Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books: Some of the Best of 2019
Meet the most necessary and least loved age range of children’s books. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve stared deep down into the eyes of a parent that is truly desperate for something for their 6-year-old to read. That kind of desperation is probably why we have the leveling systems we have in place today. Where there is fear, there is profit. No matter. I have been carefully combing through every last easy book and early chapter book I could get my grubby little hands on and, with the help of my co-workers, I’ve come up with a good, if imperfect, list. Things I’d change about it? While it’s nice to see some Muslim and Latinx characters in these books, where are the Black and Asian-American kids? Suggestions in these areas that you’ve seen with 2019 pub dates are welcome (and necessary).
To define our terms a little, when I say that something is an “Easy Book” I mean that it has a simplified text for beginning readers. Even so, the complexity of the text can vary. I will indicate when a book is appropriate for the earliest of readers when I can. An “Early Chapter Book” is a step above. These are books of varying length with chapters inside, but plenty of pictures. Again, they vary widely, so I’ll sort them from least complex to most complex on this list.
All set? Then enjoy some of the goodies of the year!
In Order of Increasing Text Complexity
Poof! A Bot! (the Adventures of Zip) written & illustrated by David Milgrim
That sticker on the cover says “New Readers Start Here” and they ain’t kidding. Milgrim’s apparently some kind of an easy book wizard. How else to explain how he can produce these truly creative, exceedingly simple, books with a plot and regular characters, and everything!
Save the Cake! by Molly Coxe
Every night when my son comes in from he backyard to practice his reading, he’ll come in that back door and suddenly yell, “Save the cake!!!” Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a great motto for life itself. These Bright Owl Books originally were released about 7 years ago as independently published titles. Now they’ve been picked up by Kane Press and this year they released wholly new titles. Of the five I’ve looked at, I think Save the Cake is my favorite. First off – cake. So. You know. Right there. Then there’s the fact that using the long “a” sound it tells a pretty dang smart story. Kirkus pooh-poohed the writing, but I think they’re mildly insane. These books are written remarkably well considering the limited word count AND the art is fantastic.
Harold & Hog Pretend for Real! by Dan Santat
A show of hands. Who likes their easy books meta? You do? Then are you in lucky, baby! Let’s see if I can break this down. A pig and an elephant read a book about a pig and an elephant that love the books about the first pig/elephant pairing. Got that? Santat just knocks this one out of the park. It’s wily and sly and very funny to kids learning to read, while also amuses we, the jaded adults. I like Elephant and Piggie but I wouldn’t mind reading more Harold and Hog as well. Plus, I owe it my allegiance for this priceless image:
I literally could stare at it all day.
Snail and Worm All Day: Three Stories About Two Friends by Tina Kugler
And while we’re engaging in a touch of hyperbole for spice, allow me to say that Tina Kugler is one of those great easy book gurus that could literally do anything and I would check it out. Snail and Worm is very much in the vein Frog & Toad and I don’t say such things lightly.
Do You Like My Bike? by Norm Feuti
Let’s Have a Sleepover! by Norm Feuti
See, I basically fell for Feuti’s style when he did that comic The King of Kazoo years ago. Figures he’d be able to knock an Easy Book out of the park. I’m crazy about these too. It is SO hard to write Easy, and he nails it on every level. How can I sell this to you? It features a skeptical hedgehog. There is, to my mind, nothing better in this world than that.
As an interesting sidenote, the librarians in my location overwhelmingly informed me that they prefer “Sleepover” to “Bike”. I like it more too, though I’d have a hard time pinpointing why that might be.
The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier
If anything, Ruzzier improves upon the original. There is also cake. Delcious delicious cake.
Smell My Foot by Cece Bell
Chick and Brain are friends, and Chick insists on proper manners at all times, even when it comes to smelling another person’s foot. So what happens when the wrong person thinks you smell delicious? An erudite bit of sophistication hitherto unseen in the world of easy books. Either that or it’s about getting people to smell your feet. One or the other. I’m sort of a fan of Cece Bell, and this employs one of my favorite children’s book tropes (the conceited character too dumb to realize that they’re about to be eaten). Might be for specialized (read: good) tastes only.
Early Chapter Books
In Order of Increasing Text Complexity
Douglas by Randy Cecil
Invoking the silent movies of yore, a little mouse must overcome obstacles, just like the swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks. Derring-do, rescues, and a happy end all complete this sweetheart of a book. As the former owner of a six-toed cat, I approve of this book. Lucy, its predecessor, was nice, but I actually feel like Douglas is the stronger book. I love the invocation of Douglas Fairbanks (and the fact that the female mouse gets to do all the derring-do while rescuing the male mouse), the art, and the pacing. A quiet favorite.
Charlie & Mouse Even Better by Laurel Snyder, ill. Emily Hughes
What’s better than perfect? Something that’s even better. Whether it’s dragon pancakes, decorating with snakes, or saving the day, Charlie & Mouse are awfully good at making their mom feel awfully special. I do honestly feel that this third Charlie & Mouse book stands alone. I wasn’t as big a fan of #2 in the series, so this feels like a return to form. There’s a strange early reader elegance to it. Snyder appears to be the queen of the callback, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to appreciate that the line is, “Mom is the best!”
The Kid and the Chameleon by Sheri Mabry, ill. Joanie Stone
A girl and a chameleon make a pass at friendship, find they have almost nothing in common with one another, and go for it anyway. Clearly there’s a deeper meaning at work here. I won’t read too much into it, if you don’t.
Rumple Buttercup: A story of bananas,belonging and being yourself by Matthew Gray Gubler
Rumple Buttercup has 5 crooked teeth, 3 strands of hair, green skin, and a left foot slightly bigger than his right. Is he too weird to make any friends? Huh! If I didn’t know better I’d swear this book was European in origin since it’s at that level of quirk. Bummer that all the people in the town are white, of course. Seems a bit of a no-brainer correction to be made there. Otherwise, a nice little title. I should mention that this bok’s primary source of fame is that it was written and illustrated by Criminal Minds actor/director, Matthew Gray Gubler.
Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories by Max Brallier, ill. Letizia Rubegni
Ready for some ghoulish chills? Let Mr. Shivers tell you five stories that are bound to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Only the brave need apply. Mr. Shivers needs to make more of a personal appearance in these books. That said, I really liked the degree of chill these stories provided. It’s just half a step below SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, and a lot is implied rather than outright shown. Younger kids deserve scary stuff too. This book is the proof in the pudding.
Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina
You think you have problems? Look at what Juana’s going through! Not only is her mom marrying again, but the whole family is now going to move. What’s a kid to do? It’s a pretty basic story about step-parents and moving, and while it doesn’t dive too deep, it’s fun for emerging readers and relatable throughout.
A is for El!zabeth by Rachel Vail, ill. Paige Keiser
The scourge of alphabetical order has Elizabeth’s nose out of joint. But can she convince her class that her name is actually spelled AAbAmmm!moxooo!Eoo’oAth!? I am not without my concerns, but I found this book a fascinating little glimpse into the mind of a pretty self-centered little girl. That’s a positive. Elizabeth is not a particularly nice person. SUPER judgey. She also calls people mean names. So why recommend it? Because there’s room for growth and learning here. By the end of the story Elizabeth’s attempts to be the most special has backfired spectacularly and she’s come around to understanding that her supposed mortal enemy is actually a lot like her. She’s got a fair ways to go as a person (that name calling never lets up) but it’s a first step book with the promise of more in the series tackling other issues. I mean, let me be clear. If you want nicey nicey where it’s all sunshine and cutesy puppydogs, this ain’t it. But it’s funny and a little strange and not wholly dissimilar to Junie B. Jones. Make of her what you will.
Corey’s Rock by Sita Brahmachari, ill. Jane Ray
After moving with her family to a small Scottish island, Isla and her family struggle to move on after her brother’s death. A hopeful tale with luminous art that weaves together grief, selkies, and the magic of ordinary friendship. Brahmachari attempts the difficult task of interweaving a family’s recovery after the death of a child with the selkie myth. This is magical realism at its finest, since the reader often doesn’t quite know what Isla is dreaming and what is the truth, particularly as it pertains to a sealskin. I appreciated that it touched on the mom’s depression without having to make it the central issue. Naturally, Jane Ray’s art is gorgeous. This is an uncommon book.
The Tree and Me by Deborah Zemke
Bea loves a tree. The tree in her school’s yard that’s vast and big and old. But when a mischievous classmate has a near accident there, people begin to call to tear the tree down. What can one gal do save it? This is fourth in the Bea Garcia series but you most certainly do not need to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this one. Love that it’s a Latinx writer with a love o’ trees. The antagonist, in the form of an overly concerned safety-conscious mother, is probably one of the most realistic parents I’ve met in a children’s book in a long time. I don’t whip out the old “charming” term too often, but if the shoe fits . . .
Mr. Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T. Smith
Mr. Penguin and his spider partner Colin have always dreamed of being real honest-to-goodness adventurers. So when Boudicca Bones from the Museum of Extraordinary Objects asks them to find a secret treasure, you know this intrepid duo will be on the case! Is it a tad silly when a grown-up feels proud for having cracking the riddle of who the baddies are before the book does it itself? Then color me silly! This turned out to be a truly delightful little book. Lots of twists and turns and hungry alligators and a happy ending to cap everything off. Plus, it’s hard to resist a tough guy spider in a bowler hat. Or maybe that’s just me.
The Elixir Fixers: Sasha and Puck and the Potion of Luck by Daniel Nayero, ill. Janneliese Mak
Ugh. Sasha’s got a real problem. Her dad keeps selling fake luck potions, meaning that his daughter has to be the one to correct his mistakes. Can she help the locate chocolatier with her love life or will Sasha’s father be exposed? I think the length is just perfect for those kids transitioning to older fare. I liked the original storytelling quite a lot. This isn’t a tale I’ve seen a hundred times before. A strong kick-off to the series.
Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows by Rose Lagercrantz, ill. Eva Eriksson, translated by Julia Marshall
Dani misses her best friend Ella terribly. That’s why she feels brave enough to take a train all by herself to Ella’s birthday party. But when a terrible series of events derails her plans, can Dani ever be happy again? Geez this series is good. I’ve read the Dani books on and off for years and I never remember them when the new one comes out. So, basically, I came to this book cold and was very easily able to dive in. Lagercrantz catches you up without difficulty, and there is just so much depth and emotion to this tiny book. It’ll break your heart, guaranteed.
Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle, ill. Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon
Rosalie is on a secret mission. While her father serves in the war, she declares herself a captain and sets about completing secret operations that will bring her closer to a terrible truth. The real question here is to where to put this book. It’s sophisticated, for all that it looks like an early chapter book title. It’s VERY good, but for older readers. Yet it looks younger. What to do?
Thanks for reading! And don’t forget to let me know what your suggestions for this 2019 list might be.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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