about a first-grade boy and his misadventures—each book, written at a low third grade level, features a new difficulty for the boy to overcome. Although the stories are fast-paced and my kids enjoyed them (I didn’t get the whole series, but we do have many of them), the books end up feeling somewhat stale because they frequently recycle certain plot devices. (And the constant bickering between the boy and his older sister grows tiresome.) This may not be my favorite chapter book series, but the stories and illustrations do have “kid appeal” and can provide a lot of helpful English exposure.
Cam Jansen by David Adler
Cam Jansen is a girl who solves mysteries with her remarkable memory in more than 30 books. It can’t be easy to write a good mystery, and these are reasonably well done, but Lulu wasn’t as taken with these books as she has been with other series so I won’t be adding to the first ten titles I initially bought. (Roy hasn’t shown much interest in them, either, to this point.) Still, the strong main character is appealing and several girls that I teach have enjoyed reading them. The Cam Jansen series is written at a second or third grade level, for independent reading, though apparently there’s another Cam Jansen series geared for younger readers called Young Cam Jansen which could be worth a look, too.
That wraps it up for now! (I’ll add to this list as time goes by.) I hope these suggestions are helpful in your quest to get your kids hooked on books! There’s no healthier addiction in the world!
Looking for more great books for kids? Head to this page to see all my recommendations to date!