Kid’s Corner: Suggestions Needed for Early Chapter Books for Older Beginning Readers

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My mother teaches English as a Second Language to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at a public middle school. Although for the most part these kids are intelligent and have been successful in school in the past, most are learning English for the first time after moving to the USA from every continent. She has had students from China, Korea, Europe, Russia, Mexico, and even rural Africa. A few are a bit more advanced, having taken English classes in their native country. But they are all in her class because they cannot read English at a middle school level.

Since reading more helps one become a better reader, it’s important that they have reading material available to them, not just for academic subjects but for fun. However, being in the public school system, my mom is limited by the school library, which is, in her words, “pathetic.” Beyond other issues, it only has books at a middle school reading level. She’s been given the chance to spend some money (certainly not enough) on lower reading level books to support her students, but she needs some help finding the perfect books to spend the money on.

She’s hoping to find some books that will help her students feel confident about their reading, even though it’s below their peers’ level. The books will give them the experience they need to gain vocabulary and reading competence. The books need to be no higher than a third-grade reading level, but the subject matter must be appropriate for a middle school student: interesting, entertaining, and certainly not something with a babyish-cover that would embarrass them in the middle of an ever-judgmental middle school crowd.

I have not read most of these books, since my son is below the early reader age and early chapter book age.  In addition to those below (which are mostly early chapter books), early readers that do not say “I can read!” and First steps to reading!” on them might be useful for the lowest level kids.  Any suggestions that you may have, or comments on these books that you have read, would be appreciated!

I found the interest levels and reading levels (which refer to grade levels) from the Scholastic Teacher Book Wizard tool, a nice resource for discovering books before you buy them. Many of the books I’ve listed say “interest level grades 3 to 5;” I’d be interested to know whether they might also appeal to grades 6 to 8. Please comment if you know!

My Mom’s Ideas

These are books that she is a little bit familiar with. She’d like to consider them for the middle school library.

Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (#1: Dinosaurs Before Dark). Interest level: 3-5; RL: 2.2; books between 100-130 pages. Children travel into history. My mother already uses some of these books to tie into the history units. It sounds like the students, even in middle school, don’t mind reading these and still enjoy them.

Zack Files series by Dan Greenberg (#1: My Great-Grandpa’s in the Litter Box). Interest level: 3-5; RL: 3.1-3.5; books 64 pages. A normal boy (about 10 years old) has a knack for getting in weird situations.

Cam Jansen series by David Adler (#1: Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Stolen Diamonds). Interest level: 3-5; RL: 3.5; books 64 pages. Mysteries solved by genius girl with a photographic memory. (According to Scholastic, some of these books are reading level 2.0 but it also mentioned those as interest level K-2. One may need to be careful not to get the “younger kid” ones.)

More Ideas from Me

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Interest level: 5-12. RL: n/a. A wordless illustrated book about the immigrant experience, this is one the middle school library certainly should have. Because it is wordless, it is great for the non-readers or low English competency students. But the story is a universal one, and one my mother’s newly arrived immigrants will surely relate to. They can practice their English by explaining the story in their own words, or writing their own story, or… the possibilities are endless! When I first read it, I shared my thoughts on this site, and I liked it but didn’t think it would do much to encourage literacy. I obviously disagree at this point. I think of it years after I read it. I definitely need to reread it myself.

Jake Maddox Sports books by Jake Maddox (Sample book: Quarterback Sneak). Interest level: 3-7; RL: 3.2; books 72 pages. Each focuses on a different sports star: football, soccer, basketball, etc. Appeals to the elementary reader and the middle school reader, and from my glimpse of the books, they look like something kids wouldn’t mind carrying around in middle school. They look “cool.”

The Magic School Bus Science chapter books by Eva Moore (#1: The Truth about Bats). Interest level: 3-5; RL: 3.5; books about 100 pages. During each science adventure, the class learns about some part of science (bats, dinosaurs, etc.). Bonus points for fitting in to science curriculum. The illustrations of the students and teacher make this seem like a younger kid’s book, but like the Magic Tree house, it may be okay.

My America series by Patricia Hermes (Sample book: Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Diary). Interest level: 3-5; RL: 3.1-4.1, depending on the book; 112 pages. The My America books tell the realistic stories of children (ages 9 or 10) in the USA at various times in history, from Jamestown to the Great Depression. Again, bonus points for relating to the curriculum. This is similar to the Dear America series, which is intended for middle school, but the latter series has a 5 or 6 Reading Level.

Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (#1: The Boxcar Children). Interest level: 3-5, RL 3.2; 150 pages). Four orphaned children live in an abandoned boxcar before being adopted by their grandfather. Series follows their adventures and the mysteries they encounter.

Babymouse (#1: Queen of the World) by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Graphic novel. Interest: middle school; RL: 2 or 3. A middle-school aged mouse wants to fit in. I am not sure of the school’s perspective on graphic novels. Given the overall lack of proper reading material in the library, they may veto the concept of graphic novels in general.

Books that May Be Too Young

The following books look like interesting early chapter books, but they just may be too juvenile for a middle school student, for one reason or another.

Marvin Redpost (#1: Kidnapped at Birth) series by Louis Sachar. Interest level: 3-5; RL: 1.8; 80 pages. Nine-year-old Marvin is often in a humorous quest to prove himself. Sounds a little juvenile, but Sachar, in my past experience, is also funny! It may be enjoyable for middle school students.

Geronimo Stilton series (#1: Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye). Interest level: ages 9-12 or grades 3-5; RL: 2.3-2.7; books 128 pages. A mouse tells stories to his nephew Benjamin. My mom said talking animals stories are usually not winners with her students (they consider them too juvenile), although Amazon reviewers said they really liked these, even as adults.

Martin Bridge series by Jessica Scott Kerrin (Sample book: Martin Bridge on the Lookout!) Interest level: 3-5; RL: 3.2; books 128-144 pages. Real situations a child (8-year-old) can relate to.  Protagonist may be too young for the students to want to read about.

Ideas from You

Now it’s your turn. Please share your suggestions! I’ll add any you have to this post.

  • Sweet Valley Twins/Sweet Valley High. Suggested by Jason.
  • Nancy Drew. Suggested by Jason.
  • Hardy Boys. Suggested by Jason.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia. Suggested by Jason.
  • Capitain Underpants series. Suggested by Sara.
  • Encylopedia Brown. Suggested by Sara.
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.  Suggested by Sara.
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Suggested by Sara.
  • Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. Suggested by Sara.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Suggested by Sara.
  • Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Suggested by Sara.
  • Out of the Dust (a novel in poem form) by Karen Hesse. Suggested by Sara.
  • Holes by Louis Sachar. Suggested by Sara.
  • Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. Suggested by Sara.
  • When You Reach Me by Melissa Stead. Suggested by Sara.
  • The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. Suggested by Sara.
  • The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. Suggested by Sara.
  • Gary Paulsen’s books. Suggested by Sara.
  • Love That Dog/Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech. Suggested by Erin.
  • Alexander McCall Smith’s Akimbo series. Suggested by Erin.
  • Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • Mr. Putter and Tabby books by Cynthia Rylant. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • Big Nate books by Lincoln Pierce. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • Scott Corbett’s books (#1: The Lemonade Trick).  Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • Cornelia Funke’s Ghosthunters series. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trip. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • All-of-a-Kind-Family series by Sidney Taylor. Suggested by Kristen Knox.
  • The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz. Suggested by Jason.
  • The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds. Suggested by Jason.
  • Five Little Peppers and How they Grew by Margaret Sidney.  Suggested by Jason.
  • Junie B Jones. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Betsy-Tacy. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Amelia Bedelia. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Geronimo Stilton. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Judy Moody. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Clementine. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Ramona & Beezus. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Bone series (graphic novels). Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Dear Dumb Diary. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Frank K Stein (by Benton). Suggested by Chrisbookarama.
  • Just Grace & Still Just Grace. Suggested by Chrisbookarama.

Are any of these books you could suggest to a 11- to 14-year-old? Something they can read in a school setting without feeling “embarrassed” that it’s a baby book? Which books have I missed that your kids liked? I especially want to hear if your kid is an older reader of early chapter books.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Graphic novels would probably be a great option – you can find ones that tell stories that are sufficiently complex to let students feel they aren’t being condescended too, but then the word count is lower to tell the story, AND the images provide clues to word meaning, both of which are really useful for second language learning. I would think they’d be perfect.

    What about some of those sweet valley twins and sweet valley high books that used to eb popular? They had simple language. And, perhaps Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. The language in the Chronicles of Narnia is fairly simple as well, my son read it quite young, though there are of course a few Britishisms in it (wardrdobe isn’t a common word in America, or Turksih Delight, for example – but those are pretty easy to work through). I think the challenge is thatbooks like Magic Tree House, etc, are great books, but a middle schooler is going to know they were written for someone younger than them, you know? Which makes it difficult to want to read…

    1. Jason Gignac, unfortunately, those (Sweet Valley Twins/High; Nancy Drew; Hardy Boys; Narnia), are all 5th and 6th grade reading level! They are simply too hard for the beginning readers to read, which is the main challenge to finding books for them.

      I wonder what the thoughts are on graphic novels. We’ll have to check. I too think they’d be a great addition to the library. Even ones like Bone, though are 5th and 6th grade reading level. It may be easier since there are pictures, but I’m still not sure.

      1. Well, I’m HORRIBLE at knowing what level to suggest, but some chapter books that are younger, imght be “The Cabin Faced West”, “The Matchlock Gun”, “Five Little Peppers and How they Grew”…

  2. I second the concern that the Magic TreeHouse Books would feel too young; they handle complex subject matter (slavery, war, native american culture, poaching, geology, etc. . .), but they really do so on a juvenile level. They are my almost 4 and 6 year old’s favorite books. However, if your mom has used them in the past with success, I say go for it. I must also throw out a suggestion for the Captain Underpants series. I had a middle school aged struggling reader some years ago who really turned on to these books. Definitely a boy thing. I hate them, but they love them. The Encylopedia Brown books are fairly straightforward, I think, though it has been ages since I’ve read them. There are some good Newbery Medal winners that are not too challenging. I would have to look into them to check the language, but I was thinking of The Westing Game, Maniac Magee, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Sarah, Plain and Tall, Shiloh, Out of the Dust (a novel in poem form!), Holes, and Bud not Buddy. It hasn’t been long since I read When You Reach Me and The Higher Power of Lucky, and I don’t remember them being difficult at all, but I wasn’t reading with this kind of challenge in mind. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is a good Newbery Honor Book. Oh and Gary Paulsen? Again, many boys really take to his books.

    One final caution that I bet your mom knows (and you probably do too!): with the whole AR thing, there is a lot of “levelling” of books that is really crappily unrelated to how readable a book is. They use a ridiculous formula that does not take in to consideration the quality of the writing or the experience of reading it at all. In my experience, a struggling reader will rise to the level of a truly engaging book (with appropriate guidance of course). However, I have only ever dealt with “late” English-speaking readers; I am no expert on ESL students. Sorry for the lengthy comment and accompanying soapbox moment. Hope this helps!

    1. Sara (wordyevidenceofthefact), I think you make a great point: that the assigned “reading level” really doesn’t take in to consideration kids’ maturity and ability to struggle through something and the fact that some books are a high reading level but intimidating and easy to access! Encyclopedia Brown, for example, comes up with a 5th grade reading level on the scholastic site, but they are very short, contained chapters (from my memory at least, it’s been a long time since I read them). So anyway, I think you (and Jason) may be right after all when it comes to books they might be able to handle: it really just depends on the book and on the kids.

      I will make sure my mom sees all these suggestions. I don’t know how often she’s used Magic Treehouse, just that it is one that works in the school setting, simply becusae it does teach about history and still remain at a low enough level to be accessible.

      Sara, does you’re almost–4-year-old read Magic Treehouse by him/herself?! Very impressed if so.

      1. No need to be too impressed. My almost 6 year old reads them herself, but we read together each night, so the almost 4 year old just hears them read.

        I looked through my collection of Newberys once I got home and feel compelled to possibly take back my recommendation of When You Reach Me. There are some complexities that the language barrier might make more difficult. Also, I wanted to add Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie to the list. It is a good length, fewer words per page than average, and an engaging storyline. Finally, let me second Kristen’s suggestion of the Time Warp Trio books. I had forgotten about these. And anything by Cynthia Rylant is good. She has a series (The Lighthouse Family) that is a next step from Mr Putter and Henry and Mudge.

        Another thought I had would be to give them an assignment using picture books. I once did a project with Middle Schoolers involving Caldecott medal winners, and they loved it. It would give them language practice and skip the whole issue of trying to reach their emotional level. It kind of gives them permission to be children, and they that freedom. Just an idea!

        (Oh my gosh. I am obnoxious on this subject. Must. Stop. Typing.)

        1. Sara C (wordyevidenceofthefact), ah, okay about When You Reach Me. I read Because of Winn-Dixie and I enjoyed it! My mom does use projects with picture books, and they enjoy it, but it’s still something that they hesitate to embrace, I think, because they don’t WANT to be reading “baby books.” I think middle school is kind of tricky.

          Thank you for all your comments, I do appreciate them! You don’t have to stop typing….

  3. I second the Jake Maddox books. Also, Love That Dog and Hate That Cat might work; a teacher I aided for in a similar situation used Love That Dog and it worked well. There is also Alexander McCall Smith’s Akimbo series.

    I hope you end up with some good suggestions–I know how important it is for kids to be reading something they can understand and that they’re interested in that doesn’t announce to the world that they’re reading below level.

    1. Erin, thanks I will pass on the suggestions. I haven’t heard of the Dog and Cat one. and I love McCall Smith’s adult novels! Hadn’t read the Akimbo series.

  4. I’m trying to think of the things that mine read at that level that wouldn’t be too obvious. I think Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment might work for that. And while these might look a little too young, my middle school daughter and I still love the Mr. Putter and Tabby books. They are just sweet and comforting. What about the Big Nate books? They are similar in some ways to the Geronimo Stilton books in that they are a combination of words and pictures (not quite graphic novels though). If the school is okay with graphic novels, my daughter still loves to leaf through her Babymouse books, which you mentioned above. Scott Corbett’s books, starting with The Lemonade Trick are good fun if they are still in print. Cornelia Funke has a Ghosthunters series that my boys liked when they were younger and Jon Scieszka has his Time Warp Trip books that might be the right level as well. In the spirit of The Boxcar Children, what about the All-of-a-Kind-Family books by Sidney Taylor?

  5. Let me see:

    Junie B Jones
    Betsy-Tacy
    Amelia Bedelia
    Geronimo Stilton
    Judy Moody
    Clementine
    Ramona & Beezus
    Bone series (graphic novels)
    Dear Dumb Diary
    Frank K Stein (by Benton)
    Just Grace & Still Just Grace

    I have a girl so most of my picks are girly.

    1. Chris@bookarama, I have seen Junie B Jones but she’s in kindergarten and 1st grade. Are there others where she is older? I think Amelia Bedelia is also too juvenile for them. But I think some of the others may work! I’ll add them to the list!

      1. I think she gets older through the series but we haven’t read them in awhile. My girl likes Judy Moody more.

        I wasn’t sure about Amelia Bedelia either but I like her and I’m 36 😉

  6. I’ll recommend the Hank the Cowdog series again. I would guess it is on a 3rd-6th grade level. My boys love having it read to them and the first grader can read most of it already as it is written in a conversational style. It would probably appeal to boys more than girls, though.

  7. You have many great suggestions here in your post.

    I would recommend for this age group anything by Lois Lowry.
    Some of my favorites are,” The Giver,” ” Number the Stars,” and “Gossamer”

    I know you didn’t like “The Hunger Games” but the youth do and I think it’s an easy read with a moral dilemma.

    “Island of the Blue Dolphins” is a great one that they probably can relate to in the sense that they probably feel isolated and “what would you do in this lonely situation?”

    A fun one is “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”

    1. Tami Allred, thanks for the suggestions. I’ll bet the middle school already has The Lois Lowry and The Hunger Games (my mom has a similar opinion ot mine on that later ones.) I’ll add the others to the list above.

  8. “The Big Wave” by Pearl Buck is the kind of thing you are looking for. It is real literature, with more mature themes, but it is shorter and uses shorter sentences.

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