From Picture Books to Chapter Books: Bridging the Gap

What is a parent to do when their child is a bit too old to enjoy listening to The Cat in the Hat for the eight thousandth time but lacks the ability to read and grasp a full-fledged novel like Anne of Green Gables?

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

As a mother, I hit that roadblock with each of my four children, and each child was unique in the specifics of how they did (or did not) want to move to chapter books and full novels. I had to get creative. No way would I let them miss out on literary gems and, more importantly, the crucial literacy skills that independent reading would give them in school and in life.

I’ll go into more tips for how I got them reading in future posts, but today, I want to focus on one of the most widely available tools: what I call “bridge” books: titles significantly longer than your average picture book, but with large text, usually some pictures, and both stories and characters made with younger readers in mind.

Most often, these books are officially called “chapter books” (or “early chapter books”) to distinguish them from picture books. These books are aimed at emerging readers just getting their reading legs under them. Most chapter books are for children ages six to about ten.

Early chapter books are often annoying to adults, whether it’s because some characters use incorrect grammar (think Junie B. Jones) or potty humor (think Captain Underpants), or the plots are predictable (well, about every chapter book out there), but children love them, and that’s the key.

Instead of getting annoyed by early chapter books, view them as a gateway “drug” to other books and a lifetime of literacy.

In first grade, my son became enamored with Captain Underpants, the first book he ever read independently. I had to replace his worn copy and eventually had comb bindings put onto all of the books in the series to preserve them a bit longer. I had some parents sniff at the fact that I let him those books. Did I really want my son to be reading about poop and fart jokes?

My response: if it means he’ll keep reading, absolutely.

And he did. Like many boys, he got obsessed with certain series, and yes, there were times I wished he’d move on to something else sooner than later so I could finally stop hearing about the every detail of his current obsession.

Potty humor or no, he was reading. He was learning about implication and inference. He worried and laughed with Captain Underpants. He found joy in the pages of a book.

The first time I caught him reading past his bedtime was a few years later. I don’t recall what book he had tucked under his blankets that night, but I do remember the interchange.

After seeing a crack of light under his door, I open it and gave him a look. “It’s a school night, and you were supposed to be asleep half an hour ago.”

“I know,” he whined. Then he held up the book. “But this is SO GOOD. Can I just finish this chapter?”

I pretended to give his question some deep, somber thought before sighing and saying, “Well, okay. This time. But just that chapter, and then lights out.”

“Thanks, Mom! Promise!”

I closed his bedroom door and promptly did a silent celebratory jig in the hall. I didn’t care if he broke his promise. Not at all. He was reading, whatever that meant: the same Bionicle book for the twenty-first time, Spider-man or Batman comics, or a hundred other things I personally didn’t care about but he did, so party on.

I knew that the more he read in childhood, the better off he’d be in every area of his life down the road.

He’s now in college, and he continues to love reading. His beat-up copies of the Captain Underpants series are in some storage box now. Today he reads Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card and Tom Clancy.

For parents struggling to get their kids reading independently, here are some things I learned along the way with my son and my daughters:

● Choose books that line up with your child’s reading level, keeping in mind that age doesn’t not necessarily correspond with ability. An easy way to gauge whether a book is at your child’s reading level is to have them read aloud from it for about 50 words. For an early chapter book, that’s about half a page. If they struggle with more than about five words, the book’s probably too advanced.

But don’t pick books that are too easy, either. A few new words is just about right. Kids do well learning new vocabulary through context cues, and you want to stretch them without making them frustrated and feeling like a failure.

● Check your child’s comprehension. When a child can read aloud fluently, we often assume they fully understand what they’re reading. Not necessarily. My son was a great example of that: in kindergarten, he could decode words (figure out how to say them while reading) at a fifth grade level. I could have handed him a high school textbook, and he could have read most of it to me . . . with no clue what any of it meant.

Vocabulary, sentence structure, plot, and more can go right over children’s heads even when they seem to be able read a book just fine. Some comprehension comes with age and maturity, and additional comprehension comes with more reading.

The challenge is finding books that they don’t find boring simply because the reading level is too easy. Read along with your child and then ask questions as the story goes. After your child reads a chapter, ask questions:
— What just happened?
— What do you think will happen next?
— How does [character] feel?
— Why did [character] do that?

And so on.

● Read aloud together. As the parent, you read the first page, then your child reads the second page, and so on. You’ll discover several things in the process:
—Whether the book is too hard, too easy, or just right.
—Whether your child truly comprehends the story.
—What your child’s reading strengths and weaknesses are, so you can make informed decisions on how to best help them improve even more and find books they’ll love.

Below are some great early chapter books:

The Magic Tree House series, by Mary Pope Osbourne
A terrific set of books (numbering in the dozens) about a brother and sister who travel to new times and places through the magic of their tree house. These short books are exciting for both boys and girls — and they get a fun lesson in history, geography, or science to boot.

Junie B. Jones series, by Barbara Park
Kids enjoy Junie B.’s silly personality and knack for always getting into trouble.

The Boxcar Children series, Gertrude Chandler Warner
The children from the original Boxcar Children book have gone on to star in loads of new stories that children are eating up.

The Magic School Bus books, by Joanna Cole
Another set that teaches kids about science, these books come in a couple of formats: easy chapter books as well as a picture-book style that has a higher reading level.

Arthur books, by Marc Brown
The beloved aardvark is best known for the PBS show, but he got his start in picture books, and now several early chapter books star him and his friends as well.

Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey
As mentioned above, this is a completely ridiculous set of books, but ones that are worth investing in for getting reluctant boys reading. Enjoy the pranks of George and Harold — and watch their mean principal turn into superhero Captain Under-pants, billed as “Faster than a speeding waistband . . . more powerful than boxer shorts.”

Encyclopedia Brown series, by Donald J. Sobol
A classic series about a genius boy who helps his father solve mysteries.

Cam Jansen mysteries, by David A. Adler and Susanna Natti
Written at a very easy reading level, these books have fun but simple mysteries about things kids care about, each solved by whiz kid Cam Jansen.

The A to Z Mysteries series, by Ron Roy
A series with fun and adventure, the titles starting with A and going through the alphabet. Harder than Cam Jansen, but still still relatively easy.

Fancy Nancy books, by Jane O’Connor
A series of “I Can Read” books perfect for the early reader.

Fairy series, by Daisy Meadows
Meadows has written several delightful series that young girls love, among them: the Weather Fairies, Jewel Fairies, Fun Day Fairies, and Pet Fairies, each with their own cast of characters and fun (and magical) stories.

Nate the Great, by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Another fun mystery series that’s easy to read. Roughly on the level of the Cam Jansen books.

Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, by Carolyne Keene
This is a series created several years ago specifically for younger readers who are not yet old enough to enjoy the original Nancy Drew tales. The books follow a grade-school aged Nancy as she and her friends solve mysteries around their neighborhood.

Deltora Quest, by Emily Rodda
An 8-book fantasy series about a young boy and his friends who face daunting odds and frightening situations as they seek to gather hidden magical jewels that will help overthrow the evil ruler and restore the true heir to the throne. While it’s still chapter book, it has a somewhat more complex story line and vocabulary than the early reader books. This is a great series for kids getting ready to make the leap into Middle Grade novels. (A forthcoming post!)

As you can see, the number of books for early readers is greater than ever. You can almost certainly find books that will interest your emerging reader.

For additional titles, ask your school and public librarian, as well as your children’s school teachers.

Whatever you do, keep trying. Many teachers say that if a student claims to be a bad reader, chances are, they just haven’t found the right book yet!

Written by

USA Today bestselling & award-winning author of women’s fiction & romance. Word nerd. Chocoholic. Mom.

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