31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Easy Book and Early Chapter Titles
In the old days I used to separate out my Easy Book lists from my Early Chapter Book ones. The difference between the two? Easy Books are Beginner Books right up until they start doing simple chapters ala Frog & Toad. Early Chapter Books are the next phase, when you’re not ready for a full novel, but you’re above the Easy level. And now, looking at how many luscious lovely books made this year’s lists, I’m beginning to regret that I didn’t separate these out too! Ah well. Too late now. Enjoy the bounty and be sure to catch ’em all:
2021 Easy Books
Burt the Beetle Doesn’t Bite by Ashley Spires
Burt’s just your average ten-lined june beetle and there’s very little that’s interesting about him. Yet even the most average bug can be a hero if it uses what it’s got. And what Burt has are … hugs! I had this book all wrong. When it was first sent to me, I think I tried to tackle it like a work of nonfiction. And sure, there are plenty of fun facts spotted throughout the text. But the long and short of the matter is that this book is more story than expository text. And look at Burt. Isn’t he cute? Loved the set-up, the characterizations, and the fact that a sweety beetle can be a hero. Best line ever: “I have foiled you with my warm embrace.”
Ducks Run Amok! by J.E. Morris
Can’t a turtle get some peace and quiet around here? Not when a flock of exuberant ducks comes on the scene. This is easy reading for kids with a sense of humor. To my mind, any book that drives uptight turtles mad is worth at least a little consideration. And I tried this one out on my 7-year-old to see if it played fair with the wording and it does! Pure easy book territory.
Fitz and Cleo by Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox
Ghost siblings Fitz and Cleo star in a hilarious and charming graphic novel series for early readers. Follow their adventures through 11 short chapters chock full of action and silliness. And for my 7-year-old (who, you will now notice, is sort of my guinea pig in this category this year) this was the perfect reading level. Also, from the sheer peals of laughter he emitted as he read, I’m going to declare this book a success. The harder words are never too hard, and the jokes land. I even liked the fart joke (and I’m a hard sell on those, normally).
Flubby Will Not Go to Sleep by J.E. Morris
Flubby Will Not Take a Bath by J.E. Morris
Where can I lodge a complaint against my spellcheck? Repeatedly, as I attempted to write the word “Flubby”, it wanted to turn it into “Flabby”. But Flubby is the star of this show, and serves as a rather nice child stand in. This easy book keeps things pretty simple. The words never get much more complicated than “shower”. Flubby had already gained fame and fortune when it won a Geisel award for Flubby Is Not a Good Pet. I would argue that these later chapters in the Flubby pantheon are even better, though. Both have wonderful moments of cats being cats, whether they’re sitting directly on your face as you’re trying to sleep or refusing to be put in a tub, keeping the water at bay, limbs spread-eagled. You can like these books for the easy words, but it’s the art and stories that bring ‘em on home.
I’m On It! by Andrea Tsurumi
When goat is on, frog is on. When goat is under, frog is under. Zany hijinks ensue as these two friends embody a wide range of increasingly tenuous positions. It is just SO nice to see Tsurumi returning to her completely madcap chaotic roots this year! Honestly, she’s at her best when things have gone utterly out of control (and if you don’t believe me, check out her work on Mr. Watson’s Chickens). Easy books, as we often say, can be the most difficult to write but I think Ms. Tsurumi just did an out-of-this-world stellar job with the simplicity of this text. The only parts that didn’t jive with me (and I use that term on purpose) were the old 70s phrases that Mo Willems insisted on putting at the beginning and the end out of the mouth of Gerald. “Right on!” and “Far out” are little jokes that probably didn’t need to be there, but the overall success of the book renders that tiny problem moot.
Kraken Me Up by Jeffrey Ebbeler
When a little girl brings her pet to the county fair pet show, no one thinks much of it. That is, until they notice that it’s a kraken! A sweet, subtle tale of acceptance and calamari. Who is Jeffrey Ebbeler and why has he been hiding his easy book writing skills from us until now? Well the jig’s up now, Jeffrey! You made the classic mistake of creating a near perfect easy book. And extra points to Holiday House for publishing this book as the standard 9 X 6 inches. I’ve been trying to tell them that their I Like to Read series didn’t work in a lot of libraries because easy book shelves are significantly smaller than picture book shelves. This book is just as adorable as its cover implies, and you’ll be hoping for more Kraken books real soon. I know I am.
Over, Bear! Under, Where? by Julie Hedlund, ill. Michael Slack
Every year, when I try to predict the Geisel Awards for easy books, I completely forget to take into account the picture books with simple texts. They’re not particularly abundant, so you’d think my radar would be sufficiently pinged whenever I come across one. That is, sadly, not usually the case… until now! Now the cover of this book makes it look as though it’s just one of the hundreds of bear-in-underwear books out there, and you could be forgiven for that assumption. That said, this is a book that tries something a little different. You’re getting the simple text on the one hand, but at the same time there’s a slew of compound words sort of hidden in there as well. You see, our two heroes’ names are Under and Over. As a result you end up with words like Undergo, (“Under, go!”) or Overrun. You get the picture. The full list of compound words in the book is found in the back, making this a kind of seek-and-find book for words, as well as a fun story about two friends and the bear that gets in their way. Here’s hoping the Geisel committee takes a nice long look at some of the cleverness on display on these pages.
See Bip Grow! by David Milgrim
It’s Milgrim’s sheer consistency that astounds. The difficulty in perfecting the art of the easy book cannot be overstated. It is a deeply hard thing to do on a consistent basis. Yet here we find David Milgrim somehow managing to crank out astounding Zip book after astounding Zip book. Just to ante up how good the books are, helpful charts appear at the beginning. There’s a “Word families” chart, one for “Sight words” and one for “Bonus words”. I don’t have any beginning readers in my household anymore, but if I did I’d probably just go to the library and grab every last Zip book on the shelves in one fell swoop. Probably the best beginning reader book series (for kids that are ACTUALLY beginning to read) out there today.
Shelby & Watts: Tide Pool Troubles by Ashlyn Anstee
Ah! Here we have a book that traverses that tricky territory between the beginning easy books and the early chapter ones. It’s riiiiiiight on the cusp between the two, which is often the hardest kind of book to find. If you’re a librarian then I must warn you that you’re going to have a hard time figuring out where to put this one, but it’ll be worth it for those kids that need it. Best of all? It’s a mystery! An intrepid fox and her best badger friend are on the lookout for shells. The hermit crabs need new ones but they keep disappearing from the beach. Who is the thief? Considering how slight this book is, it’s admirable that Anstee still manages to work in red herrings and an environmental message along the way. Plus, who amongst you can resist forlorn hermit crabs? One must assume that they must be particularly fun to draw.
The Sleepover and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier
Aw, you know I’m a pushover for this series. It probably doesn’t hurt that Ruzzier’s just gotten so darn good at the three act structure. As with the other Fox & Chick books, this one contains three small stories. In this case they are called “The Sleepover”, “The Hammer”, and “The Surprise”. Chick, in each tale, is the adorable bane of kindly Fox. Their relationship vacillates between a kind of Ernie & Bert schtick to a more parent/child relationship, and then back to friends once more. Best of all, Ruzzier is capable of the short-story-in-an-easy-book twist ending. Not many folks can brag of that. A wonderful new inclusion in a series that is consistent in surprising us.
Tag Team (El Toro and Friends) by Raul the Third, colors by Elaine Bay
The wrestlers from the hilarious Vamos books star in their very own easy reader spinoff that mixes Spanish with English words and serves up a lot of hilarious action. For years, when anyone ever asked me where the gaps in the library collection were, I’d always say it was in the Mexican wrestler section. And while we’re still not seeing that bilingual DK collection of Most Famous Mexican Wrestlers (seriously, dudes, how hard would that be to put together?) at the very least we can get books like these. I took particular note of how the story makes very sure to show that El Toro isn’t calling up the female La Oink Oink to help him clean up just because she’s a girl. That could have been incredibly awkward. Instead, it’s about being a team through the good and the bad. I think this one is impossible to deny.
Time for Kenny by Brian Pinkney
I don’t think Pinkney originally intended this to be an easy book for emerging readers, but that’s sure as heck how I took it. That isn’t to say there aren’t some challenging words in here. “Vacuum”, for example. But considering the fact that this book is split into separate sections (and would have benefited from some chapter headings) it really feels like easy book territory. Greenwillow should look into some simultaneous easy book size publishing in the future. As for the art itself, it’s Pinkney, man. You know how well he does the things that he does. Nobody but nobody makes motion purr on the page the way that Brian Pinkney does. Joyful and careful with a simple text for all.
Training Day by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay
Alongside Tag Team, this is the other “El Toro & Friends” easy book coming from Raúl and Elaine. In this one El Toro is looking forward to facing an opponent that looks like nothing so much as a slightly modified The Thing, called The Wall. To do so, he’ll have to up his training program. However, when his trainer comes to rouse him from his slumber, El Toro doesn’t feel up to the challenge. Only after a great deal of persuasion does he finally give in, and we are treated to a workout sequence that would put Rocky to shame. The inclusion of Spanish words and phrases alongside English will give some new readers just the right kind of challenge, and who can resist that art? Another winner.
We Have a Playdate by Frank W. Dormer
Three friends must navigate playground equipment and the addition of a fourth friend in this hilarious series of misunderstandings and hijinks. I read through this entire book before I realized that it was written and illustrated by Frank Dormer. MAN, what a strange fellow he is! In the best possible way, of course. I swear, he never does the same kind of book twice. This gentle story (straddling the line between easy and early chapter titles) is a hoot. There are misconceptions, failures to read the room, and general misunderstandings between friends. Plus, how can you resist a book that has the line, “Swinging is fun!” followed by the line, “Except when the drag coefficient causes the end of fun.” Plus, I think Noodle might be non-binary. Worth a read anyway.
Wildflowers by Liniers
After having crash landed on a mysterious island, three sisters are determined to explore. But is there more to this island than meets the eye? It’s a comic but I think that with its easy reading level it’s more appropriate to put it here in the Easy and Early Chapter Books. Now the trick to this title is to read it twice. The first time you go through it you may have the reaction I did. Initially I just thought it was way too explain-y. I didn’t like how the characters kept describing everything that was either happening or around them. Then you get to the end and it all falls into place. So read it two times and then linger for a while over that image of the tiny gorilla. This is surprisingly beautiful and a lot of fun. Does a good job of really tapping into how siblings play with one another too. It’s a kid-friendly version of Lord of the Flies meets the TV show Lost, with a satisfying ending.
Have some fun and watch my interview with Liniers about the book here:
2021 Early Chapter Books
Aven Green: Sleuthing Machine by Dusti Bowling, ill. Gina Perry
Aven, the armless charmer first introduced in Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, now stars in her own early chapter book series. Here she becomes a sleuth trying to solve not one but two lighthearted mysteries! Man, are kids gonna be thrilled to see that Aven’s gotten her own series. Granted, it’s a bit younger than her previous novels, but Bowling has really perfected Aven’s voice. It’s so freakin’ nice to read a book about a girl without arms who actually has a life. Books where the character is the plot (you know what I mean) are so boring. This telegraphs its solution to the primary mystery just broadly enough so that the kids that solve it on their own will feel pleased and those that don’t won’t feel cheated. Some jokes land and some don’t, but at least it gives ’em a try. Goofy and good.
Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, ill. Anna Höglund, translated by Julia Marshall
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Need a grandfather? Why not hop over to the retirement home to pick one out for yourself? A remarkably sweet story, funny and moving by turns. And I just have to say that this has gotta be the sweetest, most moving little story I’ve seen in a while. It’s not, weirdly enough, the first import we’ve seen that discusses sneaking old people out of nursing homes to have fun, but I like the strange internal logic of this one in particular. Of course, now I really want to know how the tune of “Can You Whistle, Johanna?” goes! A heartfelt story that never feels cloying.
Einstein: The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Space and Time by Torben Kuhlmann, translated by David Henry Wilson
A small mouse is so distraught when it realizes that it has missed an important cheese festival that it dives deep into discovering the secrets of time travel itself. But when it gets caught in the past, will Einstein himself help with the calculations? This is where “early chapter” and “bedtime reading” fare sort of blurs and runs together. If you’ve seen Kuhlmann’s previous books (Armstrong, Edison, etc.) then you know what to expect. I think I once called him a Steampunk Beatrix Potter, and I’d stand by that. In this book he combines the H.G. Wells version of The Time Machine with some literal explanations of Einstein’s theories. There are a lot of detailed explanations of these in the back of the book, which kids and parents can totally skip if they want to (or, if they’re a certain kind of kid, obsess over). The art is luminous. I also kind of love that at the beginning it takes place in what appears to be the late 80s/early 90s, which is sort of cool.
Franklin Endicott and the Third Key by Kate DiCamillo
A very good book in spite of the fact that somehow I got it into my head for most of it that Franklin was Horace Broom (because apparently I can only hold one boy character at a time in my noggin). By this point in the proceedings the “Deckawoo Drive” books are taking on an entire life of their own. You sink into them and find yourself in a small town where the local economy is such that it can support a store that sells the strangest of used goods. And, as ever with the Decakawoo books, DiCamillo is in top form. My favorite moment is when our hero, Franklin, picks up an old frayed magic set. “Frank shook the box. Something inside of it rattled in a forlorn way.” Naturally, there’s a bit of name dropping of great authors, and so we get a bit of O. Henry and Langston Hughes and H.G. Wells. And extra bonus to the clever dickens that thought to get actor William Jackson Harper (a.k.a. Chidi from The Good Place) to do the audiobook.
J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard, ill. Akeem S. Roberts
What would you do if your mom gave you the worst haircut of your life? J.D. turns a personal tragedy into a thriving business when he picks up some clippers and taps into his true talent. That is, until someone tries to shut him down… Love it. I listened to the audiobook myself and it’s well worth a listen. With this book we are in serious kid fantasy wish-fulfillment territory. That said, it’s just chock full of personality and humor. You really feel like you know, not just the characters, but the town as well. A great entrepreneurial alternative to The Toothpaste Millionaire.
Jojo Makoons: The Used-To-Be-Best-Friend by Dawn Quigley, ill. Tara Audibert
What do you do when your best friend doesn’t want to sit with you at lunch anymore? Meet Jojo Makoons, an Ojibwe seven-year-old just trying to navigate school and her own kooky inclinations. A slam dunk on representation, and a perfectly good set of stories. Jojo as a character is very much in the Ramona tradition of flawed heroines you identify with. She’s one of those characters that has some work to do, but you still find yourself kind of rooting for her all the way. Love her hair, by the way. Just fantastic.
Jop and Blip Wanna Know: Can You Hear a Penguin Fart on Mars and Other Excellent Questions by Jim Benton
Just because a question is silly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it. Join two intrepid robots as they give strangely straightforward answers to some seriously silly queries. After much long and studied consideration, I thought maybe this could be the only category where this book makes sense. Sure, we could put it in the graphic novel section, but I think it would just get lost there. I don’t always like Jim Benton’s books (Catwad left me cold) but the jokes seriously land in this one. Aside from the science itself being quite good, I liked the running gags. If you’re looking for something silly that has a bit more of a science-y edge to it, this might be an ideal inclusion. Kind of like XKCD’s book What If, but for kids.
The Mailbox in the Forest by Kyoko Hara, ill. Kazue Takahashi, translated by Alexandrea Mallia
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
I’ve no doubt I’ve run across the art of Kazue Takahashi before, but I’m less certain that I’ve ever read anything written by Kyoko Hara. This book is the first in the “Forest Friends” series and follows a little girl who gets to spend some time alone with her grandparents. While she lives in a high-rise building in the city, they live next to a great big forest that she gets to explore on her own whenever she wants. The book does a delightful job of invoking the smells and senses of autumn. While exploring, the girl finds a little mailbox and strikes up a correspondence with whoever made it. But who is the mysterious letter writer? And will they still be able to write when she’s gone back home? It’s slight and spare and reminded me just a little of Tea Party in the Woods by Akiko Miyakoshi in terms of tone. A charmer.
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly
Introvert Marisol loves her family, best friend, silent movies and cats. But she worries a LOT about things, like learning how to climb the backyard tree. Will she ever rise above her fears? Aww, it’s so good! Ms. Kelly really taps into a very specific kind of reading level with this book with a very nicely flawed heroine. Her particular kind of anxiety is hard to write, but Ms. Kelly lets the reader be even more patient with Marisol than Marisol is with herself. This is a book that really shows how to write emotions without feeling pandering. Well done!
The Middle Child by Steven Weinberg
Middle kids of the world, rejoice! At last, a book made just for you that shows the highs and lows (mostly lows) of being stuck right smack dab between your siblings. At long last, middle children have a chance to acquire sweet sweet revenge. Or, at the very least, vindication. Based on true stories from Steven’s own middle childhood (and that includes the whole getting-locked-in-a-trunk-by-your-brother part) this has hints of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in it but with less moaning and more drawing. Love the mixed media in the illustrations and the sheer sense of unfairness that permeates the text. And as one is quick to learn, once a middle child is slighted they never ever forget.
Pizazz by Sophy Henn
Being a superhero isn’t as much fun as it looks, particularly when you’re saddled with a superhero family and a power that is incredibly embarrassing. But what’s Pizazz to do when it’s up to her to save the day? Far and away the most British thing I’ve ever read published here in the States with (what seems to be) little to no editing on the Britishisms. Honestly, as I read this aloud to my daughter it became apparent that I needed to slip in an accent to read lines like, “Aunty Blaze sent him to the naughty step for a jolly good think”. All told, I found this little young superhero story charming.
The Secret of the Magic Pearl by Elisa Sabatinelli, ill Iacopo Bruno, translated by Christopher Turner
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
For kids that watched the Pixar film Luca this past summer, this book offers a very different glimpse of an Italian seaside community. In this story, Hector and his family used to run a tourist destination where they’d give tours of the sea. That all changed when a greedy developer drove them out of business with his own, bigger enterprise. So when Hector and his father find a legendary local gem known as “The Pearl” you can bet that developer will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. But at what price? You have undoubtedly stumbled across the exceedingly distinct artistic style of Mr. Bruno some place or another. I’d wager that he’s one of our most popular Italian artists (though Sergio Ruzzier remains the reigning champ). In this book he invokes books like David Wiesner’s Flotsam and he takes care to inject a funny little magical realism detail into the art. Each person depicted has a small, floating creature in their vicinity. Our hero has a small red fish. His father, a crab. His mom, a dolphin. And the villain? A skeleton of a fish… until he has a change of heart. Mr. Turner has done a good job with the translation. It feels exceedingly natural from start to finish. You might never know it came from overseas.
Starla Jean Which Came First: The Chicken Or the Friendship by Elana K. Arnold, ill. A.N. Kang
“If you catch it, you can keep it!” says Starla Jean’s dad when they discover a chicken in the park. So what happens when his intrepid daughter not only nabs it but loves it and names it Opal Egg? I thought this was particularly strong! The writing was fun (I loved how you got to track the dad’s nervousness throughout) and had a keen sense of humor. Overall I was very into it. I liked how Kang gave Starla Jean this kooky look of anticipation when she first spotted the chicken. Alas, I had a tiny problem with the art. You see, the chicken facts at the end talk about the egg tooth on the beak of baby chicks and then the art shows this highly misleading image of a beak with actual teeth inside of it. Not the same thing at all! But this flub is not nearly enough to sink the book. Super fun!
Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Jane Dyer
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
Two good friends find themselves in an escalating series of fiascos when they try to simultaneously clean their home for the inspector of neatness AND prep for their annual Strawberry Jam Party. You know, there’s something to be said for making sure that books don’t all look the same. Birdsall and Dyer are definitely going for an old-fashioned feel with this title. Now if this were a Dyer only affair, I think it would look too twee, but Birdsall’s got a bit of bite to her writing that cuts through the treacle (apologies for the mixed metaphor). I happen to like models, so that was a no-brainer for me (I like the animals in this book). Give yourself an open mind when you read this. You may find that it’s a charmer. At the very least, worth more reads.
Too Small Tola by Atinuke, ill. Onyinye Iwu
Tola lives in an apartment in Lagos, Nigeria with her Grandmommy, brother, and sister. Smaller than everyone, Tola soon learns that it isn’t size that makes you mighty and tiny isn’t bad. Atinuke is at the top of her form with this book and that’s all there is to that. And what a treat to discover the art of Onyinye Iwu! Atinuke always gets the best illustrators and this book is no exception. The stories are quick, funny, and always incredibly interesting. But even better than all of that is the fact that you get this emotional connection to the main character that grows and grows with each subsequent story. Raises the bar for all the other early chapter books, I can tell you that much.
Interested in previous years? Then check out the following:
And here’s what else we have happening 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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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