31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Early Chapter Books
Yesterday I said that Easy Books might be the hardest books to write, and I stand by that statement. However, though they might be difficult to create, at least they have a lovely award of their own (the Geisel) to reward them for their efforts. The same, alas, cannot be said for younger chapter books. While they are technically capable of winning Newberys, they don’t. And yet, as transitional texts they are vital to the lifeblood of any healthy children’s room. Often they provide that necessary connection between easy fare and longer tomes for up and coming readers.
Today, I consider a slew of different books that all fall into this no man’s land of literature. Without them, we would lose so many kids. Let us tip our caps then to the books that do our dirty work, and rarely get the thanks they deserve.
A Is for El!zabeth by Rachel Vail, ill. Paige Keiser
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 this first story (it’s the kickoff to a 26 book series) Elizabeth’s attempts to be the most special have 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.
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. Personally, I think 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.
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. Essentially, Brahmachari is attempting 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. And naturally, Jane Ray’s art is gorgeous. This is an uncommon book.
Do Fish Sleep? by Jens Raschke, ill. Jens Rassmus, translated by Belinda Cooper
The Europeans have a whole different take on death than we Americans. Our general attitude is to be vague about it. Maybe a little symbolic. The Germans? Yeah, they don’t do it that way. From the country that brought us Duck, Death and the Tulip comes the story of a girl whose little brother has died. As her parents sink into grief she remembers and mourns and thinks and remembers. The funeral is, in her own words, “a real flop”, which is really too bad since she had this cool idea where everyone would paint his white coffin different colors before it was lowered into the ground. Only it’s a rainy day so all the paint just kind of washes off and Jette, the girl, feels guilty because she promised her brother a sunny funeral. Apparently this was originally performed as a one-girl play, and it won the 2012 Mülheimer Children’s Theater Prize. It’s sort of a bestseller over there. For my part, I found it lovely and compelling and surprisingly hopeful, in spite of its bleak content. And lord knows there are plenty of 10-year-olds out there obsessed with “death books”. This one’s for them.
The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer, ill. P.J. Lynch
My only real objection is the name of the book, because it makes it sound more cutesy than it is. I mean, it’s cute. No question. But it was surprising how much abuse the dog takes at the start. The book makes up for it later on (and you HAVE to show the psychological reasons why the dog does what it does). Essentially, there’s a lot more going on here than just dog stuff. Plus, I really like the mom in the book, particularly when she’s in her sarcastic mode.
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 (who acts as the villain of the piece), I approve. 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.
The Elixir Fixers: Sasha and Puck and the Potion of Luck by Daniel Nayeri, ill. Janneliese Mak
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.
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? Admittedly this isn’t the first in the Juana & Lucas series, but if my criteria is to consider a wide range of voices (this is Latinx all the way) as well as books that stand on their own (you could read this and never know it was part of a series) then I think it needs some serious consideration. 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.
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 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 it applies here.
Vivaldi by Helge Torvund, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen, translated by Jeanie Shaterian and Thilo Reinhard
VERY interesting. This is a bully book, and the cruelty of the children is just a little more concentrated and vile than you’ll find in a lot of American titles. As I was reading I could not figure out how this story could possibly resolve itself. The last thing I expected was for a fellow child to report the bullying to a trusted grown-up and for the adults to actually get up and do something about it. The book manages to give readers a lesson without being the least bit preachy about it. A book that builds empathy.
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 one 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.
Wild Honey from the Moon by Kenneth Kraegel
When a mother shrew’s son grows sick she embarks on an epic adventure to the skies, on a quest to locate the only thing that will make him well: wild honey from the moon. I’ve always thought Kraegel had a nice style, but until now he’s never quite reached his potential. This little book, separated into small chapters, is quintessential bedtime reading. It’s just ink and watercolor but the artist must have the smallest nib in the world for all of these delicate, tiny lines. He’s like Peter Sis, if Sis decided to involve himself with shrews. Utterly comfortable reading.
Zanzibar by Catharina Valckx , translated by Antony Shugaar
Zanzibar’s a fairly content crow. That is, until the day reporter Achille LeBlab asks if there’s anything extraordinary about him. Now he’s on a mission to lift a camel with one wing. Can he? And does it really matter? Aww. I’m quite taken with this gentle early chapter book from France. First off, extra points to any title where the lizard reporter for the newspaper is named “Achille LeBlab”. And then there’s the story which is gentle and sweet and doesn’t wrap itself up in trying to be about anything more than what it is. For the child that needs gentleness and some light humor.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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