Transitioning to the Middle Grades

While our older daughter still loves many early reader chapter books, she’s starting to venture into middle grade territory. So far we’ve found the books to be longer, have fewer pictures, and contain more emotional complexity. As she is still on the younger end of the typical middle grade age span, we are looking for books that are heavy on adventure and light on emotional drama.

 

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Disney’s Descendants School of Secrets books by Jessica Brody

Since some Disney early reader chapter books were flops with our daughters (see post from August 30, 2017), I was a little hesitant to introduce this series. We started with CJ’s Treasure Chase and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a big hit! The Descendants are the sons and daughters of famous Disney characters. In the case of CJ’s Treasure Chase, the main character CJ is the daughter of Captain Hook. She aspires to show her father that she is a successful pirate in her own right. With the help of Freddie, the daughter of Dr. Facilier from the Princess and the Frog, CJ unlocks the secrets of her father’s treasure map in the quest for enough riches to purchase a ship of her own and establish herself as a pirate. The book is full of suspense, with many cliffhangers along the way. The characters are more fleshed out than I found them to be in some of the Disney early reader chapter books. The book explores issues of a team vs. the individual, problem solving, and a person’s ability to change. However, note that as the daughter of a Disney villain, CJ is known as a VK, or Villian Kid, and displays some of the behaviors of a villain, such as name calling and putting others down. We have not seen the Descendants movies. Based on what little I’ve read about them, I don’t think they are appropriate for our daughters just yet. The books, on the other hand, were intriguing and engaging enough that we’d like to read others in the series.

Do you know of any middle grade books that would be well suited for kids who love to read about adventures? Please feel free to leave recommendations!

More (Not) Scary Books for Younger Readers

Happy Halloween! With Halloween season upon us, our daughters are once again asking for scary books. For the last couple weeks, the Notebook of Doom series has been at the top of their request list.

img_2672.jpgThe Notebook of Doom books by Troy Cummings

Alexander Bopp moves to the town of Stermont and discovers that it is filled with monsters. Many of his encounters with these monsters take place at his new school, Stermont Elementary School, which is housed in an old hospital. Alexander discovers an old notebook with descriptions of various monsters. The notebook has the mysterious abbreviation SSMP on the cover. Spoiler alert: SSMP stands for Super Secret Monster Patrol, a now defunct organization that used to protect the town of Stermont from monsters. He and his friends, Rip and Nikki, take up the mantle of the SSMP and have various adventures figuring out how to rid their town of new monsters. The monsters are so over the top that they achieve that elusive combination of being hilarious and creepy at the same time. Examples include balloon goons and meat-eating vegetables. Like other Scholastic Branches books (see post from June 21, 2017), the books are fast-paced and filled with black and white, cartoon style illustrations.

Our daughters have been so inspired by the Notebook of Doom books that they have formed their own branch of the SSMP, complete with their own Monster Notebook. My favorite of their entries into the notebook is the String Snatchers, monsters that eat string.

Which scary books do your readers enjoy? Feel free to leave recommendations!

 

 

The Power of Books

Most of the books I’ve included in this blog so far have been books that have entertained us. They have caused us to laugh out loud, transported us to magical places, and introduced us to new characters who now feel like friends. I was recently reminded of the power of books. Books can enlighten us, help us analyze issues, and inspire us. Books can serve as springboards for deep discussions about issues such as discrimination. Books can be tools for teaching our children.

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I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis

Our older daughter recently borrowed this book from the school library. It is a powerful book about one girl’s experience at a Canadian residential school. One shameful part of Canada’s history is that approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken away from their families and sent to residential schools in order to break the ties between the children and their cultures. For instance, students were punished for speaking their home languages. Abuse and neglect were present in many residential schools. Thousands of children died at residential schools. The practice of removing indigenous children from their families lasted for over a century, with the last residential school closing in 1996. The Canadian government has since issued a formal apology.

Our older daughter was deeply moved by the book. After talking about the book with her, I noticed that its author was coming to our local library to speak about the book. I decided to bring our older daughter to the presentation.

The author described her motivation for writing the book and how she overcame various obstacles she encountered while writing it. I was impressed by the extensive research that went into the writing of the book in order to ensure its accuracy.

Grownups will want to preview the book in order to determine whether it is appropriate for their readers. There are portions that might be better suited for older or more mature readers. Personally, I felt that our younger daughter was a bit too young for the book. For her, I felt that other books about the residential schools, such as Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell and When We Were Alone by David Alexander, were more appropriate.

 

More Disney Princess Books (!)

Our younger daughter is still in the thick of her Disney princess phase. Three guesses as to what she wants to be for Halloween this year. Yep, she wants to be Elsa for Halloween! We recently started on the Disney Princess Beginnings books and she’s gobbling them up.

 

img_2018.jpgDisney Princess Beginnings books by various authors

Each book of the series focuses on the childhood of a different princess. In the books, the main character solves a problem, learning something about herself in the process and providing a glimpse of the adult she will grow up to be. For example, Belle develops a plan to save the village bookstore from being converted into a meeting place for socialites. In doing so, she learns that she does have something in common with the others in her village after all. In true Disney fashion, the illustrations are striking, but there are usually only one or two per chapter. As with the Disney Princess chapter books (see post from August 30, 2017), I have found that the characters tend to be one-dimensional. For example, Ariel is adventurous while Belle is smart and bookish. Despite this and the relative slow pace of the storylines, our younger daughter has been delighted with them. She can’t wait until the Tiana book is released in January!

Any other recommendations for a princess-loving reader? Please feel free to pass them along!

Mischief Makers Starring in Chapter Books for Early Readers

Our two daughters both have big imaginations. One tends more toward storytelling and directing scenes with dolls and stuffed animals, while the other gravitates toward creating games and contests. When they entertain themselves, they sometimes get into mischief. Thankfully, usually the mischief they cause is relatively tame! I was hesitant to introduce our daughters to the mischief makers included below, worried that they would be inspired to wreak havoc and copy behaviors I’d rather not have them learn. My fears proved to be unfounded. Instead, we’ve found that our daughters enjoy living vicariously through the characters in these books and that reading about the adventures of the characters has stimulated their own imaginations!

 

 

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Ivy + Bean books by Annie Barrows 

Ivy and Bean are unlikely friends. Together they come up with unconventional solutions to their problems, such as being left with a babysitter or avoiding a ballet recital. Our daughters find them hilarious, even upon multiple readings. One of their favorites is Ivy + Bean: What’s the Big Idea?, where Ivy and Bean test multiple solutions to climate change. Ivy + Bean Make the Rules runs a close second, where Ivy and Bean develop their own summer camp. While I am all too glad that the disasters Ivy and Bean create remain confined to the pages of a book, the pair never fails to entertain all of us.

 

 

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Dory Fantasmagory books by Abby Hanlon

Dory is the youngest of three children whose behavior has earned her the family nickname of Rascal. She longs for the friendship of her two older siblings, but they often refuse to play with her, leaving Dory to entertain herself. Dory has an active imagination and a rich fantasy life, so much so that the lines between reality and fantasy often become blurred. Our daughters were captivated by Dory’s adventures and begged for us to track down all of the books after reading the first one. My husband often chuckles while reading these books aloud to our daughters. Most two-page spreads in the books feature at least one black-and-white illustration. We are all eager for the publication of the next one!

Also on the to-read list for us are the Junie B. Jones books and the Ramona Quimby books. Do you have any favorite mischief-making characters? Please feel free to leave recommendations!

Laugh Out Loud Chapter Books for Early Readers

Sometimes people read to experience different worlds, cultures, and time periods or to learn and grapple with new ideas. Other times people read just for entertainment. This quirky series of books fits squarely in the realm of entertainment, producing giggles and laughter.

img_1823.jpgAdventures of Arnie the Doughnut books by Laurie Keller

Arnie is a walking, talking doughnut with sprinkles who has absurd adventures. His best friend is a walking, talking piece of pizza named Peezo. The books are full of word play and silly humor, making them a good fit for when your reader is looking for a goofy read. Our older daughter laughed out loud when a rival competitor named Pikyor Pocketo escaped with nickels collected during an event of the Spinny Icky Showdown. And you can probably guess what the response was when Heeza, one of the Schmelly twins, got married to Carl Caveman and decided to hyphenate her last name. The books are written and illustrated in a cartoon-like style where the text and the illustrations often merge for greater effect. Arnie the Doughnut’s adventures begin with a picture book by the same name that our older daughter enjoyed as much as she enjoys these chapter books.

Which books have made you laugh out loud? Please feel free to leave recommendations in the comments section!

 

Detective Books for Early Readers

 

Growing up, I loved to read mysteries: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown. Mysteries have built-in suspense and drama. As a parent, I appreciate how often mysteries for early readers can do this without incorporating violence. Mysteries also encourage reader participation as readers race to solve the mysteries before the characters in the books do.  Who doesn’t enjoy finishing a mystery and confirming that his or her answer was correct? Looking at the shelves of local bookstores and libraries, we’ve found more options for our daughters than the mysteries I read as a kid, many even better suited for early readers. Enjoy!

 

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King & Kayla books by Dori Hillestad Butler 

The King & Kayla books are written from the perspective of Kayla’s dog, King. King helps Kayla solve mysteries, such as finding missing dog treats or decoding a set of secret messages. Kayla models a step-by-step approach to solving problems that readers can use to analyze issues in their own lives. The books have colorful illustrations on each page. The chapters are relatively short and the text is written in a straightforward style. Our daughters enjoy solving the mysteries, as well as the way Kayla often misinterprets what King is asking her for.

 

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Cam Jansen and Young Cam Jansen books by David A. Adler

Jennifer, better known as Cam, solves mysteries. She obtained the nickname Camera due to her photographic memory, which was then shortened to Cam. Eric, her best friend, sometimes helps to solve the mysteries, but more often provides comic relief. Clues are scattered throughout the books in such a way that observant readers can often piece together the solutions for themselves. Younger readers might want to choose the Young Cam Jansen books, which are shorter than the Cam Jansen books.

We have also placed a hold at our library for the first of the A-Z mysteries by Ron Roy (thanks for the recommendation, Kristin!) and are eager to start on this series. Please feel free to send any other recommendations our way!

Disney Chapter Books

I grew up about a 20-minute drive from Disneyland and my parents still live where I grew up. During a recent trip to visit relatives in California, our family spent three fun-filled (but exhausting!) days at Disneyland, so I have had Disney on my mind lately.

 

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Anna & Elsa books by Erica David

Anna and Elsa, the sisters from Frozen, have adventures together. Other characters from Frozen, such as Olaf and Kristof, often make appearances as well. Although we have found some adventures to be more exciting and interesting than others, the plots are all straightforward and easy to follow. There are black and white illustrations scattered throughout the books. Our daughters went through a Frozen craze a while ago, so I expected these books to be much more popular than they have been.

 

 

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Disney Fairies books by various authors

The Disney Fairies books have been much more popular in our family than the Anna & Elsa books. These books describe the lives of Tinker bell and her friends in Pixie Hollow. Each fairy or sparrow man has a special talent, such as tinkering, flying fast, manipulating water, gardening, communicating with animals, or baking. Although I have not been the biggest fan of the Rainbow Magic Fairy books (see post from July 27, 2017) or fairies in general, the Disney Fairies books have grown on me. The authors have created detailed world where each fairy and sparrow man has a distinct personality. Pixie Hollow and its inhabitants come alive in these books. The conflicts and problems that arise are sometimes internal, such as the queen’s crown going missing, and sometimes external, such as fighting between chipmunks and birds. With only one or two illustrations per chapter, there are fewer illustrations than in many other books for early readers, but they are detailed and eye catching. Although the books are out of print, they are well worth the effort of tracking them down!

 

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Disney Princess books by various authors

Each of the Disney Princess books focuses on a different princess. Familiar characters are faced with new challenges, such as Jasmine figuring out why there is no produce available or Ariel tracking down a friend who has gone missing. Like the Disney Fairies books, there are one or two beautiful and eye-catching illustrations per chapter. Both of our daughters have gone through phases where they loved the Disney princesses, so I expected these books to be more popular than they have been. A related set of books, the Disney Princess: Palace Pets books by Tennant Redbank have been more requested than the Disney Princess books.

 

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The Never Girls books by various authors

Four friends have adventures in Neverland with Tinkerbell, Rosetta, and other fairies from Pixie Hollow. The friends travel back and forth between Neverland and the everyday human world, sometimes together and sometimes alone. Like the Anna & Elsa books, the illustrations are in black and white. Part of the magic of the books that makes them enjoyable is the idea that there are connections between our everyday world and Neverland and that humans can be whisked off to Neverland.

 

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Whisker Haven Tales with the Palace Pets books by various authors

The Palace Pets are the favorite pets of the Disney princesses, such as Cinderella’s puppy,  Pumpkin, or Snow White’s bunny, Berry. The pets usually have to work together to solve problems and learn valuable lessons while doing so. These books are well suited for readers just starting out with chapter books because the text is less dense and the books are shorter than the other Disney chapter books.

Trying to choose a Disney series? Our favorites by far are the Disney Fairies books. They more successfully build suspense and tension than the other sets of books. The characters are also more vivid, with real-life personalities. I think that part of why the Disney Princess and Anna & Elsa books have not been as popular in our family as I had anticipated is that the characters are more one dimensional than those in the Disney Fairies books even when the adventures are as exciting. Our next choices would be the Never Girls books or the Disney Princess: Palace Pets books for similar reasons.

Note: I’ve just heard about the Disney Princess Beginnings books, which sound like they are well suited for readers just starting out with chapter books. More to come!

First Books to Read Independently

Learning to read is hard work and our younger daughter has been working hard at it all summer (see post from June 14, 2017). She recently read her first book independently! Our younger daughter easily identifies letters, matches them to the sounds they make, and recognizes common consonant blends. Her sight word vocabulary also continues to grow. However, reading is still hard work for her and she often runs out of steam before the end of a book. Right now we are focused on building her stamina and confidence with reading.

Easy Readers labeled with levels are one place to start, such as the I Can Read! books published by Harper Collins or the Step Into Reading books published by Random House.  However, I sometimes find that the books are still a bit too difficult for her right now (ask me again in a couple of months!) and that there can be a lack of consistency across books labeled as being at the same level. Instead, in our household, we’ve found Mo Willems to be a great source of books for this stage of learning to read.

 

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Cat the Cat books by Mo Willems

Over the course of four books, Cat the Cat makes new friends, encounters various animal sounds, discusses getting ready for bed, and explores flight. There is limited text on each page, usually one to three sentences, with a lot of repetition built in, making them well suited for those just learning to read. The illustrations are bright and funny, and there is usually a bit of a surprise waiting for you at the end.

 

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Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems

Ready to move on from the Cat the Cat books? Try the Elephant and Piggie books, my favorite books for kids just learning to read. Gerald is cautious and skeptical, while Piggie is optimistic and enthusiastic. Despite their differences, Gerald and Piggie are the best of friends. They have fun adventures together, support each other through difficult times, and work through disagreements. Early readers will be able to relate to many of the issues dealt with such as broken toys, being afraid of losing your best friend, coping with a melting ice cream cone, and wanting to cheer up a sad friend. Again, there is limited text on each page and hilarious illustrations. The facial expressions of Piggie and Elephant, along with the varied use of fonts for emphasis in the dialogue, have even allowed our younger daughter to start reading aloud with expression.

Mo Willems also has a series of books about Pigeon that are well suited for those just learning to read. While I personally find the Pigeon’s personality irritating, they may be a good fit for the reader in your life!

 

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Any picture book by Jan Thomas

While not technically a series, Duck, Cow, and Pig make an appearance in multiple books, while talking dust bunnies are the focus of a few others. The humor often comes from characters misinterpreting others or one character having a distinctly different opinion than the rest of the group. Our favorites are A Birthday for Cow, Pumpkin Trouble, Is Everyone Ready for Fun?, Is That Wise, Pig?, and Let’s Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy. Like the Elephant and Piggie books, there is limited text on each page and bright, hilarious illustrations.

A note for all of the books discussed above: Even with such limited text in these books, we sometimes come across words that are not common sight words or easy to sound out, and need to provide our younger daughter with help.

Which books you would recommend for those just learning to read? Please leave a comment!

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Unconventional Princesses for Early Readers

Both of our daughters went through a phase where they loved the Disney princesses. (To be honest, it’s still going on with our younger daughter!) In the hopes of broadening their ideas about what a princess can be, I’ve searched for books about unconventional princesses. One of my favorite stand-alone books is the Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. However, finding a series of books about unconventional princesses has been a little more difficult. While Princess Pink is the main character in unconventional fairy tales (see post from June 21, 2017), she’s technically not a princess. As she explains to others, her first name just happens to be Princess. However, there are two unconventional princesses who have become favorites in our household!

 

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Hamster Princess books by Ursula Vernon

Despite her mother’s best efforts to make her into a typical princess, Princess Harriet Hamsterbone loves to cliff-dive, sword-fight, and ride her faithful battle quail, Mumphrey. She is known throughout the land as a fierce fighter and has adventures rescuing others from magical creatures. Comic relief comes in the form of the dialogue between Harriet and her best friend, Prince Wilbur. There is some violence in the books due to Harriet fighting magical creatures. However, the descriptions are not detailed and Harriet often finds unexpected ways to defeat her foes. We love the Hamster Princess books so much in our household that we have started on the Dragonbreath series, also by Ursula Vernon, hoping to find yet another character or two to love.

 

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Princess in Black books by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

Princess Magnolia is a typical princess who wears fancy clothes and lives in a castle. However, when the monster alarm sounds, she sheds her fancy clothes in favor of a black, superhero outfit to become the Princess in Black. Blacky is the alter ego of her trusty steed, Frimplepants. Together they defend their land from monsters, especially those who like to eat goats. The books are filled with funny illustrations and fast-paced action. The descriptions of fighting in the books are mild, as are the illustrations of the Princess in Black’s fighting moves.

 

Trying to decide between the two? The Princess in Black books are better suited for younger readers. The books are shorter, contain more illustrations, and have a straightforward, fast-moving plot. At over 200 pages each, the Hamster Princess books are much longer, the humor tends to be more subtle and ironic, and the pages are more text heavy. However, Harriet Hamsterbone is a clear winner in our household for their humor and richly drawn characters.

Do you have any unconventional princesses to recommend? Please leave a comment!