31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Easy Books and Early Chapter Books
Last year there were so many easy books to pick and choose between that they earned themselves their very own category. This year? Not much to see. Never despair. Where Easy Books seemed thin on the ground, Early Chapter Books bumped up in numbers. We always see an influx of cool ones from Europe, but in 2020 the Americans truly held their own. The results, as you can see, are bountiful:
2020 Easy Books
Egg or Eyeball? (Chick and Brain) by Cece Bell
This might be the first year that a book made it onto both the Unconventional Picture Books list, only to show up on the Easy Books List the next day. Egg! Eyeball! Egg! Eyeball! Is the white object Brain found a baby chick in its shell or a monster’s peeper? One thing is clear: inane goofiness is abounding. I love a book that really takes a deep dive into its own wackadoodle internal logic. The world Bell creates operates on a level entirely apart from our own. I always have a vague sense of where things are going, but it’s still a delight to see how she gets there. Predictably unpredictable.
See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog by David LaRochelle, ill. Mike Wohnoutka
In this easy book charmer, a much put upon dog must contend with simple narration that clearly wishes him ill. Oh. Thank. God. Our job is done, people! We have found the most interesting, most original, FUNNIEST easy book of 2020. And it’s a true easy book too. I think the longest word in here is “embarrassed” and, considering the context, I’ll let it slide. LaRochelle has found his true medium. I don’t usually think of easy books as laugh-out-loud riots but this one managed it. I’m probably talking it up too much. You’re going to have WAY too high a set of expectations when you encounter it for yourself so, tell you what, just forget everything I said except that it’s really quite good. Now go give it a read. Or three.
Ty’s Travels: All Aboard! by Kelly Starling Lyons, ill. Nina Mata
“Woo-woo!” All aboard the Ty express! When no one in his family will play with him, Ty makes his own fun and soon everyone’s getting involved. Can’t help but notice how few easy books feature Black kids these days. Particularly #ownvoices titles. Now I may take the occasional issue with how easy this book is, but after consulting it I see that it’s not trying to say that it’s for emerging readers or anything. Nina Mata’s art is also super cute.
What About Worms? by Ryan T. Higgins
Tigers may be big and brave, but they do have one fear: WORMS! So what happens when the worms Tiger fears come to believe he’s a wonderful guy? Aww. This little guy looks like Tigger’s or Hobbes’s cousin or something. And who can’t identify with his crippling fear of worms? I’ll need to chew on this one a couple times, but my first impression is how much I really like the way in which Higgins plays with our expectations (and gives those wiggly little Annelidas a voice). The spinoff Elephant & Piggie series can be touch and go sometimes, but this one feels like a winner. Bonus: I always want to sing the Heart song “What About Love?” when I read the title.
Who Needs a Checkup? by Norm Feuti
Nobody does worried guinea pig eyebrows as well as Norm Feuti, and you can quote me on that! This is the latest in the Hello, Hedgehog series and, as per normal, it’s a delight. It’s always interesting to me when a book can do double duty as both an easy book and something instructive. In this case, kids learn what a doctor’s visit entails, but it doesn’t pussyfoot about the whole getting-a-shot aspect. In fact, in our current pandemic-centric world, the likelihood of a doctor visit involving a shot is much much higher these days than it might have been in the past. So yes, Harry, you’re going to get a shot. But it won’t be the end of the world. So when that vaccine gets rolled out, you just read this here book to the kiddos. It’s what they’re going to need.
2020 Early Chapter Books
Albert Hopper, Science Hero by John Himmelman
Join intrepid science explorer Albert Hopper and his equally fearless (sorta) niece and nephew as they drill down to the center of the Earth! Science facts merge with wacky adventures. Fun for all! Thank goodness for John Himmelman. I still consider his Bunjitsu Bunny books the gold standard for early chapter book fare. This book is launching in a more science based direction, but you don’t feel bombarded by the factual evidence that’s hidden on the page. I do honestly feel like I learned quite a lot about the Earth’s interior with this title. My 6-year-old just liked it because it was funny. Win-win.
The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian: The Fuzzy Apocalypse by Jonathan Messinger, ill. Aleksei Bitskoff
It started as a podcast. As it describes itself, “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian is a serialized science-fiction story for kids, told in 15-20 minute episodes for parents to put on when driving around town, or to marathon on road trips, or to bond over before bed. When pressed, we describe it as a ‘mystery gang’ story, sort of like Scooby-Doo meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in space.” Okay then. With that in mind I wasn’t certain how an early chapter book series would stand up when read by children who had never encountered the podcast before. And at first there were problems. I’m always a bit peeved with the single-girl-hanging-out-with-a-bunch-of-differentiated-guys motif when I encounter it. If your personality trait is just “the girl”, that is a problem. Fortunately, the sole girl is also the Captain, though at this point in the proceedings her job appears to be going head-to-head with our hero. Other aspects were more delightful. Aliens with oversized heads and brains. An evil (or is it?) space bunny. And a truly funny sequence involving an explanation of what happens when your planet is “bananaed” or “coconutted”. With a goofy robot sidekick and lots of space weirdness, I’d say this is more Tom Swift meets Star Trek meets Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else. Good clean space fun.
All the Dear Little Animals by Ulf Nilsson, ill. Eva Eriksson, translated by Julia Marshall
When Esther finds a dead bumblebee, she and her friend and her little brother Puttie become the neighborhood funeral directors for a day. A funny, strangely touching look at the lighter side of death. Hope you like dead animals this year, because it’s CLEARLY the theme of 2020! But hey, if you have to do something with dead animals, this isn’t a bad way to go. Now before you read this, please bear in mind that this is an import from Sweden where they have a very different attitude towards death from Americans. Some might call it refreshing. For example, they’re not afraid to talk about it frankly. So there’s something unnerving and yet oddly sweet about this book. Kids totally do this, you just don’t tend to see it portrayed in books all that often. This is a book unafraid to see the funny side of death. Let’s see if adults are as brave as kids when reading it. Consider pairing with The End of Something Wonderful.
A Bear Named Bjorn by Delphine Perret, translated by Antony Shugaar
Six small stories tell tales of a bear and his friends. Fans of Winnie-the-Pooh will find much to love in this charming collection. Warning: Extreme charm on display. Handle with caution. Sweet, succinct, French. You could write an entire treatise on why bears are the perfect stand-ins for humans, but nothing could explain it better than this book. Bjorn is not a complicated bear. These are not complicated stories. They’re far shorter than the aforementioned Winnie-the-Pooh’s but they retain that same simplicity at their core. This is a safe little book. It’s not flashy and with its simple pen-and-inks it could be easy to ignore, but I hope you’ll take 10 minutes to try it because what Perret has managed here is admirable and lovable.
The Best of Iggy by Annie Barrows, ill. Sam Ricks
“Iggy is the hero of this book because he’s the one who does the things in it. All the things he does (in this book) are bad. Every last one of them.” Intrigued? Then find out just what Iggy did. Boy, Barrows is good at what she does, isn’t she? She’s got talent, no question. The tone of a book like this is SO difficult to maintain because Iggy has to be both somewhat sympathetic (insofar as you don’t hate him) and completely at fault (eventually). For anyone who has ever encountered a kid that just doesn’t THINK about consequences all that often. And be sure to read my interview with Ms. Barrows about this book and its origins.
Bibbit Jumps by Bei Lynn, translated by Helen Wang
Bibbit loves the following: jumping, his sister Little Frog, picnics, and maybe, if he’s brave enough, the occasional adventure. A sweet Chinese import about fears and family. On the charm scale I rank this one at a 6.5. It’s quite nice, though as with any short story collection some of the tales are going to be better written or more memorable than others. But I was very taken with the story “An Adventure” though, particularly as it melds photography with watercolor art. Worth a gander.
The Fabled Stables: Willa the Wisp by Jonathan Auxier, ill. Olga Demidova
Auggie has a great job tending to magical creatures in the fabled stables, but he’s lonely. Will a mysterious moonlight critter prove to be the friend he needs? Very slight, very short, and to the point. Auxier writes in his note at the start that he wrote this because he wanted to find something that he could read to this differently aged kids, all at the same time. I will attest that you can read it to an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old with very little difficulty. A kid working in magical stables is a familiar concept that we’ve seen, even in early chapter books, before. That said, it moves at a fair clip, the hero is likable and comes up with a solution entirely on his own, and it’s sometimes hard to find chapter books that bridge the gap between easy books and longer fiction that are this precise length.
Hockey Night in Kenya by Danson Mutinda and Eric Walters, ill. Claudia Dávila
I honestly can’t figure out where I first heard about this book. I just assumed it popped up on one of NYPL or CPL’s best book of the year lists, but nope. Not there. Well, no matter how it happened, I am so happy that I got a chance to read it myself before releasing today’s list! Author Danson Mutinda is the son of Ruth and Henry Kyatha who co-founded the Hope Development Centre orphanage. This book is set in Kikima, Kenya, where Danson lives, and centers on young Kitoo. When his school’s librarian gives him a copy of Sports Around the World, he zeroes in on the sport of hockey. There’s something about it that he finds enormously appealing, and before you know it he’s gotten himself some beat up old rollerblades and a stick. There’s this appealing theme that runs throughout the book regarding hope. Kitoo’s best friend Nigosi prefers to pretend that he can smell his favorite (and rarely served) lunch all the time. Nigosi’s more of a realist, but if he’s going to play hockey then he needs more than realism to help himself. A note at the beginning tells the story behind the story about the ice rink that opened in a hotel in Nairobi and how the Kenya Ice Lions were formed. Informative, fun, and a treat. Not like anything else out this year, that’s for sure.
Hot Dog! by Anh Do
He may not be big. He may not be strong. But when a baby bird needs its mama, Hot Dog and friends are there to provide help and hilarity in turns. I’m not usually a sucker for these graphic hybrids, but this book really hits this age range’s sweet spot. My 6-year-old was literally rolling in laughter when we got to the part where the lazy cat has a grabbing tool to reach his grabbing tool. It’s a cut above the usual silly and (personal bonus points for this) not a poop joke in sight! An Aussie import winner.
Kondo & Kezumi Visit Giant Island by David Goodner, ill. Andrea Tsurumi
I am not a patient person. So, last year, when I heard that this book was coming out I groaned and moaned excessively as its publication date was pushed pushed pushed back to 2020. I mean, I’m a top tier Andrea Tsurumi fan, first class. What she’s dishing out, I will take. When first I heard of the book, I thought it might be a comic, but what I found instead was just a perfect inclusion for today’s early chapter book list. Big Kondo and petite Kezumi discover a map in a bottle. Determined to see islands other than their own, Kezumi convinces Kondo to accompany her across the sea. Along the way they discover a cheese island, an island that appears to be on fire, and finally an island that sports a great big giant of a guy. Goodner’s got the goods on the tone and the age level, and Tsurumi’s art never flags. You are with these two intrepid explorers, every step of the way. And believe me when I say that you do NOT want to be on the receiving end of a Kezumi stink-eye. No way. A wonderful bridge of a book for kids that need that comic sensibility but can handle some complex words.
Meet Monster: The First Big Monster Book by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook, ill. Quentin Blake
Okay. So technically I should probably be slotting this book onto one of my Reprint lists, since technically it was originally released in 1973. That said, this is a bit of a rarity on a number of levels. As the authors say in A Note to Parents at the beginning, these stories were written with beginning readers in mind. Think Frog & Toad levels of comprehension. Aided in large part by Quentin Blake’s art (I mean, who doesn’t like Quentin Blake?) the book is infinitely gentle. Not a lot of large scale conflicts at work here, or even so much as a harsh word between characters. In a note on this re-release The New York Review Children’s Collection mentioned that since Blake is the quintessential Roald Dahl illustrator, this is like “a long-unsung BFG for the younger set.” Not inaccurate. And extra points to Blake for making sure in 1973 that the kids featured in the group spreads are a variety of skin tones.
Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee, ill. Dung Ho
Being the new kid is hard enough, but what happens when people make fun of your food? Enterprising Mindy Kim has a solution, and it might just get her a friend in the process. Lee has a nice, natural style to her writing. It deftly handles a range of different issues (new kid, being the only Asian kid, dead mom, losing a friend) without feeling overwrought. And it’s no small matter getting that much info packed into a book that’s a mere 90 pages. This holiday season I’ve been asked for a lot of early chapter book recommendations. This is one book I’m mentioning over and over again.
Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us by Lauren Castillo
As odd as this sounds, this book pairs beautifully with the aforementioned A Bear Called Bjorn. What could this American creation and that French import possibly have in common? Well, they both feel like the natural offspring of Winnie-the-Pooh. Almost none of the books out this year really nail that feeling as well as Castillo’s book does. Tone is such a hard thing to capture, but she does it here with aplomb. This has all the feel and appeal of a classic bedtime book. Bound to be beloved by those that discover it.
Robot the Robot Is Here to Help! by Matt Youngmark
Sneaking into that hard-to-find transitional period of late easy/early chapter books, this spunky little title by Youngmark is an enticing blend of good science fiction, non-binary gender roles, and sweet storytelling. Robot the Robot, who identifies as neither male or female, slowly learns to expand its conception of self. There are lots of slick little details placed oh-so casually in the text. I loved that the first scientist Robot meets is female. I love that when it meets an alien named Yuli that it’s a cloud person from the planet Cumuli who fills a large glove so that it can use sign language to communicate. It even has killer bunnies (quite the trend in 2020)! Plus there are whole sections on personal pronouns that go above and beyond anything else I have ever ever seen for this age range. Who could ask for anything more? It’s funny and strange and wonderful. Do NOT let this one pass you by.
Shadow in the Woods and Other Scary Stories by Max Brallier, ill. Letizia Rubegni
Are you ready to be scared? From creepy scratches to eerie houses and untrustworthy shadows, this is one book for those kids that like things that go bump in the night! Okay, so I’ve definitely put Mister Shivers on my previous lists in past years. That said, these are so creepy! I love them! I don’t consider myself a wimp when I encounter scary books for small fry, but this book? That spider story is going to haunt me to my grave!
Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem by Kate DiCamillo
Stella likes school and she does not like know-it-all Horace Broom. But when she and Horace accidentally end up locked in a closet in the pitch black, the solution to their problem lies in their friendship. The fact of the matter is that DiCamillo is simply the best at what she does. I think she’s been honing her skills. How else to explain how the books in her Mercy Watson series keep getting better? And unlike some of these books, this one actually stars a kid rather than an adult! Hooray! I agree that while you might have some mild questions about why Stella knows an indoor pig, this book stands on its own.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
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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