Monday, August 10, 2020

Chapter Books To Read Aloud With 3-6 Year Olds


Back when my daughter (now 7) was three, my husband and I hit a point where we were DESPERATE to start reading longer books aloud to her at bedtime, purely to gain a reprieve from being forced to read the same books every. Single. Night. (Her favorites were Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi and Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss, which were both LONG!)

Since then, although we still read plenty of picture books together, we've transitioned completely to longer books for bedtime reads. Over the last four and a half years, we've read a lot of early chapter books and younger middle grade books, and since I frequently get asked for recommendations for this age group, I thought I'd compile a post with some of our favorite read-alouds, along with suggested ages! Every kid, of course, is different, and your mileage may vary as far as what your child's interests are and what stories keep their attention. I didn't include popular read-alouds like the Harry Potter series, or other longer middle grade fiction, because we've found that in our family my daughter was only ready for longer, more complex narratives like those around age six. The books on this list are ideal for those transitional years (ages 3-6, roughly), where kid and parent are ready for something more than picture books, but not quite ready to visit Hogwarts or Narnia.

The age ranges I've specified here are for the youngest ages the books would likely appeal to. Of course, they're great for bigger kids too—and some of these are ones we've read multiple times as my daughter has grown!

A couple of pointers before we dive into the reading list:

  • Chapter books are not that important for literacy at such a young age, so if your kid isn't ready for them, don't force it! Picture books are the foundational building block of literacy skills for young kids, because connection words and pictures is HUGE in a young brain's development.
  • If your kid doesn't seem like they're paying attention, don't worry! My daughter often played while we read or listened to audiobooks (and still does). Sometimes I'd SWEAR she was not listening at all, only to have her say something later that made it clear she'd been paying much better attention than I'd thought.
  • Don't force yourself through a book that isn't fun for everyone involved! There were a few books that we started as a family, got halfway through, and just mutually decided this isn't working for us and ditched. There are too many awesome books in the world to worry about the ones you don't love.
  • There is something about the way a child's brain develops that makes it so that kids are not naturally able to sequence stories in the same way an adult can. (I could write a whole post on this. I find it fascinating.) My daughter taught herself to read at 4.5, but even as an early and very precocious reader, there was a big delay in her ability to read longer books and her desire to do so. What I realized, to my surprise, was that she did not see a long book as a contiguous story. She saw every chapter or scene as something that stood alone, and because of that, she didn't feel that urgent NEED to get back to a book she was reading until she was around six and a half. This dynamic is less prominent in read alouds, because as a parent you can help your child make the connections between different events in a story, but don't be surprised if your kid seems totally cool just stopping a book in the middle or doesn't seem as intrigued by the mystery at a book's heart. It doesn't meant they don't enjoy it—it just means their brains are processing it differently than yours!

The Clementine series (ages 3+) by Sara Pennypacker: This and Anna Hibiscus (below) are tied for my very favorite chapter book serieses of all time. (Fun fact: In publishing, "chapter books" doesn't mean just any book with chapters—it refers specifically to early chapter books, the age category that bridges the gap between early readers and middle grade books. Chapter books are shorter than middle grade, and typically heavily illustrated.) Clementine is absolutely hysterical, and Pennypacker's grasp of kid thoughts is pure comedic gold. Plus, Clementine will prove a kindred spirit for any kid who has troubles at school—although a diagnosis is never given, I suspect that the character has ADHD, and she spends a lot of time visiting with the sympathetic-but-exhausted principal of her school. The first book is called Clementine.

The Anna Hibiscus series (ages 3+) by Atinuke: These books are tied with Clementine for my all-time favorite chapter book series. Atinuke, a Nigerian storyteller, weaves a series of interconnected stories about Anna Hibiscus, a charming little girl who lives in an extended family compound in Africa. (The country is never specified, but I suspect based on some of the details and the author's nationality that it is Nigeria.) The books are laugh-out-loud funny—Anna has younger twin brothers named Double and Trouble who are always a riot—but also does a phenomenal job at introducing difficult subjects in a gentle, age-appropriate manner. Years after first reading, we still use examples from Anna's stories to have discussions about big topics like grief or acting out. The only catch with this series is that it's from a smaller press and some of the volumes weren't in my library; I found them online for a reasonable price and ended up buying them all, and it's been a heartily worthwhile investment. The first book is called Anna Hibiscus.

The Sam series (ages 3+) by Lois Lowry: This is another you won't be able to get through without laughing! (Especially when you read Attaboy, Sam!) A classic chapter book series that follows Sam Krupnik from birth until preschool. I've read these multiple times and always enjoyed it! These do have slightly longer chapters, so you may have to split chapters between reading sessions. The first book is called All About Sam.

Everything Winnie-the-Pooh (age 3+) by A. A. Milne: My daughter was hardcore obsessed with Pooh from about 2.5-4 and listened to the casted audio recording of the complete stories dozens of times. They're fun to read aloud, but in this case, it's also totally worth hunting down that casted audio, which is phenomenal. (Also, Eeyore sounds strangely like Alan Rickman's Snape, which is weird but totally works.)

The Diary of an Ice Princess series (age 3+) by Christina Soontornvat: This is a newer chapter book series that appeals perfectly to fans of princess, magic, and cute animals! My daughter devoured these after she'd already learned to read, but they'd make great read-alouds for fantasy-inclined little ones too.

The Yasmin series (ages 3+) by Saadia Faruqi: This is a beloved family favorite! These are released both as early readers, and as chapter books with 4 of the early reader stories in each volume. Yasmin is fantastic, and her adventures are so much fun to follow. (AND the books often have corresponding activities at the end!) The illustrations in this are vibrant and honestly some of my favorite in kidlit, and I also love Yasmin's strong, supportive family.

The Princess in Black series (ages 3+) by Shannon and Dean Hale: These are zany, highly illustrated chapter books with short chapters, funny/easy-to-follow plots, and fantastic illustrations, which makes them perfect for kids who are little and just making the transition to longer read-alouds.

Anything by Dick King-Smith (ages 4+)! Especially Babe, The Water Horse, and A Mouse Called Wolf. We read these when my daughter was about four and she seriously could not get enough of them. She was spellbound through all the descriptions of village life and sheepdog training and what have you. Also, thanks to these books and the next suggestion, I once came upon her at age four putting her stuffed animals through an obstacle course—she proudly announced, "Look, Mama, I'm playing sheepdog trials!"

The Jasmine Toguchi series (ages 4+) by Debbie Michiko Florence: Jasmine loves to learn new things, and doesn't want to be bound by the limits others have set her! She's a great, spunky heroine readers can root for, and the books also provide some really fun peeks into cultural traditions for Jasmine's Japanese-American family.

Best-Loved Children's Stories (ages 4+) by James Herriot: This one is a solid win for animal-loving kids! It also has lovely, full-color illustrations, which are always a plus.

Big Foot and Little Foot (age 4+) by Ellen Potter: This one comes with a caveat; skip it if your kids don't handle spooky suspense well. These are some of the most charming chapter books I've ever read, but each book does have a period of time where the main characters are certain a terrifying monster is stalking them. In the end, each "monster" turns out to be a harmless and heartwarming misunderstanding, but my daughter didn't do well with the suspense and we had to stop reading the series. Nonetheless, I always recommend them for kids who do okay with spookiness, because they're just so cute!

The Two Dogs in a Trench Coat series (4+) by Julie Falatko: This series is absolutely absurd, zany, hilarious fun. Literally about two dogs in a trench coat who miss their boy so much they dress up and go to school as one student name Salty, these are laugh-out-loud reads for sure! The complete ridiculousness of the fact that nobody ever notices or suspects that Salty is, in fact, two dogs in a trench coat is what makes this series pure awesomeness.

The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes (4+) by Peter Brown: We listened to The Wild Robot on audiobook during a family road trip when my daughter was 4, and we were all completely spellbound. This is such a unique story, really like nothing else I've ever read. The depth of emotion, compassion, and thought-provoking moral questions make this one of those perfect reads for families with mixed ages. The exciting story is enough to capture the youngest kids' attention, while the nuance and philosophy give adults plenty to ponder.

The My Father's Dragon series (4+) by Ruth Stiles Gannett: I'm including this one largely because it is the #1 recommendation I found for chapter books to read aloud to little kids, back when I was searching. We did read all three books as a family when my daughter was about four, and enjoyed them. However, I confess that they're not my absolute favorites to read aloud; they're fun, but I felt like they didn't hold my family's attention as much as others. Your mileage, of course, may vary—since it's clearly a beloved favorite of many read-aloud families!

Charlotte's Web (5+) by E. B. White: I had actually, amazingly enough, never read this until I read it to my daughter when she was 4 or 5. I ended up being so sad that I'd missed such a wonderful book as a kid—except also happy that I got to experience it for the first time as an adult!

The Vanderbeekrs series (5+) by Karina Yan Glaser: These charming novels are reminiscent of classics like The Saturdays or All-of-a-Kind Family, but they spotlight a biracial family living in Harlem and include a beautiful array of diversity. These are some of our all-time favorite read-alouds, and now that my daughter is older she's reread them all herself multiple times. There was a solid year in there where all of her dolls were named after Vanderbeeker siblings. We're BIG fans in this house! (I actually think the third book in the series, The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, was our all-time favorite family read aloud.)

Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief (5+) by Zeta Elliott: These are short reads and might appeal to younger kids as well, but some of the worldbuilding is a little complex and might be harder for small ones to follow. But this duology is a delightful lower middle grade pair about a conscientious, rule-following boy who accidentally gets sucked into a magical adventure involving misplaced dragons, time travel, other worlds, talking animals, and other mischief! Although we didn't read this one until my daughter was older, I think she'd have loved it a few years ago, as well.

The Pacy Lin series (5+) by Grace Lin: This series, which begins with Year of the Dog, was one we all really enjoyed reading when my daughter was about 5.5. The stories are loosely autobiographical, and Pacy's adventures and anecdotes are absolutely delightful. This series has strong appeal to kids who love slice-of-life books that are interspersed with stories from family members, somewhat similar to the format of the Little House books. (*whispers* but better!) I will never forget, nor stop being delighted by, the story about Pacy's dad practicing his golf serve in the hallway before their carpet is replaced.

The Ramona series (5+) by Beverly Cleary: This is a classic, and was one of our daughter's favorite for many years (especially on audiobook—she's listened to the entire 20-hour audio collection more than 10 times!) This one has longer chapters, so it's a bit better for the kids five and up, and just know you may have to pause in the middle of chapters as you read.

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