Looking for wonderful books I can read to my kids, one chapter at a time
April 2, 2013 2:06 PM   Subscribe

My kids (a boy and a girl) are now five years old, and my wife or I read to them every night before bed. I'd like to start reading larger books to them which we can stretch out throughout a week or more, by reading them a chapter a night. Please help me put together a great reading list of age-appropriate books that will capture their imaginations and inspire happy dreams.

My initial thought was to start with CS Lewis' Through the Looking Glass and AA Milne's When We Were Very Young. Are they too dated?

The series listed in this question seem more appropriate for older kids.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by zarq to Human Relations (61 answers total) 96 users marked this as a favorite
My 5-year-old is currently grooving on the Wishbone series -- classic lit adapted for a younger audience. "Salty Dog" is this week's reading. Bonus: Much of the old PBS "Wishbone" series is available on YouTube, which is what made my daughter so interested in hearing the stories at bedtime.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:10 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mom read us Little House on the Prairie in this manner when we were kids, and I have fond memories of it.
posted by emd3737 at 2:15 PM on April 2, 2013 [13 favorites]

My Dad read us the Wizard of Oz books by Frank L. Baum a chapter each night, and it is a great memory of mine!

(I don't think any of Baum's racist views come through in the books, though I was 6 years old when they were read to me - maybe there's some subtext to them that I was missing! Just a thought.)

There's more than just the MGM story:
Volume 1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz

Volume 2: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz

Volume 3: The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz

Volume 4: Rinkitink in Oz, The Lost Princess of Oz, The Tin Woodman of Oz,

Volume 5: The Magic of Oz, Glinda of Oz, The Royal Book of Oz
posted by little_c at 2:15 PM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

I personally had nightmares for years after my parents and I read anything Alice and Wonderland or Oz related when I was that age, so downvote to that.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:16 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

stuart little. charlotte's web.
posted by koroshiya at 2:17 PM on April 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

When I was around 5-9, My Dad read me all the Little House books, and also chapter books such as Harriet the Spy, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, and all the Narnia books (especially The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which, if you're concerned about it, I did not even GET the Christ analogy at all until I was much much older. Edmund and the White Witch and Turkish Delight! So exciting. A little scary for 5, maybe, but when they're bit older?).

I think it's great that you're doing this. It instilled a life-long love of reading in me and it was a great way to spend time with my Dad, who was otherwise at work during the day.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:20 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Boxcar Children. These are first chapter books about orphaned children who solve mysteries. Two of the characters in the later books are your children's ages. In no time, your children will be reading them on their own! That's what happened to my kids.
posted by Elsie at 2:21 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find the dated stuff to be charming.

Through the Looking Glass is Lewis Caroll.

My Mom read us Peter Pan from a great, ooooolllld copy that she had when she was a kid. (not any Disney crap).

Also she loved The Phantom Tollbooth. (I think she had a thing for Jules Feiffer's art.)

You can get Maida's Little Shop on kindle for free. It's REALLY old, and REALLY charming and just a touch Communistic!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:21 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh! Also Roald Dahl. The Twits is VERY VERY silly and kind of mean, but in that Dahl-ish way that small children (and Dads) find hilarious.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:21 PM on April 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I got Little House on the Prarie read to me and enjoyed it. I'd also suggest Wind and the Willows. There is conflict in it but I think for the most part it's not scary. You can preview some of the Oz books and WITW online at Open Library if you want to
posted by jessamyn at 2:22 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the Little House books. They are wonderful and the chapters are fairly short.
posted by scratch at 2:22 PM on April 2, 2013

Age 5 - 7 is the magically perfect age for Pippi Longstocking.
posted by third rail at 2:23 PM on April 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

You are going to get a lot of recommendations for classics, so I'm going to put in for a few more contemporary books.

Toys Go Out and sequels by Emily Jenkins, about a toy buffalo, toy stingray, and ball who live together. Charming and gentle and also surprisingly sophisticated stories that deal in a whimsical way with typical young-kid fears and situations -- like Buffalo's fear of going in the washing machine.

Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker -- warm and hilarious books about a 2nd grade girl who's impulsive and distractable. They somehow manage to stay on the right side of the "Let's laugh at kids who do silly stuff" line, where we're laughing with Clementine rather than at her.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and The Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin -- I don't know if these might be a little too difficult for 5 years old, but they're beautiful fantasy stories woven through with Chinese folk and fairy tales, and something about the quality of the storytelling makes me think they would be perfect for a read-aloud for patient enough kids.
posted by Jeanne at 2:25 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Hobbit!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:28 PM on April 2, 2013

Stuart Little
posted by backwards guitar at 2:30 PM on April 2, 2013

I have very fond memories of my father reading the five-year-old me Badjelly the Witch by Spike Milligan. Good fun for both reader and readee!
posted by HandfulOfDust at 2:32 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Roald Dahl, starting with the BFG, read in character. More fun than monkeys, we read it three times, a chapter a night. At 5 they're starting to spend more time without mom & dad, which is a great age to introduce Dahl's parentless child-heroes. Some titles are scarier (the Witches seems so over-the-top it wouldn't be scary but something about transforming people into other creatures is super-scary to kids) but mostly they're hilarious. Again, if read in character. So much fun.

And I love that you are doing this. I read a chapter a night to/with my kids until they were in their early teens. Those memories are among the sweetest of all.
posted by headnsouth at 2:32 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to babysit for a set of twins, and their parents read the Harry Potter series to them starting when they were about six. They were abuzz with questions for me because they knew I had read a couple of the books and were ahead of where they were. Didn't seem to be too scary for them at all.

I remember specifically it was when there started to be a lot of buzz about the first movie coming out, because their parents were really looking forward to settling the debate they had about which was the correct pronunciation of Hermione--her-mee-OWN or HER-my-wan. Neither of them would believe me when I told them how it was actually pronounced. Uh...
posted by phunniemee at 2:35 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you already made it through Beatrix Potter?
posted by bardophile at 2:39 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Pippi Longstocking books are great, but the chapters are super-long (bedtime was later than usual because somone insisted we finish the chapter!). Read ahead and plan accordingly.

Other books we read to my daughter at that age, not previously mentioned:
Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater;
the Ivy & Bean books by Annie Barrows;
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (and its sequel, Magical Melons aka Caddie Woodlawn's Family);
The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye;
The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill;
the Noisy Village books by Astrid Lindgren (these were a big hit);
and the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor.

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth is also a lot of fun.
posted by mogget at 2:40 PM on April 2, 2013

I'd have suggested the Little House books too, but there's some serious racism in those you'll have to look out for (Ma's distrust of Indians, the blackface "darkies" at the minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, etc.). My third grade teacher read us On the Banks of Plum Creek, and I remember that one as being "safe."
posted by themanwho at 2:45 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ruthless Bunny: " Through the Looking Glass is Lewis Caroll. "

You are absolutely right! My mistake. :)
posted by zarq at 2:49 PM on April 2, 2013

Just in case anyone suggests The Magic Faraway Tree...I found it sexist and revolting. My six year old loves it.
posted by taff at 2:50 PM on April 2, 2013

My Father's Dragon
A Toad for Tuesday
are great early chapter books. And I second the Noisy Village books.
posted by Sybil Stockwell Oop at 2:55 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dealing with Dragons!!! A princess, who wants to do un-princess-like things, like fence and make cherries jubilee, runs away to be a dragon's princess.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:55 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Phantom Tollbooth, one of my favorites ever, and coming to add the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books (yep, I have a thing for wordplay). They may seem a bit overly moralizing at first glance, but I found them really fun as a kid (I mean, come on, her house is upside down!).
posted by pitrified at 2:58 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing Roald Dahl! Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of having books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me as a kid, a chapter a night. Magical times.
posted by Broseph at 2:59 PM on April 2, 2013

Some of the suggestions in this thread (the non picture book ones) may work for your kids.
posted by gudrun at 3:00 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all wonderful suggestions! Thank you! (And keep 'em coming, please!) :)

Re: Charlotte's Web... man, I remember bawling my little eyes out as a kid over the ending to that story. I can't imagine I'd ever be able to get through it dry-eyed as an adult. Maybe they can watch the cartoon version with Mommy, instead. :)

Re: Beatrix Potter, haven't started yet.
Re: Wind and the Willows... I did my very first book report in first or second grade on that book. I remember loving it. Thank you!

We do read a ton of books to them -- usually two per night, but they're mostly contemporary stuff or classic kids' stories like "Curious George", "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" or "Just Only John."
posted by zarq at 3:01 PM on April 2, 2013

This is how my family and I discovered the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. They are very dated as well but very charming. There are several books that tell the story of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib growing from young girls up to marriage and adulthood. My mother read a chapter aloud to us each night and I loved them. :)
posted by bookgirl18 at 3:22 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Swallows and Amazons. There are a bunch of books in the series, they're about a bunch of children who vacation in the Lake District in England and have adventures. Utter delight.
posted by KathrynT at 3:24 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Moomintroll books...the chapter books, not the comics. And Beverly Cleary! And The wonderful flight to the mushroom planet books... Five children and IT, and anything else by that author (blanking on the name). I didn't read Wind and the Willows until I was grown up, but it's wonderful. And the Winnie the Pooh books..the originals by AA Milne.

My mom and sister loved the Rootabaga stories, by Carl Sandburg, but they gave my brother nightmares. Depends on the kid. My brother was about five or six, so my sister would have been about three.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:34 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can find them (they're a bit older) I suggest these for your kids when they get to be 7 or 8:

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald and
Soup (and the other Soup books) by Robert Newton Peck
posted by tacodave at 3:44 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My Father's Dragon and the sequels. Loved those books. I was also obsessed with the Boxcar Children.
posted by baby beluga at 3:45 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

My husband and kids worked their way through all the Oz books. Took them years, and after a while, they started reading the books aloud to us.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:45 PM on April 2, 2013

George Selden's series that starts with The Cricket in Times Square is wonderful and age-appropriate. Very gentle, lovely stories, with beautiful drawings by Garth Williams (he also did Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and the Little House on the Prairie books).


Harry Cat's Pet Puppy
Tucker's Countryside
Chester Cricket's Pigeon Ride
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:50 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Love this question! I wouldn't (and don't) worry about stuff being dated. Older books that have endured have generally done so because they're exceptionally compelling. Older books also present another kind of world for your child to envision and imagine. They may have less (or at least different) peril than modern children's books. My daughter loves older stuff and some of her favorite fiction: Oz, Mistress Masham's Repose, The Magic Pudding, are old and wonderful.

IMHO, a lot of the books mentioned so far in this thread are wonderful for slightly older kids.

For a 5 year old, I'd suggest:
The My Father's Dragon books
Beatrix Potter
Ramona Quimby books
Roald Dahl
The Borrowers books
The Mouse and the Motorcycle books
The Wayside School books
Lenore Look
Emile and the Detectives

Please come back and share what books you and the kids end up enjoying!
posted by latkes at 3:51 PM on April 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

The City of Ember

The Island of the Blue Dolphins and the sequel Zia.

The Golden Compass

The Incredible Journey

A Handful of Time

Harriet the Spy

The Chronicles of Narnia

And they are not chapter books, but my kids thoroughly enjoy having me read them several poems a night from the Shel Silverstein books.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 3:54 PM on April 2, 2013

The animal books of Dick King Smith were among our favorites starting at about that age. Harry's Mad about a parrot and The Terrible Trins, about some mischievous mice. He also wrote the Babe books, about a pig, which were made into at least one movie that I know of.

I see now by looking at his wikipedia entry that he's written tons more.

We also loved I, Houdini, by Lynn Reid Banks, about an escape artist hamster. Her recording of it is delightful.
posted by jvilter at 4:09 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't rule out non-fiction. My favorite 7 yr old has big fat animal books, and we often read a few pages to her instead of a story at bedtime. I don't have them handy but they're books in which there will be several pages on snakes, or on monkeys, whatever, with lots of illustrations. (We're about through the Little House books, have read Charlotte's Web.)
posted by mareli at 4:17 PM on April 2, 2013

Nthing Roald Dahl, times a million. By far the best kids books. Nobody read them to me, but they were my absolute favorites. I recommend reading all of them- some of the lesser-known ones are fantastic (I loved Danny the Champion of the World). I've started collecting them again, so I can reread them all and then give them on to my nephew once he's a bit older.

I'm surprised no one's mentioned The Secret Garden. That book had a huge impact on me as a kid- it caught my imagination the way few other books did. I suppose reading it out loud might be a pain with all the Yorkshire-speak but if you guys really get into it, it could be fun. I think especially now that the internet is a thing kids are exposed to from birth, there's something really valuable about The Secret Garden. The whole thing is just a few kids in a big empty manor, and some land with gardens. And yet it's so rich and complex- it's mysterious, adventurous, full of independence and conflict and struggle and self-realization and accomplishment and forging new friendships and forgiving others for their flaws while becoming better people themselves. It's so damn good! I kind of want to go read it again (it's in the public domain, so no reason not for you to have a copy downloaded!)

Also, Harry Potter came out when I was an adult but I love them and I know I'd have loved having them read to me as a kid. Especially if your kids haven't seen the movies yet, that'd be awesome.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 4:36 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

*Get into the Beatrix Potter books NOW, before it's too late!
*"Wizard of Oz" would be wonderful for this: a lot of people don't realize it, but L. Frank Baum actually wrote 14 books in the series. (Anything after #14 was written by other people, sorry.)
*Shel Silverstein's poetry is great for kids, and especially great when read aloud.
posted by easily confused at 4:44 PM on April 2, 2013

Astrid Lindgren books have been a big hit with my kids, and I love them too. For 5 year olds, the Pippi Longstocking, Noisy Village, Troublemaker Street, and Emil books are all good choices. Mio My Son, The Brothers Lionheart, and Ronia the Robber's Daughter would also appeal to a lot of 5 year olds, but could be too scary for some.

Other good choices that I don't think have been mentioned:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
No Flying in the House
The Night Fairy

And I'll second the recommendation for Tove Jansson's Moomin books. The first one is Comet in Moominland. They deserve to be much more popular.
posted by Redstart at 4:50 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Beverly Cleary! The Ramona books are great.

My niece was super into Junie B. Jones, for a more contemporary option. Seems to fit right into your kids' age range.

I will also echo many of the great suggestions above: Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc etc.
posted by maryrussell at 5:35 PM on April 2, 2013

Phantom Tollbooth!!!!
posted by radioamy at 7:54 PM on April 2, 2013

My teacher used to read Encyclopedia Brown to us, a chapter each day, and I could not wait for them! I tried so hard to figure out the answers and liked to imagine myself as a detective. And nthing the Boxcar Children. God I loved those. I read A Series of Unfortunate Events as an adult and loved them. I also devoured the Dover Children's Thrift Classics.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 8:11 PM on April 2, 2013

The Wind in the Willows

Nthing the CS Lewis Narnia series

And, surprisingly, Oliver Twist. My dad read that to me at this age, and it is a wonderful ride.

I also recommend Little Lord Fauntleroy. Like The Secret Garden, it still packs a great punch but is perfect for kids.
posted by bearwife at 8:34 PM on April 2, 2013

Many good recs here, but among the classics for this are Marguerite Henry's horse books, like Misty of Chincoteague or King of the Wind.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:58 PM on April 2, 2013

Before or while you move to chapter books, are you sure you've exhausted all the great illustrated books that are less well known, such as:

Erandi's Braids
How I Learned Geography
Mariette on the Highwire
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
A Day's Work
Brave Irene
Butternut Hollow Pond
If You Decide to Go to the Moon (and also Moonshot)
King Hugo's Huge Ego
The Happy Lion
The Paperboy
The Sissy Duckling

I would be sad if I hadn't read these great illustrated books, and many others which I can recommend to you, to my daughter before rushing into chapter books.
posted by Dansaman at 2:14 AM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I asked a similar question a while ago, and have been most impressed with the Moomin and Paddington books. I'd nth Phantom Tollbooth, My Father's Dragon (first one is free in iBooks/Kindle, but the iBooks version is much nicer), and Pooh. Neither the kids nor I liked Beatrix Potter or the Boxcar Children.
posted by togdon at 7:41 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If not now, then in a year or two, I would recommend the Green Knowe series. More info. here. Also I highly recommend the books of Edward Eager, particularly Half Magic.
posted by gudrun at 8:21 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your kids like poetry, they might like "The Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll.

Seconding Oliver Twist and early Dickens in general. One of my family's sadly abandoned traditions was to read A Christmas Carol during Advent.

The Wind in the Willows is good.

Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) and Kipling (Kim) could do, depending on how much they like that kind of thing.

Whatever you do, don't read them Two Years Before the Mast. My dad tried this. None of us got through the nautical terms.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:06 AM on April 3, 2013

Swiss Family Robinson (modern edition)
posted by jbradley at 11:15 AM on April 3, 2013

Looks like Erik the Viking is coming back into print. Very different than the movie, short-ish chapters that held up well on their own, was a hit with my kid at that age.

There are a lot of excellent recommendations here, but maybe try camping out at the library and sit with them both and read them the first few pages of some stuff - I remember just burning through reading material when my kid was that age, and the library had stuff I'd never seen before, and it was a real lifesaver. As libraries are. And test driving stuff before getting it home was good - you never know what will grab them (or when - something they're not in the mood for one day might hit them right another time).

Have fun!
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:02 PM on April 3, 2013

Also E. Nesbit, though. And don't neglect Milne's poetry, much of which is rollicking and fun(ny).
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:06 PM on April 3, 2013

In addition to many other books listed above my dad read me The Hobbit and the Swiss Family Robinson.
posted by bendy at 8:26 PM on April 3, 2013

I just recently read my kids "Fever" by Laurie Halse Anderson and "Esperanza Rising" by Pam Munoz Ryan-- both have great read-aloud characteristics and a history lesson to boot. My kids are 8 and 10.
posted by cicadadays at 5:08 PM on April 4, 2013

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald

Yeah, I read the Great Brain to my daughter and it was too grown up. I skipped the chapter where the old man starves because the mormons won't shop at his store. :(

Also she loved The Phantom Tollbooth.

I read my 4 y.o. The Phantom Tollbooth after a spate of Roald Dahl (Charlie, James, Mr. Fox, Charlie II) and Norton Juster read like fucking Joyce. Your kid won't get all the puns (or even most of them), but you will enjoy it.

I second all of the Beverly Cleary recs: Ramona/Beezus and Mouse/Motorcyle/Ralph S. Mouse series both have a nice light level of tension for sensitive kids.

Stuart Little is a WEIRD ass book. White is great, but my daughter would be too upset by Charlotte's Web (I was). Not sure about Trumpeter ... can't remember it that well. Stuart Little is fine for all ages, it's just fucking weird.

I noticed no one has mentioned Bridge to Terabithia ... good idea, let them experience that heartbreak on their own. ;)

I can't wait til my daughter is old enough for The Westing Game.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:01 PM on April 5, 2013

At this age my mother read The Indian In The Cupboard to me.
posted by Monochrome at 4:27 PM on April 7, 2013

I'm not sure how dark you'd like to go, but the Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books is actually a tad darker than the movie, in that there are fewer rays of sunshine, so to speak. My wife liked them, but I got a bit depressed.

really anything by Roald Dahl

Well, not anything anything. Stick with the children's stories for now, and don't go about picking up Dahl titles willy-nilly. He also wrote some very good, very adult and macabre stories.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:57 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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