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 now that my oldest is approaching four-and-a-half, I’m 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 James 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.
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, but you can get the EB White box set that also comes with Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, because — just, yes. You’ll get there eventually.)
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 bada$$ superhero. These books are a fun 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.]
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.)
Zoey and Sassafras (series), Asia Citro, illus. Marion Lindsay
These books are just awesome. Zoey’s escapades all involve the scientific process (and sometimes a dash of magic!) — 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 bundle here.]
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. Any Roald Dahl book is a magical place to start your chapter-book journey, but we especially love James and the Giant Peach (it’s a bit weird, though…) and George’s Marvelous Medicine for the first forays.
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.
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.
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):
Begin (book one in The Growly Series), Philip Ulrich and Erin Ulrich
This story about a bear’s meandering escapade (why are bears the feature characters in SO many children’s books? Someone should write a book about that…) is just the right pace for young children. It’s kind-hearted, spirited, and encouraging, and swaps out the traditional fantasy series “evil stuff ” for real-life tribulations kids can relate to.
The Invincible Girls Club (series), Rachele Alpine, illus. Addy Rivera Sonda
These sweet new 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.)
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, but 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!