The Longest Shortest Time

First Chapter Books for Preschoolers

This morning on our drive to school, we saw a dude in a suit nearly wipeout on the icy sidewalk. Not the kind of day you want to be outside with your kiddos. But a great sort of day for snuggling up with a book. Trouble is, we grownups tire easily of reading those same picture books over and over. Even the good ones. Sasha is almost five, and I’m feeling like she’s ready for chapter books. But I just don’t know where to begin. Luckily, one of my favorite guests from the podcast, Kate Bowman-Johnston, is a children’s librarian and also has a four-year-old. So I asked her to give us her faves. Check out her awesome chapter books starter list below.

Note to parents of bouncy kids: Kate says your children can indeed sit through multiple chapters! You just need to forget the “sitting” part. They can play with blocks or play dough while they listen, then bop over to you once in awhile to look at a picture. —HF

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Kate’s Been There Too
When selecting chapter books to read to our young children, we tend to gravitate towards those we loved as kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, aside from one problem: we’re old now, and we’ve forgotten.

So there you are, engrossed in Charlotte’s Web with your four year old, and it dawns on you: CHARLOTTE DIES. IN LIKE TWO PAGES. You spend bedtime crying and explaining why bad things happen to good spiders.

Or you’re moseying through The Swiss Family Robinson, and gradually the moseying becomes toiling, and you recall that you actually never liked this book because it is incredibly boring.

Or you’re blithely reading along in Little House in the Big Woods, and suddenly some super racist ideas about Native Americans are coming out of your-slash-Caroline Ingalls’s mouth.

Not that any of these things have happened to me.

There is a time and place for these books, but it might not be now, if you have a preschooler. The thing almost all preschoolers have in common is that they love to laugh. I do, too, so I tried to pick titles that are funny and engaging for kids and parents alike.


Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Mercy is a “porcine wonder” who is doted upon by her human companions, Mr. and Mrs. Watson. Fueled by hot toast with a great deal of butter, she good naturedly helps friends and neighbors out of amusing, low-stakes scrapes. These books are uproariously funny, have lots of colorful pictures, and can be read in one sitting. The audio versions are delightful as well!

For more SILLY ANIMAL TALES, try The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary (I prefer Louis Darling’s illustrations) and The Chicken Squad by Doreen Cronin (for maturing fans of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type).


Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable StingRay, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Have you ever wondered about the inner lives of stuffed animals? Me neither, but thanks to this book, I now know that being crammed in a backpack or riding in a washing machine are character building experiences. Toys Go Out follows the everyday lives of Little Girl’s three beloved childhood companions in a sweet and imaginative way. Their adventures help young children explore topics like fear, identity, and uncertainty in non-threatening and even humorous contexts.

For more TOY STORIES, try the classics The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (keep your hanky handy) and Raggedy Andy Stories by Johnny Gruelle (which has thankfully been modernized).


The Fairy Bell Sisters Series by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Julia Denos
My sparkle-obsessed daughter loves Rainbow Fairies, a mind-numbingly banal series cranked out by anonymous Scholastic publishing assistants under the name “Daisy Meadows.” Thankfully, I have recently been able to distract her with The Fairy Bell Sisters. We both adore these books about Tinker Bell’s younger siblings. The covers are glitter-encrusted and feature big-eyed fairies holding kittens, but they are also beautifully written and keep a good sense of humor about themselves. Each book also has a recipe or fun craft in the back.

For more SMARTLY FRILLY TALES, try Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (also beloved by boys in my literary circle!), plus Fairyopolis by Cecily Mary Barker (gorgeous Victorian illustrations, with a multitude of paper doll and sticker book tie-ins).


Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman
When my friend Leah comes to the library with her kindergartner, her chipper voice says, “We can’t wait to read the new Lego Ninjago book!” But the look in her eyes says, “CURSE YOU, EVIL LIBRARIAN, AND ALL OF SPINJITZU.” I try to help a sister out by supplementing with titles like Bunjitsu Bunny. Its heroine performs the fun-sounding “running bunjitsu head-butt” while focusing on the discipline, restraint, and wisdom needed to become a true warrior. Plus, every preschooler I know could certainly benefit from the mantra, “[Bunjitsu] is about finding ways NOT to hit, kick, and throw.”

For more FAST-PACED ADVENTURES, check out Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures by Jeff Brown (kid gets flattened by bulletin board; globe-trots his way to exotic locales inside an envelope) and the reincarnated Choose Your Own Adventure series by R.A. Montgomery (I’m not going to pretend it’s great literature, but it is very fun for preschoolers in its revamped format).


The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle, illustrated by Brian Ajhar
There is nothing young children love more than a straight-up belly laugh, and this book gives them just that. The entire absurd plot revolves around a grown-up stepping in dog poop as payback for being mean to kids. That’s it. Adults are not immune to snickering through The Giggler Treatment, which is an asset because you’ll want to re-read this book when your child can understand more of the references (for example, a character whose last name is Fleetwood-Mack—what else do you expect from the author of The Commitments?).

For more FUNNY BUSINESS, check out Half Magic by Edgar Eager (in which a wish is only partially granted by an enchanted coin) and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (I recommend the new oversized version illustrated by Lauren Child, who also draws Charlie and Lola).


Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
I don’t usually recommend “realistic fiction” chapter books for preschoolers, because even the most light-hearted deal with topics more appropriate for second to fifth graders. No need to borrow trouble. But that’s why I love Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. It captures exactly how it feels to be five years old and starting kindergarten. It captures exactly how it feels to want to be “good” but revel in being bad. It makes you want to squeeze an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink just for the joy of it. (Don’t worry, that doesn’t happen in this volume. But I can’t promise your kid won’t want to replicate Ramona’s other hijinks!) There is no other book that more authentically affirms and validates children’s real, complex, messy feelings. It was a joy to read with my child, and I hope it will be for you, too.

For more books that KEEP IT REAL, check out the Zig-Zag Kids series by Patricia Reilly Giff (a modern, multicultural incarnation of Polk Street School—remember those?!) along with Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows (two unlikely friends solve mysteries in their neighborhood). —KBJ

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What are YOUR favorite read-aloud chapter books?
List ’em down there, in the comments!