The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 13, 2021 § Leave a comment

How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.

Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.

What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?

OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?

The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.

Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.

It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.

For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.

In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.

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Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

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How Will We Remember This L(o)st Year?

March 11, 2021 § 2 Comments

I’ve been accused of using these pages as a kind of glorified baby book, and if that’s true, I appreciate you indulging me. In the trappings of our busy-ness, we don’t take enough opportunities to pause and process our life experiences—the good and the bad, the big and the small—and I have found blogging to be (almost) as therapeutic as a conversation with a good girlfriend over a glass of wine.

But I would argue that children’s books themselves can be gateways to reflection—as much for us as for our kids. Sharing them offers a respite, a chance to connect with our little ones, while their content strips back unnecessary clutter, revealing something of life’s essentiality, its basic truths, through economies of words and pictures. Even when they’re not expressly representing our own experiences, children’s books reflect back the life taking place in and around us.

It has been exactly one year since I sat around a table with my daughter and her classmates to lead what would be our last in-person book club. Several of the children knew almost nothing about the coronavirus that would shut down their school—and life as they knew it—just twenty-four hours later. When I arrived to pick up my daughter the next day, teachers threw hastily gathered notebooks and supplies into the back of our car, and my daughter and her carpool group climbed into their seats looking shell-shocked. Some giggled nervously. One started crying.

How do we want to remember this last year—a year that took so much, that has produced a kind of cumulative weariness we’d like nothing more than to shed, but was also not without moments of profound beauty and growth?

As it turns out, I have the perfect book for memorializing this time, for helping children of all ages process what they’ve seen and felt, done and not done. LeUyen Pham’s astute and gracefully executed Outside, Inside (Ages 3-103) is one that might find its forever home on a shelf beside baby books and photo albums. A book our children might someday take down and share with their own kids—let me show you what it was like when “everybody who was outside…went inside.” Amidst the many new children’s books tackling the subject of lockdown, this one rises to the top. Many would have us believe it was all rainbows, but this one holds the sadness alongside the wonder, the uncertainty alongside the hope. Outside, Inside reminds us that a new day is dawning, but we will never forget how we got here.

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2020 Gift Guide: Favorite Graphic Novels for Ages 6-15

November 5, 2020 § 7 Comments

Back by popular demand: an installment of my Gift Guide devoted entirely to my favorite graphic novels of the year! Graphic novels make some of the best gifts. Not only are they coveted among emerging readers, tween readers, and teen readers alike, but they invite repeat readings. I’ve watched my kids race through a new graphic novel as soon as they get it, then a few days later start it over again, spending more time on each page. After that, they might set it down for a few weeks or months or years, only to pick it up again with fresh eyes. It’s no wonder many of the graphic novels below took over a year to create; they are packed with visual nuance, literary allusions, and layered meanings. Like treasured friends, graphic novels grow with their readers.

I read dozens and dozens of graphic novels in preparation for this post. Below are the ones that rose to the top in originality, beauty, fun, diversity, or impact. A few of these you’ll remember from a blog post I did earlier this year, but they bear repeating because they’re that good. There are others, like the new graphic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which my daughter was horrified wasn’t included here. I simply had to draw the line somewhere.

The list begins with selections for younger kids and concludes with teens. Enjoy and happy gifting!

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Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Chapter Series Which Calls Us Home

March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments

"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).

JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.). « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.

I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.

Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is  I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).

Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Bedtime Stories for the “Goodnight Gorilla”-Obsessed

December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

Mem Fox's Good Night Sleep Tight“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading.

The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). « Read the rest of this entry »

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 Comments Off on Counting Down to Halloween

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

Every Day is Pizza Day

August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

My having eaten a slice of pizza every day for lunch while I was pregnant may have something to do with the fact that my nearly two-year-old daughter is very, very obsessed with Pizza at Sally’s (Ages 2-4), by Monica Wellington. But given that my son was equally obsessed at age two with Truck Driver Tom, by the same author, it’s perhaps more probable that Wellington knows a thing or two about how to talk to kids.

At first glance, Wellington’s books might be quickly dismissed: the gouache, brightly-colored, and largely two-dimensional paintings could come off as a bit juvenile, perhaps not of the same artistic caliber as what I normally review here. But it would be a mistake to pass up these books. At closer inspection, the illustrations are packed with visual gems, including (in the case of Pizza at Sally’s) tiny photographs pasted in for fresh ingredients and even for the finished slices of pizza themselves.

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Quiet Time Was Never So Quiet

June 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

Let’s face it: there are times when you can’t submit to the chants of “Read to me! Read to me!” Perhaps you’ve just had a second baby and you’re looking for something to occupy the first. Maybe you’ve got a preschooler who is starting to give up her nap, but you’re still (desperately) hoping to institute Quiet Time. Or maybe your child is not quite reading but wants to feel like he is.

Whatever your motive, there is hope: it is possible to get your non-reader to engage in quiet, independent time with books. Of course, there are some books that are more likely to succeed than others. And, as a bonus, these also tend to be the books that bore you to tears if you do have to read them aloud. You know the type: books whose illustrations are jam-packed with detail; books whose pages your child wants to pour over at such length that it seems like you’ll be stuck in his room reading to him forever. Take yourself out of the equation, and these books become—not your worst enemy—but your greatest asset.

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