Early Reader and Early Chapter Book Round Up

February 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

As you, my dear readers, have rightfully pointed out, it has been far too long since I addressed the herculean endeavor of learning to read. And it’s true: while I’ve been busy telling you about picture books and middle-grade books, the number of fabulous early reading titles has been mounting. So, we’re going to get to those today in my largest round up ever. But first, a story.

When my eldest was learning to read, we rode the Amtrak on our yearly mother-son pilgrimage to New York City to visit family. I normally spent those three-plus hours reading aloud a NYC-themed chapter book I’d chosen for the occasion (like this). But this trip, I was desperate to push my kid along the continuum of independent reading that his peers seemed further along, so I packed a stack of early readers instead. He stumbled through reading them to me, while I made flashcards of the phonics that tripped him up. When the train pulled into Penn Station, as I stood to remove our suitcase from the overhead rack, the gentleman in the seat behind us said, “Wow, I never appreciated how crazy difficult the English language is to read.”

It was a wake-up call. I had been stubbornly operating under the assumption that my little guy could and should be advancing faster. When, if we’re being honest, English breaks about as many rules as it follows. It’s inconsistent, it’s weird, and, for most kids—even those without brain-based learning challenges—it’s really, really hard. I feel like this doesn’t get stated enough. Certainly, we parents forget it in our revisionist history of how we took to the pastime so naturally.

Add to that the reality that kids today have a whole host of distractions competing for their time, from screens to high-tech toys to extra-curricular offerings on any sport or hobby they can dream up. Let’s just say most children aren’t as motivated to master reading as we were, when the alternative was a long, boring afternoon.

By the time my second began to learn to read, I had worked out a different approach. I followed her lead, having her read to me only when she wanted to, and never, never in lieu of the precious time in which I read to her. My principal role remained what it had been when she was younger: to model the fruits of reading, introducing her to the rich language and spellbinding storytelling she would someday sample by herself. As parents, reading aloud is how we dangle the carrot.

Once I was back in my lane of parent not teacher, I also spent time seeking out early reading material that would inspire my early reader. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there is a lot of blah out there. I once heard Mo Willems hail P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog Go as his favorite early reader as a kid—and my childhood would agree—but anyone who tries handing that to a kid today will realize that its length has little place in these attention-deficient times. When we are meant to be building our kids’ momentum, a 72-page book is just too long. But Mo Willems also recognized that Go Dog Go was onto something with its playful silliness; and out of this he created the Elephant & Piggie series, which were some of the first books my son picked up to read aloud of his own volition.

Never underestimate the motivation of humor. For years, the Elephant & Piggie books (and the spin-off titles penned by different author-illustrators under Mo’s imprint) were the gold standard, with their emphasis on hilarious banter across speech balloons. Today, the market is rapidly broadening, and while humor is still alive and well, early reader titles are taking all sorts of forms.

Today’s post lauds fourteen (!) books or series published in the past two years. I’ve presented them in ascending reading level, beginning with early-reading primers and concluding with early chapter books. What sets these books apart is that children will delight in reading them multiple times. Most early readers offer the satisfaction of completion with the assurance that the story is too boring to bother with again. Not the case here. These stories do their educational part brilliantly, but they also offer ingenuity, visual enticement, and lots and lots of chuckles. They’re a key ingredient in learning to love reading.

Bright Owl Books: Rat Attack; Wet Hen; Hop, Frog!; Cubs in a Tub; Princess Pig; Blues for Unicorn; and more
by Molly Coxe

Every time I hold one of these books I think, WHERE WERE THEY WHEN MY KIDS WERE LEARNING TO READ? I wonder if I conjured them up in all the hours I spent bemoaning the lack of phonic books with actual plots. Molly Coxe is a genius. Each of these books highlights a single vowel sound (short “e”, long “u,” etc.) and weaves an original story using mainly that sound. In Princess Pig, the title character gets a little too wish happy and nearly puts off her pal, Twig. In Rat Attack, Gran keeps her bandit-posing friends from stealing her jam. Visual decoding is a huge part of early reading, and children will be only too happy to reference these pictures, which are actually photographs of dressed-up felted animals staged in real-life settings. And the award for cutest early readers ever goes to… Oh, did I mention each one ends with three open-ended questions about the story that can be used for discussion or writing prompts?

See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog
by David LaRpchelle; illus. Mike Wohnoutka

Recent recipient of the 2021 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for best early reader, See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog turns the traditional “See Spot Run” motif on its head in a wickedly clever introduction to metafiction. A dog finds himself in a story…about a cat? As he squares off with the narrator—“I am not a cat. I am a dog.” “I am not blue and I am not a cat.”—things become increasingly absurd, until the dog begins to wise up and gain the upper hand. Especially where reading journeys are concerned, kids won’t just empathize with the dog’s initial feelings of powerlessness, they’ll also celebrate their own increasing confidence alongside that of their expressive canine protagonist.

What About Worms!?
by Ryan T. Higgins

Another critically celebrated title, What About Worms!? is the latest in the Elephant & Piggie imprint I mentioned earlier, this one by Ryan T. Higgins, creator of beloved picture books like Mother Bruce and We Do Not Eat Our Classmates. Higgins has a knack for creating endearingly misdirected characters, and Tiger is no exception. He’s big, he’s brave, and he’s not afraid of anything…except worms. “Worms are slimy. Worms like to wiggle. And you cannot tell their tops from their bottoms!” But with each attempt to steer clear of the little buggers, Tiger finds he’s never been closer to them. Every pot of dirt, every apple, feels like a trap. Good thing he can escape into a book…only is it about worms?! Just wait until you discover what worms think about tigers.

A Pig, a Fox, and a Fox
by Jonathan Fenske

Channeling the likes of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, Jonathan Fenske follows up his award-winning series debut, A Pig, a Fox, and a Box and A Pig, a Fox, and Stinky Socks, with A Pig, a Fox, and a Fox, proving once again that he’s a whiz at fast-paced, silly, three-part stories using the simplest of words. In his “trusty box,” Fox keeps a doll named Mister Fox, and the fact that they look much alike means it’s the perfect prop with which to trick his pal, Pig. But Fox underestimates Pig’s good fortune, and Fox’s pranks consistently end up with him, not Pig, on the receiving end. Hoots, hollers, and a purple eye for poor Fox ensure the earliest of readers get in on the fun.

Narwhal and Jelly Board Books: Bubbles and Blankie
by Ben Clanton

You probably know about the wildly popular early graphic novel series, Narwhal and Jelly, but have you seen the new BOARD books? Pared back but with all the charm we’ve come to expect from this Frog-and-Toad like duo, they’re a terrific reminder that board books make great early readers! That’s right, go ahead and pull out all the board books your kiddo loved when he was a grubby little tot and let him re-experience them, this time as the big boss (even better, have him read them to younger siblings). Don’t let the scarcity of words in Bubbles and Blankie fool you: Ben Clanton has a gift for word play, weaving in rhymes and puns alongside pops of color to create stories that beg to be read aloud. In Bubbles, after Narwhal accidentally bursts Jelly’s bubble, the two set off to find different types of bubbles (“These bubbles are pink! Eew! These bubbles kind of stink!”). In Blankie, the two devise clever uses for Narwhal’s yellow blankie—It’s a tissue! It’s a cape! It’s a picnic blanket!—until they discover it’s big enough to fit around two friends.

Moose, Goose, and Mouse
by Mordicai Gerstein

You’ll rarely find them on the early reader shelf of a bookstore, but some picture books lend themselves beautifully to early reading! This new gem from the late and great Mordicai Gerstein, illustrated in his final months with the help of Jeff Mack, is a perfect example, with just the right blend of repetition, rhyme, and madcap entertainment. Moose, Goose, and Mouse are on a quest for a new house, preferably one that’s not old, full of mold, or very cold. But when the train they board turns out to have a loose caboose, the two are whisked up and down, far and wide, until they crash at the very spot they were meant to be. With its loose, exuberant, eye-popping collages, the art in Moose, Goose, and Mouse elevates the characters’ optimism in a story guaranteed to bring a welcome smile to any reader setting out.

Where’s Baby?
by Anne Hunter

Where’s Baby? is another picture book, told entirely through speech balloons, that further proves early readers don’t have to sacrifice beautiful art in their daily practice. (It’s worth purchasing this book, versus borrowing it, just for the surprise under the jacket cover.) Papa Fox is on a wild goose chase for his baby kin, one made funnier because Baby is right under his nose (or, more accurately, stalking behind him) the whole time, a detail that escapes neither the reader nor Mama Fox. Speech balloons are an immensely effective tactic for early readers: not only are they fun to read aloud, they encourage kids to put expression into their voice, including and especially where punctuation is concerned. Here, Papa Fox makes copious use of exclamation points and question marks, as he approaches different forest animals with his dilemma. The limited palette of the pen and pencil drawings allows Anne Hunter to further highlight the humor in this sweet hide-and-seek story.

Fox & Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories
by Sergio Ruzzier

The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories, the second in Sergio Ruzzier’s delightful Fox & Chick series (I wrote about the first here), is a picture book, an early reader comic, and an early chapter book all in one, giving it vast appeal across a variety of ages and abilities. With Ruzzier’s dry wit and signature pastel palette, the odd couple dynamic never gets old. Fox thinks he wants to be alone, but Chick’s exuberance wins him over every time…even if she turns a quiet boat ride into a stormy paranoia of sea monsters and shipwrecks, or drags her feet on a walk to see the sunrise such that the sun is nearly down by the time they arrive. My favorite is the middle story, where Chick doesn’t want to open a gift, in case it’s her favorite chocolate cake and she’s tempted to eat the entire thing in one go. Enter Fox. If friends aren’t for keeping you from eating all the cake, then what are they for?

Beak & Ally: Unlikely Friends
by Norm Feuti

Continuing the theme of battling personalities comes Beak & Ally: Unlikely Friends, a new early graphic novel series by Norm Feuti. Along the lines of one I plugged in last year’s gift guide, Pea, Bee & Jay, this one features high-energy cartoon panels, clear type, silly banter, and genuine lessons about friendship. Ally the alligator is pretty sure she doesn’t like singing, parties, or company of any sort. Newcomer Beak is 100% sure Ally just hasn’t met the right best friend—him—and he’s going to throw a nest-warming party to prove it. But when Ally discovers an imposter bird has taken over Beak’s nest, she realizes she’s become more attached to that pesky, gregarious bird than she realized, and she’s determined to get him back.

Simon and Chester: Super Detectives
by Cale Atkinson

For kids who like their early graphic novels on the darker comedic side, Simon and Chester: Super Detectives, the first in a series by Cale Atkinson, won’t disappoint. Battling a case of the blahs—“I don’t think anyone in history has ever been as bored as I am now”—a ghost and his human pal team up to start a detective business, complete with costumes, swagger, and “serious brooding.” Their first mission: to discover the rightful home of a dog that’s mysteriously turned up in their house. Both characters have an infectious flair for drama and an aspiration for coolness, putting me in mind of my favorite early graphic novel series ever, Mr. Pants (seriously, Scott McCormick, can you pleeeeease write more?). Readers will chuckle aloud at every clue that’s misinterpreted and appreciate how easily the duo is derailed by snacks (who isn’t, really?).

Charlie & Mouse Outdoors
by Laurel Snyder; illus. Emily Hughes

The fourth book in this early chapter series might be my favorite yet—and that’s saying a lot. In all the Charlie & Mouse titles, there’s just the right amount of repetition and short sentences for emerging readers, and the everyday story lines featuring two siblings lost in their own world of imaginative play are as sweet as they are relatable. (I also adore the parents, who sweep in only when necessary and with just the right levity.) Here, the four chapters hit on the highlights of a family camping trip, from the road trip to the hikes, from sleeping in a tent to roasting marshmallows. Charlie & Mouse Outdoors perfectly captures the way a single trip can encapsulate wonder, excitement, boredom, and fear, sometimes all in the same moment.

Starla Jean in Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship
by Elana K. Arnold; illus. A. N. Kang

Few characters in the early chapter book landscape make me happier than Dora Fantasmagory or Judith Viorst’s Lulu. Now, there’s a new handful in town, and her name is Starla Jean. When Starla Jean accompanies her father to the park, she doesn’t realize her life is about to change. But a chicken runs by, and her father jokingly says, “If you can catch it, you can keep it.” It turns out Starla Jean can do anything she sets her mind to, even matching wits with a chicken (and chickens, she realizes, are much smarter than they appear). Peppered with facts about chickens, this eggcellent series opener, Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship, will have emerging readers routing for Starla Jean as she makes a compelling case for keeping her new feathered friend.

Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World
by Jacqueline Davies; illus. Deborah Hopking

I wasn’t but five pages into Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World, first in a new early chapter series, when I was ready to buy it for everyone I know. The gorgeous art! The beautiful writing! The wry humor! Jacqueline Davis and Deborah Hopking have teamed up to deliver an endearing, entertaining story of journeying outside your comfort zone. Sydney is a skunk, content to be a homebody, and Taylor is a hedgehog with an itch for adventure. In the name of friendship, the two embark on an Expedition (“an Expe-what?”) to Places Unknown—or, more accurately, to the other side of Miss Nancy’s yard. Armed with protection from “ferocious predators” but not nearly enough snacks, the two make as many unexpected discoveries about themselves as they do about the Whole Wide World. They also discover that universal truth: there’s no place like home.

Monster and Boy
by Hannah Barnaby; illus. Anoosha Syed

“Once there was a monster who loved a boy.” The monster lives under the boy’s bed, unbeknownst to the boy, and he loves the boy so much, he accidentally swallows him. That’s the premise of this quirky early chapter book—the longest on this list—where a third-person narrator addresses us in numerous confidential asides. You see, when the monster finally coughs up the boy, he’s the size of a grasshopper. Fetching food, using the toilet, and eluding the suspicion of one’s mother are just a few of the challenges a shrunken boy faces. Fortunately, the monster proves excellent company–and a pretty good problem solver to boot. Monster and Boy introduces us to a lovable duo and leaves us hankering for more (good thing the sequel is forthcoming).

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Published (in order) by Kane Press, Candlewick Press, Hyperion Books for Children, Penguin Workshop, Tundra, Holiday House, Tundra, Chronicle Books, Harper Alley, Tundra, Chronicle Books, Roaring Book Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, & Henry Holt & Company. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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§ 3 Responses to Early Reader and Early Chapter Book Round Up

  • John says:

    Thank you for listing the titles in an arranged reading level order. With a toddler the ability and reading level changes rapidly and having a list that continues to entertain and push the reading level is outstanding.


    • thebookmommy says:

      Thanks for the comment, John, and I’m so glad this list will be helpful for you! Obviously, these are intended as books for kids learning to read but certainly many of the chapter books here would make great read alouds, too!

  • sandys5 says:

    Thanks for the list. I have some young grandchildren that I’m always trying to find great books for. I just put a bunch of these on hold at the library so I can check them out before buying. My youngest ones aren’t reading yet ( 1 year and 18 months) but I like to know what’s out there. I love all the new books that are continually showing up.

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