Emerging Readers – From Picture Books to Junior Fiction

It’s an interesting time when children begin to expand their reading beyond the realms of the picture book.

My big kid spent years straddling these two reading worlds – stretching her new-found reading muscles in chapter books and returning the glorious delights and comforts of best-loved picture books.

While I encourage my kids into the delights of longer form reading, I think there’s great value in keeping up with picture books. Beginning readers are delighted by the illustrations, the colour, the simplicity, rhyme and rhythm. They feel confident reading and, if it’s an old favourite, know the words without really even reading them. This is truly delightful and ultimately, all about the love of story. My ten year old still enjoys curling up and listening while I read to her younger sibling. She’ll still select picture books from the library and I often find her engrossed in old favourites and more complex picture books I’ve left on her shelves.

Peer pressure is a factor that drives children to seek out “word books” as my seven- year-old describes them. I overheard her and a friend talking just a week or so ago.

T “Are you reading chapter books? Proper ones?

H “Yeah. I like Billie B Brown.”

 T “No that’s not a real chapter book. There’s no pictures in real chapter books, only those little black ones that aren’t coloured in. Just lots of little words. Billie B has big words in it and pictures. It’s not a real chapter book.”

 For my seven year old (an “emerging” reader), I try to encourage a reading range that spans picture books, school readers and early-middle fiction. Not to mention non-fiction titles with luscious layouts and glorious photos. Literacy experts and educators will always tell you that at this pivotal age, it’s about getting kids hooked on reading. So accessible, chiselled narratives with great illustrations at limited lengths are a pretty good bet. You want them to fall in love with reading, so woo them with the tried and trusted junior fiction greats but don’t overlook or underestimate books targeted specifically for this transitional level.

Being a book-obsessed control-freak, I plant what I consider great books at eye height on my 7-year-old’s shelves (“what about this one?”) and mostly she obliges by loving them. But when we hit the library it’s a free-for-all – she picks out obscure or underwhelming picture books based on the attractiveness of the cover illustration or character drawing. Shiny and glittery covers attract her (Rainbow Magic – aaaargh) and sometimes she’ll select something above her reading ability because she’s seen older kids read it. I just roll with it. My mantra? Sure. Try it.

Lately, we’ve discovered some great “inbetweeners” in the Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps series – I’ve avoided these in the past cause they look trashy. But I’m just a grown-up book snob and have to get over myself. These colourful, lightweight, illustrated early chapter books are actually very good. They’re easy to read without being “dumbed down” and make beginning readers just want to keep reading. Identifiable by their bright and busy covers with the “nibble” out of the top, these books are the perfect length for this age group and written by some acclaimed writers like as Urusla Dubosarsky and Tim Winton. She loves them. The deal with our night-time reading ritual is this – she reads to me for a bit then I take a turn, reading aloud from the same title or from something else we have on the go. Tired by this hour, she usually can’t wait for me to take over. But the Aussie Nibbles have hit the mark and she relentlessly reads on. Joy.

urusla's the deep end

We’ve also enjoyed (bow, scrape) Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (beautiful, bright and funny) and the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows. Other great books for emerging readers the multitude of titles in the I CAN READ series “widely recognised as the premier line of beginning readers.” (Harper Collins). This series has a rating of 1-4 and ranges from “Sharing My First Reading” then “Beginning Reading”, “Reading with Help”, “Reading Alone” through to “Advanced Reading”. These are classics by award winning authors and illustrators. We love “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak and “Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel.  The marvellous Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia titles are other favourites.  Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series was a hit as was (I hate to say it because it’s not a “real chapter book”) Billie B Brown. If this is all sounding a little girl orientated – check out the screeds of recommendations on my Junior Fiction – Enticing Boys and Amusing Girls Page.)

boy reading

Of course, some kids take to reading more readily than others. But what if you’ve got a reluctant reader? My ten year old was definitely in this category. I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t aggravated me at times. (After all, I’ve read to that kid every day since birth! She has to love books! How could she not? All her friends are reading. Why won’t she? Is something wrong?) I managed (just) to curb my tendency to over-think and over-parent my first-born and just kept reading to her – long after all her friends were reading independently. We’d curl up together before her bedtime and I’d read a few chapters of something brilliant. It was delicious time. Now she’s a fully-fledged independent reader we still have this ritual – she reads in bed while I deal to the sibling factor, then I come in and I read to her from a book we’ve chosen together. Sometimes we take turns in reading it aloud. Either way, it’s still special time together and I’m aware that one day soon it’ll probably come to an end. Carpe Diem.

There are tons of great options, best lists and websites galore out there. The Guardian (UK) offer best children’s books lists at all ages. Here, most usefully is their best children’s books 5-7 years.  For boys? This guide from PBSparents lists beginning reader books appealing (mostly) to boys.  Great Schools list a best first book series here.  Scholastic list popular series for 6-7 year olds and have a useful page on reading development and advice about first chapter books. Goodreads have a list worth reading (among others) – “What Book Got You Hooked?

My advice is, if you have a reluctant reader, don’t panic. It’ll happen. Find books you think they’ll love, let them choose. Consider their interests and find fiction and non-fiction in the subject area. Leave books lying about. Consult un-missable book lists – check out my listmania page – JUNIOR FICTION – ENTICING BOYS AND AMUSING GIRLS for for suggested titles for this age-group. Don’t overlook comic series, graphic novels and audio books. Keep homework and compulsory reading sessions short and time them well (fed, fresh, free from distraction). And continue to enjoy the closeness that comes from sharing a book together. It will end all too soon.

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