A Step Above Dr. Seuss
February 5, 2014 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for (fiction) books that are a step above Dr. Seuss. I don't really remember any of these from when I was young so I'm not really sure what to look for. The extra hurdle is, I have a very precocious reader who's awesome at reading, but age-level at social stuff/plot understanding.

Okay, so tonight my 4-year-old pulled a Bible off the shelf and started reading the crap out of the Abraham story in Genesis; the only words he needed help with were "appropriate" and "circumcision." Last week he sight-read the word "addled." He loves Dr. Seuss and other children's classics, but they no longer provide a reading-level challenge to him, and he ALSO likes reading materials that are a little harder. We don't want to take away the children's classics; we just want to also provide the next step to him. (Generally our practice it to just put stuff on the shelf and let the kids discover it as they're interested in it; we're not being all like "READ THIS NOW" but he is seeking out more adult books.) The trouble is, I'm not really sure what that next step is.

We have lots and lots of science and nature books that the kids have access to (both "DK Eyewitness" stuff and adult stuff), but he really likes STORIES and our fiction collection jumps from "picture books and read-alouds" to "YA novels." I'm not really sure what kids read in the in-between.

The other difficulty is that while he's a precocious reader of WORDS, he is still a four-year-old when it comes to plot and human relations and whatnot; "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" would be within his ability to read the WORDS, but he wouldn't get the STORY at all because it's focused on bigger-kid issues. He's still all about Lightning McQueen and bugs.

My only ideas so far are "Little House in the Big Woods" and maybe the American Girl books? We are very well situated as far as poetry collections and non-fiction, but he loves stories and we would like more stories (mostly fiction, but biography-type things would also be good) that challenge his reading level but aren't too complicated plot-wise. He is also imitative so I'm more in favor of books with kids behaving well instead of nothing-but-fart-jokes (although a small quantity of fart jokes is fine). Lately he especially loves adventure stories.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Lewis Carrol's stuff?

Alice in Wonderland. Through the Looking Glass.
posted by philip-random at 8:35 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Amelia Bedelia books are great for that stage of reader because they involve wordplay jokes -- it's not enough to read the words and get the meaning, it shows that there are other meanings buried within.

For reading to him, the Wizard of Oz books are great (though you may want to tone down some of the violence). At that age my son loved them along with the Little House Books, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and right now (at the ripe old age of just-turned-5), the biggest hit is Captain Underpants.
posted by Mchelly at 8:39 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Roald Dahl! Not Matilda or Danny the Champion of the World quite yet, but he could probably do Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, The BFG, and maybe Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my parents around age 5.)
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:40 PM on February 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Enid Blyton!

My five-year-old nephew is currently obsessed with The Faraway Tree.

Her books have enough fantasy/whimsy to appeal to younger kids, without actually being picture books. I think they fit perfectly between picture book and YA.
posted by Salamander at 8:46 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe E B White - Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little etc. might hit the spot.

Winnie the Pooh is actually a rather challenging read but if he is reading Genesis, he can probably handle it and the content is perfectly age appropriate.

Catwings by Ursula LeGuin is another one that my daughter loved when she was just a few years old.
posted by metahawk at 8:52 PM on February 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

My kindergartner loves comics -- Captain Underpants and especially Daniel Boom AKA Loud Boy. Those are definitely not beyond Dr. Seuss in reading complexity but he might like them anyway.

He also really liked some of the Little House books (the early ones, before the themes got kind of adult/depressing). Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods were his favorites.

And some of the favorite books at our house are the somewhat textbook-y ones -- "505 Facts About Outer Space!" -- that I won't read at all because they're just excruciatingly boring. He'll sit with those for hours. We inherited a retired elementary school teacher's classroom collection so we have a lot of them; it would not have occurred to me to buy them myself but he loves them.
posted by gerstle at 8:55 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh and the BFG. He's reading that with Dad right now and loving it.
posted by gerstle at 8:57 PM on February 5, 2014

About that age, my kids loved the Junie B. Jones and Cam Jansen books.
posted by nightwood at 9:01 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, I am in this exact situation. My daughter just turned 4 and wants to read *stories* and can sound out most words, but some beginners reading books seem to involved for her to really follow. What is working for her: Pippi Longstockings, The Beatrix Potter collections, the Paddington Bear chapter books and My Father's Dragon. Good Luck!
posted by Nickel Pickle at 9:03 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and anything else by Beverly Cleary.
posted by BibiRose at 9:10 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Frog and Toad stories are just the thing.
posted by alms at 9:10 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My son started reading relatively early, at age 4. He pretty quickly moved from picture books to chapter books, within a few months. He really enjoyed the Magic Treehouse Books, then moved on to various other series. A to Z Mysteries, Captain Underpants (and the various similar comicy-chapter books that are seemingly very popular), Ivy & Bean, Stink, Nate The Great, and many others. He's also read a few random Nancy Drew books. He also liked the Winnie-the-Pooh compendium, and from the DK series, he loves the One Million Things books.

We go to the library every week or two and pick out a stack of various chapter books. He usually focuses on whatever series he's currently obsessed with, and gets 4 or 5 of them, and we pick out a few titles from other series, in an attempt to broaden his interest.
posted by skwm at 9:16 PM on February 5, 2014

Some of Dr. Seuss's earlier books were a lot higher level, like "McEligot's Pool" or "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" or "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" or "If I ran the Circus".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:19 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It might help if you figure out what lexile level he's reading at-- once you know that you can sort books on Scholastic and Barnes and Nobles website using that as a search refiner.

It's really helpful to put lexile and grade level together because then you can match a book that challenges your kid text wise but that's more his level content wise.


Anyways, I recommend Catwings.
posted by spunweb at 9:45 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are some challenging words in this book about real-life hippopotamus and tortoise friends, but it's a sweet story (with lots of photos) and I think it's a great example of what can happen if you take a chance on an unlikely friend. (Wikipedia says that they're both still alive, although they have to live separately now so that Owen can have a girlfriend).
posted by amtho at 9:51 PM on February 5, 2014

Maybe he'd like The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. It has a lot of harder words and wordplay, and is often compared to Alice in Wonderland. He probably wouldn't understand the plot, but there's lots of colorful characters and exciting events, so there should be plenty for him to enjoy. I certainly didn't understand the plot when I was a kid, but that didn't stop me from getting a kick out of it. It's the sort of book that one can go back to every few years and get something new out of. Actually, I should go back and re-read that some time soon, and see what I make of it as an adult....
posted by sam_harms at 10:09 PM on February 5, 2014

Is your concern about plot and human relations something that keeps your son from enjoying the reading or is it just a concern that he won't understand everything that is going on? Our son read a lot of books that he didn't fully understand but still plowed through and enjoyed. As long as it wasn't too adult, we were OK with it. He started the Harry Potter series before he entered kindergarten (I was appalled when I found out his K teacher had never read them!) and I would quiz him on what was going on, and he didn't understand everything but he loved reading them anyway, and he went back and re-read when he got older. All the classic recommendations above, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Phantom Tollbooth, etc., would be great, and let him loose in the series books at the library to see what he latches onto. Some libraries file the "early readers" separately from juvenile fiction or mark them with special stickers, which is a great help.
posted by girlhacker at 10:44 PM on February 5, 2014

I think he gets bored with plots that are too complex and starts viewing them just as a reading exercise - which he's happy enough to do, but doesn't enjoy as much as storybooks. Some books with too-hard plots are okay but I'd like to give him some that are some that are within his grasp so that not everything is a reach.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:34 PM on February 5, 2014

Some possibilities:

Bill Peet books (some of my favorites are Big Bad Bruce and Eli, but there are lots of other good ones too, and some like the Whingdingdilly are visually Seussesque).

Mrs. Noodlekugel

Ira Sleeps Over

Library Lion

Pierre in Love

I could suggest many other illustrated books if you are interested.
posted by Dansaman at 1:01 AM on February 6, 2014

What you're looking for are called Early Chapter Books. They're a step up from Early Readers, which is what Dr. Seuss is, and a step before Chapter Books, which is what Charlotte's Web is. They have chapters and stories, but not lengthy, complicated plots.

For contemporary selections, I suggest (all series): Ivy & Bean, Judy Moody, Alvin Ho, Dork Diaries, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Spiderwick Chronicles, Marty McGuire, Jacob Wonderbar and Ghostville Elementary.
posted by headspace at 4:13 AM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I bet he'd get a kick out of compilations of folk tales, Bible stories, myths, or fables. We have one from DK and a cheap one from the sale rack of Barnes and Noble; they're easy to find. The language is not babied down for the most part but the stories themselves are short and easy to follow. My three year old enjoys the shorter ones. Plus, if he's having fun with the Bible he might find it satisfying to read from a gigantic book.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:14 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

E. Nesbit-- especially the Five Children and It series. They're chapter books, but with very simple, episodic adventure plots. No bigger-kid emotional stuff, but more challenging diction.
posted by Bardolph at 4:17 AM on February 6, 2014

For a precocious four-year-old, what about Junie B Jones? The stories are funny, the language is pretty easy, and the books are short and not complex on plot.

Also, while the A-to-Z mystery series (which my kids love) is targeted at an older age range, the author (Ron Roy) came out with a sequel series for younger readers, the Calendar mysteries...the plots are very simple, the characters are broadly drawn, the mysteries themselves would take Encyclopedia Brown about ten seconds to figure out, but, again, loved by my small readers.

Um...also, and this is ridiculous, but the kids are captivated right now by The Warriors series (which is about the adventures of clans of feral cats, so lots of hissing and having kittens and fighting). This comes in both a series of novels, which are thick enough to scare off my 5-year-old, and a series of manga based on the novels, which are slim, plot-simplified, and apparently very exciting, as she wants to take five or six of them to bed every night to read (and quote, and act out, and explain).
posted by mittens at 4:18 AM on February 6, 2014

What about the kinds of pictures books that are intended for adults to read to kids? Dr. Seuss is easy because it's meant for children who are learning to read, but what about Cars picture book? In general Disney picture books (NOT step readers) have some difficult vocab, sentence structure etc. because they're meant for parents to share with their kids, rather than for kids to read independently.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:29 AM on February 6, 2014

The Ramona books?
posted by gaspode at 5:21 AM on February 6, 2014

I bet he'd like the Flat Stanley.

Kate DiCamillo writes wonderful books for this age range. We especially enjoyed the Mercy Watson series.

The Between These Pages blog has great reviews of books for different reading levels. I found a bunch of suggestions for my first-grader who seems to be reading at a similar level.
posted by belladonna at 5:37 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My 4-year-old loves the Magic Schoolbus series of chapter books. For more ideas, check out "The Read-Aloud Handbook" by Jim Trelease.
posted by Empidonax at 5:47 AM on February 6, 2014

I would take him to the library and let him pick out some "transitional chapter books". If he's jumping from beginning readers to longer chapters, the sheer length might be too much of a change - it takes time to adjust to a book that takes multiple sittings to read, has a chapter format with different minor story arcs, and has more characters. So I'd let him chose a few Magic Treehouse books, a few Alphabet Mysteries, stuff like that. My library just calls then juvenile paperbacks, but they serve as an awesome transition from beginning readers to full on juvenile fiction!
posted by itsamermaid at 6:04 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.
posted by gudrun at 6:38 AM on February 6, 2014

If you are looking for books with more words than Dr. Seuss but stories that can easily be understood by a four year old I highly recommend the Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant. The stories are sweet, cute, and silly, there are pictures to go along, but there are also a lot more words than you have in standard picture books.

As I noted above (without a link) Frog and Toad is fabulous literature that operates at many levels and can be appreciated even by very young children.

I love the Magic Tree House books, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, etc but I wonder how much of the content a four year old could comprehend when reading to themselves, even if they can pronounce the words.
posted by alms at 6:51 AM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Came back to say you might also consider the Little Lit compilation called Big Fat Little Lit. My niece loved these.

Also consider picture books that are meaty visually and conceptually but readable and understandable for your son. I'm thinking of Allan Say's Grandfather's Journey as an example.

Finally, are you doing poetry, like Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends?
posted by gudrun at 7:43 AM on February 6, 2014

My favorite five year old is really into Roald Dahl (Matilda, James and the Giant Peach especially), has read all the Ivy and Bean books, and also liked a series called Fancy Nancy. The latter is a GREAT vocabulary builder and has really cute stories. You could also check out comics like the older-leaning Toon Books ones, the Bone series (maybe a little bit scary?), etc. She is really into the Marvel Wizard of Oz graphic novels, but the font is really tiny on those and adults read them with her.
posted by leesh at 8:17 AM on February 6, 2014

2nd the recommendation for a compilation. We got a lot of mileage out of Eisen's A Treasury of Children's Literature when my kids were growing up.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:53 AM on February 6, 2014

I second what Goodbyewaffles said although not the particular suggestion of series. I think it's too big of a jump to go from Dr. Seuss to early chapter books. There are many good illustrated books that are probably more appropriate as a next step and are great books that would be a pity to miss. I'm talking about wonderful stuff like The Hello Goodbye Window, Chris Van Dusen books, How Rocket Learned to Read, Calvin Can't Fly, How I Became a Pirate, Moonshot, If You Decide to Go to the Moon, Otis, The Magic Pebble, The Gruffalo, etc. The kid is four, this is the kind of stuff he should not miss out on.
posted by Dansaman at 8:54 AM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Dansaman makes a really good point-- some of the picture books are as interesting as anything and people of all ages like reading them.

Do you have good bookstores nearby? If you go into a Barnes & Noble there will be a kids specialist-- well maybe not there on that day, with budget cuts, but for whatever reason most of the stores still employ one-- who will be overjoyed to talk with you and your kid and show you books. Better yet, go to an independent store and help them keep alive.
posted by BibiRose at 9:09 AM on February 6, 2014

My brother and I really liked the "from the black lagoon" books. The pictures are funny, the stories are funny and relatable for little kids, and they're good bridging books for kids not really ready for chapters yet.

Looks like the series has grown quite a bit since we were little.
posted by phunniemee at 9:14 AM on February 6, 2014

The Mr Gum series by Andy Stanton are great. The person who brought them to my attention was 7 when they started to appear, and I think she could have been reading them earlier than that if they'd have existed. The Quentin-Blake-esque illustrations by David Tazzyman are zany fun, evocative of Roal Dahl, but the action is a bit less lyrical than Dahl, a bit more interested in bodily processes, and the books themselves all have a great meta-textual, self-referential humour that's genuinely surprising to encounter in books for this age group (and seemingly very well received by their audience – T laughed for hours at the book that kept saying it was all over, no really, this is the end, what's the point in turning over the page, I told you it's over, so stop reading, why are you here, there's no more, that's it, go do something else etc.).
posted by Joeruckus at 9:19 AM on February 6, 2014

Stick Dog was a favorite in our house for a while. My younger son (now 7) has moved on to The Dragon in the Sock Drawer series.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:45 AM on February 6, 2014

While magazines instead of books, your young reader might get a lot out of Ladybug or Spider (the younger siblings to Cricket).
posted by ocherdraco at 12:18 PM on February 6, 2014

When I was that age my parents got me a set of classics that had been abridged and illustrated for children. I have clear memories of absolutely loving 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Swiss Family Robinson. I just searched on Barnes & Nobel and came up with these. Everything an adventure-loving kid could want!
posted by Marit at 3:35 PM on February 6, 2014

The first thing that came to mind was the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.

Half Magic might be at a suitable level. (I haven't read it since I was 10 or so and don't want to speak too authoritatively.)

I loved E. Nesbit's Book of Dragons as a child and re-read it repeatedly.
posted by Lexica at 8:37 PM on February 6, 2014

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