I’m constantly in awe of my mom friends who routinely paint, pretend-play, sculpt playdough and dress up baby dolls with their young children — I’ve just never been able to dig too far into these kinds of expressly “little-kid” things…
… but I will say that I LOVE reading to my kids.
Yes, reading to my children is perhaps the one thing that’s come effortlessly to me as a parent. We’ve indulged in reading all the classics and stumbled on new favorites along the way; but from the moment my oldest was approaching four-and-a-half, I was eager to take things to the next level. This age range — older toddlerhood through kindergarten/first grade — is a sort of tweener period as far as books are concerned: most kiddos aren’t yet reading, but many are developmentally ready to take a step up from the likes of Make Way for Ducklings and Dragons Love Tacos.
It turns out that there are a number of books and series that are perfect for first chapter books with pre-readers — they follow fun, but simple, storylines, ignite children’s imaginations, and feature relatable-yet-quirky characters. These books introduce children to the concept of chapter books and longer, more developed stories while still meeting them where they are.
When I asked my son if he wanted to read some “grown-up chapter books” with me, he was super into it. And we’re having an awesome time! If you’re ready to give chapter books a go, here are our favorite recommendations to read out loud to your kids — happy reading, all! Let us know how it goes 🙂.
First Chapter Books to Read Aloud to Preschoolers and Pre-readers
My Father’s Dragon Trilogy, Ruth Stiles Gannett, illus. Ruth Chrisman Gannett
Parents everywhere rave that My Father’s Dragon is perhaps the single best place to start when it comes to chapter books. Elmer’s adventures with the baby dragon he rescues have really stood the test of time — the adventurous stories and the beautiful illustrations in this series routinely keep even little children hooked on the edge of their seat.
Zoey and Sassafras (series), Asia Citro, illus. Marion Lindsay
These books are just awesome. Zoey’s escapades all involve the scientific process (and a full cast of magical creatures!) — they are so fun, easy to follow, and teach kids about science. Plus, we love that the lead character is a girl of color — we seriously need more of this on children’s bookshelves. [Get a book bundle/set here.]
The Trumpet of the Swan, EB White, illus. Fred Marcellino
EB White’s children’s books are adored and renowned for their clarity and earnest storytelling, and this book is no exception. Set against a richly-described, serene natural landscape, we love this simple-but-enchanting coming-of-age tale for first-time listeners. (Note: with its gentle touch, less the harsh realities of farm life, we think The Trumpet of the Swan is pretty universally appropriate for littles ones, though it does portray some dated gender norms… in a swan family, albeit. You can also get the EB White box set that comes with Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, because — just, yes. You’ll get there eventually.)
Meet Yasmin! (series), Saadia Faruqi, illus. Hatem Aly
These books about 2nd-grader Yasmin focus on family, everyday life, creativity, and problem-solving. One reviewer describes Yasmin’s character as both charming and feisty — and we love that these stories feature a Pakistani-American family and Muslim culture (note that they aren’t religious).
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Richard Atwater and Florence Atwater
This sweet and silly story about what happens when a man is gifted a penguin (whose friends quickly turn up, too) will have little kids giggling all the way through. A top pick for lots of laughs! (Be warned, it was written in the mid-1900s so it’s lousy with dubious gender-normative phrases… they’re easy enough to edit in real time — my sophisticated strategy — but just FYI.)
Winnie the Pooh Collection, A.A. Milne, illus. EH Shephard
Do we even need to say anything about this one? These books are so fun to narrate, and kids love the recognizable characters and easy-to-follow stories. No matter what age you are, there’s always something to take away from Winnie the Pooh and gang.
Mia Mayhem is a Superhero! (series), Kara West, illus. Leeza Hernandez
These “high-energy” stories follow Mia, an 8-year-old with the propensity to cause mayhem wherever she goes, as she navigates a newfound superpower — they’re fun, engaging, and parents and kids alike love them.
Magic Treehouse Starter Set, Mary Pope Osborne, illus. Sal Murdocca
There are a gazillion books in this series (OK, 50), which tells the tales of siblings Annie and Jack’s travels through space and time. Each of the stories centers on some history/social studies element (Dinosaurs! Castles! Pirates! Oh my!) — add a dash of adventure and a pinch of mystery, and you’re set to go.
The Princess in Black (series), Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illus. LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia’s adventures are, as one reviewer put it, a foil to the Disney princess narrative. Instead of being demure, shallow, shy, and/or and vein, Magnolia is a secret superhero. Although the plot lines are a bit silly for my personal taste, many families adore them — and there’s no denying that these books are a welcome and exciting introduction to both chapter books and feminism. [**Note: the horse in this series is unfortunately named “Blacky,” which is… a shame, since it’s a former racial slur. One workaround: many parents say they choose an alternate name for the horse from step one.]
A handful of other particularized picks(!):
For those who want colorful illustrations to match:
Mercy Watson series, Kate Dicamillo, illus. Chris Van Dusen
This comical series about a pig (Mercy) who lives with the Watsons is a parent favorite for getting little, little listeners (think: even a 3-year-old can do it) hooked on chapter books. (One reviewer likened it to Curious George with a bit more depth and verve.) With its bright, vivid illustrations and funny antics, the Mercy West books are a great way to gently help get your child on board with longer reading sessions and stories.
The Owl Diaries (series), Rebecca Elliott
This Scholastic series is a fan-favorite in terms of transitioning from picture books to chapter books — the titles all feature a fun cast of characters, pictures on every page, and literacy elements like dialogue bubbles and lined pages. The sweet stories convey life lessons akin to those from Daniel Tiger.
An early graphic “novel” series:
The Bad Guys (box set), Aaron Blabey
These books about “bad guys” are so funny — they seriously crack kids up. They’re all about how the typical bad guys (think: the big bad wolf, sharks, tarantulas, etc.) actually try to be good guys.
For slightly older kiddos (or more experienced listeners):
The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, illus. Patricia Castelao
This is one of the most amazing books, period. Loosely based on a true story, The One and Only Ivan is narrated by a gorilla who’s been living in captivity for almost three decades. The quiet story is beautifully crafted, introspective, and profound. I may have cried. Multiple times.
The Invincible Girls Club (series), Rachele Alpine, illus. Addy Rivera Sonda
These sweet books follow a group of four friends (each book features a different girl as the main character) on various creative passion projects — in the first, it’s finding adoptive homes for older dogs at the county shelter. These stories are all about positivity — the characters are polite, encouraging, talented, and thoughtful. *And, they are all incredibly diverse and inclusive, featuring not only people of color but also all different kinds of families (step parents and siblings, same-sex couples, single adults, etc.).
The Very Very Far North, Dan Bar-El, illus. Kelly Pousette
The story of Duane, a thoughtful, friendly polar bear, and his arctic friends in the way, way North. Think: Winnie the Pooh with a little more pomp and circumstance. On ice. (Also, somewhat like Winnie the Pooh, it’s a little sardonic, which can be hard to follow at times — why we recommend it for practiced listeners.)
Roald Dahl Collection, illus. Quentin Blake
All the classics you know and love — Matilda, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… — plus some lesser-known but equally-enjoyable titles like Esio Trot and Billy and the Minpins. Yes, this box set will keep you busy and entertained for a while. We especially love James and the Giant Peach (it’s a bit weird, though…) and George’s Marvelous Medicine for early forays in the wacky world of Roald Dahl. Note that some (most?) of these stories contain absolutely heinous depictions of adults and caretakers — if this doesn’t suit you, best to steer clear.
Read about Roald Dahl’s complicated legacy here. It’s something to be aware of.
The Dragon of Doom (book one in the Moongobble and Me series), Bruce Coville, illus. Katherine Coville
The Dragon of Doom tells the story of a boy who becomes an apprentice to a wizard. This book series has everything fantasy-lovers want — dragons, magic, witches, and quests — without any of the scary (or inappropriate) fare.
For those who prefer poetry:
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
This classic collection of illustrated poems is plucky, imaginative, and fun-loving. It’s a great way to introduce young children to verse, and we also love it for those times when you just want a quick lyrical diversion.
Two Times the Fun, Beverly Cleary, illus. Carol Thompson
This adorable book is so fun for twins — fraternal 4-year-old twins Jimmy and Janet get into all kinds of relatable shenanigans together in this four-chapter book. Cleary herself had twins, so it’s written with the hand of experience — and since Ramona may be a little too much for the average preschooler, this is a perfect way to get your Beverly Cleary fix a little early. 😉
Do you have a favorite first chapter book? Please leave us a comment below – thanks and happy reading!