EARLY CHAPTER BOOKS CRITICAL IN FOSTERING LITERACY

My seven-year-old great niece, Robin, came to Gramercy Books a short while ago with her mom. I watched her thoughtfully consider a series called The Cupcake Diaries, pulling out one book at a time, reading the back cover, taking a look at the first page, putting the book carefully back on the shelf before taking out one from Rainbow Magic, a series she clearly loved. She looked at all the Ramona books to make sure she had read all of them. Then she looked at the American Girl Doll books, taking extra time with Wellie Wishers. Finally, she settled on a book from the series called The Wish Fairies and the latest in her all-time favorite series, Phoebe and her Unicorn, a graphic novel of the same name!  

Robin’s love of books is evident. She established a relationship with reading from an early age. Her mom, a former pre-school teacher, took time to read books aloud with Robin and encouraged her daughter to read for the pleasure of it. Books allowed Robin to connect with the world and she quickly became a more confident reader.

Ages seven to ten is a critical period in developing the lifelong reader. Early chapter books, designed for this age group, help kids transition from picture books to novels to become independent readers. Gramercy Books bookseller and former elementary librarian Marcy Ford, whose two children are now in high school, remembers how they loved The Magic Tree House, the #1 bestselling chapter book series of all time that tells the tale of a brother and sister who discover a mysterious tree house filled with books that takes them on exciting adventures around the world and throughout history. Each of the twenty-eight adventure stories has a companion volume called Fact Tracker that clarifies what is true and what is fiction in the story.

An early chapter book needs to use clear, simple language for beginning readers but, at the same time, hold their interest with a sophisticated and engaging plot. This a dicey time for reading development, as children are all over the map as readers. My now-adult son wasn’t a reader but I got him to connect with R. L. Stine’s Goosebump series. My daughter, on the other hand, was a strong reader and loved the precocious protagonist of Roald Dahl’s very popular Matilda. A handful of universal themes are common to most chapter books: making friends, fitting in, conquering fears. Stories that involve animals (look at Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty series) are perennial favorites, and the graphic novel format is a popular new trend (like Dogman by Dav Pilkey)—cartoon-like and funny with fewer words per page, the graphic format is less intimidating for young reluctant readers.

To appeal to children with a wide range of reading skills, and specifically deal with the reading difference of girls and boys at the same age, books for early readers have become gender specific. “Thirty years ago, there was nothing but Goosebumps for boys, and now there’s this big push to capture boys before they lose their desire to read,” says Gramercy Books Store Manager Debbie Boggs, who notes the many early chapter books only had little girls as main characters. Diary of A Wimpy Kid is the best-known series that changed this model with protagonist Greg Heffley, featuring his daily struggles to fit in at school. 

The early chapter book series that have withstood the test of time share one important characteristic—an unforgettable main character, whether it is Greg Heffley, Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones, or Ramona The Pest. Along with an increase in books using the graphic format and containing more gender-specific content, there has been a return to the classics aimed at seven to ten-year-old readers with abridged versions of favorites like Heidi, Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, and Pinocchio.

Today, seven to ten-year-olds can explore Gramercy’s shelves and find something that speaks directly to them. They are, after all, the readers of the future!

 

Written by Linda Kass

About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. It won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program and was a 2016 Foreword INDIES Award Finalist. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, central Ohio’s newest indie bookstore! 

Learn more about me on my personal website.