Many moms wonder when is that perfect age when you quit picture books and begin chapter books. My first thought is that one should never quit picture books. Even when your child is reading independently, picture books offer a sense of familiarity and ease which will boost the confidence any kid has in his/her reading skills. Secondly, it’s like chicken soup for the soul. I can’t count how many times I’ve begun reading an easy, familiar book to my toddler set only to have my older sons sidle their way over to sit on the edge of the couch. The rhythm of mom’s voice, the rustle of turning pages, the vibrance of good art… it all beckons. I see no need to end that at a certain age. Finally, the reason that one should never “quit” picture books is that there are often excellent points or reflections to delight adults as well as children. I think immediately of a book like the innovative The Arrival, or the nostalgic Roxaboxen for example.
Anyway, there does exist a wonderful transition when one does introduce chapter books into a child’s life to complement the regular picture book diet. I have very recently discovered the “Special Read Aloud Edition” of Stuart Little. What made it so special was its size. It is printed as a very large, hardback picture book with blown up illustrations and large text. These books are so inviting for a cozy read aloud snuggled on the couch with Mama or Papa. I found a couple other “Special Read Aloud Editions” out there, notably The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. But it seems these are all out of print and I’d be very careful buying from an amazon seller to make sure you are getting the right edition you pay for. The Narnia series and Charlotte’s Web Special Read Aloud Editions seem to be in print still.
So what age should one begin chapter books? I’d say it depends on the child but the most likely window will be between 5-6-ish. Some four years olds will love read alouds and even younger toddlers might listen in on the stories told to their older siblings with apparent interest. Even if a child isn’t totally grasping every metaphor or vocabulary word, just the exposure of richer vocabulary and sentence structure will be good for them in addition to the increase of listening and attention skills. I was worried about reading the Narnia books to my then-five year old son because I wanted him to be old enough to understand the great Christian analogies, but he ate The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe right up! And the reason those books are classics is because they will weather well under another reading at a later age.
What books should you read first? The short answer is “Whatever you feel like!” Read what interests your child (using your own parental discretion of course). There is no mandatory introduction to chapter book list that’ll adequately cover ALL the greats. But I can share with you my list that worked! I like to start with books that have short chapters and illustrations to acclimate the child to longer readings. So, as it’s an enormous task to list all great chapter books out there in general, here’s a list of earliest, first chapter books that were hits with my boys (or that I know will be a hit with my daughter).
- James and the Giant Peach
- My Father’s Dragon
- Homer Price
- Winnie the Pooh
- The Cricket in Times Square
- Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook
- Just So Stories
- Mr. Popper’s Penguins
- The Princess and the Goblin
- Just So Stories
- Captains Courageous
- The Indian in the Cupboard
- Betsy Tacy
- Little House on the Prairie series
- ^ Farmer Boy (especially to hook boys)
- Birdbrain Amos
- Paddington Bear
- The Narnia series
- Happy Little Family
- The Children of Noisy Village
Perhaps it doesn't count as a chapter book, but I'd add James Herriot's Treasury for Children to this list. It was the first "longer-than-a-picture-book" book my children actually enjoyed.
We've also read some of our own childhood favorites, even if they aren't the typical classics. The children show interest in hearing how we reacted to them as children ourselves. (The one that comes to mind is "Olga da Polga" which was the book that introduced my husband to the wonders of reading. He's been a voracious reader ever since.)