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I was a really big reader as a child. I taught myself to read when I was four and then just never stopped. When my kids ask me what kinds of toys I played with when I was young, I draw a blank. Almost all of my childhood memories are of me reading book after book after book.
Naturally, I looked forward to the day when I could share this love of reading with my children…and was subsequently disappointed when my son had absolutely no interest in books.
He’s gotten a bit better. He now enjoys bedtime stories, but only occasionally will he choose to read a book on his own. He also didn’t pick up reading as quickly as I had as a child, so we’ve really struggled finding those “just right” books.
My little girl does love books. She’ll happily bring me a stack of books to read to her. She just turned four, so she’s not reading reading yet (though she can sound out some CVC words and “reads” some books she’s memorized), but I’ve also done a lot of digging to find some great books for her.
The Challenge of Finding “Just Right” Books
You often hear about librarians encouraging kids to seek out “just right” books. These should be books that have words that the child can read, have an appropriate challenge level, and are interesting to the child.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found this to be really difficult. There’s no standardization when it comes to the reading levels. Something that’s a level 2 from one company might be a level 3 in another. And all of the “easy readers” at our library are thrown together, making it hard to search through.
To compound the problem, books that are easy enough to read might seem “babyish” to a 5- or 6-year old just learning to read, while the books that are interesting simply have too many words.
In my (totally-not-professional) opinion, there also seems to be big jumps in skill levels between the books that beginning readers are able to handle, early chapter books, and regular children’s fiction. Even if you’re doing read-alouds, it’s hard to find something in between picture books and many of your old favorites, like the Ramona books.
There’s just a lack of in-between books.
That’s a term that I’ve coined (I think) to represent books for kids who are ready for something more, but not yet ready for the big time.
I first started thinking about this concept as it applied to read-aloud books for my son. He was never that into reading – even if I was reading to him – and when he was around 5 years old, we sort of got to this point where he was starting to lose interest in most picture books.
I tried some of my favorites, like Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time, but it was just too much listening.
He has a pretty strong interest in science, so I brought home a lot of non-fiction books. It worked well at first, but we soon came up against a wall – the books that had a lot of pictures and relatively simple text were repetitive. For instance, he’d want to learn about the solar system, so I’d grab several books, but they all said the same thing. On the other hand, the meatier books tended to be too complex without enough pictures.
I needed some books with complex story lines or more detailed information that still had a decent amount of pictures.
Finally, I cracked on a few styles of books that were big hits, and once I knew about those, it was easier to find other ones in a similar vein.
The first set of books I found that really clicked with him at this stage were books by Seymour Simon. He’s a fantastic children’s science writer. His books go into far more detail than the average science book for kids and the pictures are gorgeous and interesting. Best of all, he’s written so many that you can find them on really specific topics, such as a book about Venus rather than a book about the entire solar system. Here’s a pic that I took of his book on Spiders that my son just took out of the school library:
On the fiction side of things, I stumbled upon the Heroes in Training series, by Joan Holub. My kids liked the Percy Jackson movies, but the books were too difficult as a read-aloud. No pictures. These books focus on some of the gods and goddesses that the kids had learned about in Percy Jackson, but the chapters are short and there’s a nice picture every few pages.
This focus on the Greek gods and goddesses also meant that we were able to take out a few picture books about the Greek myths. With a focus on a single story, this was less overwhelming than books like the D’Aulleres book.
Another surprise hit was the I Survived! books by Lauren Tarshis. Focusing on these disasters seems a bit gruesome, but the main characters all survive in the end. My kid just ate these up, and I’ve heard that they’re really popular with other books. We happen to own a few of these, so I snapped a picture. It’s hard because a picture like this only comes ever 20 pages or so, so there’s a lot of listening. But the story was interesting, so my son really likes them.
In-Between Books for In-Between Readers
The second big challenge I had with books was when my son was starting to read more. I knew that he needed some practice, but all of those easy readers just seemed so babyish. I’d bring a stack of 10 books from the library, but he’d only be mildly interested in one of them. While his big breakthrough mostly came from starting school (We had been homeschooling.), I did happen upon some great books for kids who want to read chapter books but aren’t ready for ones with pages and pages of text.
It came about in a strange way. I took my then-3yo daughter to the story time at the library. After, I was browsing and filling up our bag. She, however, found some books she liked…then proceeded to sit in a chair “reading” them for almost an hour.
She actually sort of caused a scene.
Everyone was giving her (and me) the side-eye because she was such a little girl sitting with these 100-page chapter books. When I saw them, though, I could see why she liked them.
It was the Franny K. Stein series by Jim Benton. The books were about 100 pages, but each page had a picture and none had much more than a paragraph of text. She could get a pretty good idea of what was happening in the book just by looking at the pictures. Here’s a pic of what the inside looks like:
I realized that these are great in-between books for emerging readers. They’re a really good middle step between the early readers and the really long novels for kids. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for these books, and have quite a few suggestions.
It’s sort of hard because I really wanted that picture on every page. That makes it a lot less intimidating for kids who might not think they can handle chapter books.
The Class from the Black Lagoon series by Mike Thaler is one that I stumbled upon after looking for more books like Franny K Stein. In particular, I loved the style of the Franny books, but thought that my son would prefer something more boyish. I basically spent a long time at the library flipping through books on the rack until I came across this one.
The Katie Woo series by Fran Manushkin is also pretty good. This one is kind of tricky because there’s early reader books and there are 100ish-page chapter books. These had been recommended to me and I saw the early readers first and got those. Then was surprised to later find the chapter books. I prefer the chapter books for my daughter, so those were a better fit. A pic from the inside:
People also kept recommending The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale. We finally got a copy at the library and it’s a hit. There’s currently three books in the series, but I’m sure there will be more.
I really hit the jackpot, though, when someone mentioned the Scholastic Branches series of books. It seems that Scholastic has caught on to this very important in-between reader set and created a few different book series that fit into this category. There are pictures on every page (at least for the books that we’ve seen), the stories are interesting, and the print type seems to be a bit larger.
At first, our library didn’t have any and I don’t have a lot of money to throw down on books that I’m not sure my kids will like, so I held back. When I started noticing a few on the shelves, though, I snatched them up. Going through them with my kids has given me confidence to buy without reading first. There was recently a BOGO Scholastic book fair at my son’s school and I got two of these series there for my daughter. They were wrapped up, so I couldn’t peek at them first, but they were girly and I knew she’d love them. (I was right.) Here are some pictures from the ones that I got recently.
If you have a kid in school, you might want to wait until they get the Scholastic book order form, since you’ll be able to get a good deal and it will help the teacher get more books for the classroom. However, you can also get them at Amazon by doing a search for the book series or by just searching for “A Branches Book”. Click here to conveniently access that search.
This post is a result of about a year of digging around, looking for appropriate books and I’m happy to share because I know I’m not the only parent struggling to find great books for kids who aren’t ready for the bigger novels.
Have you found other books that fit this category? What books have your kids liked when they were at this stage?