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Notes from a Children's Librarian: First Chapter Books

Great books to entice reluctant readers or to read aloud to a younger crowd.

Book Cover Princess Pistachio

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Enticing books for the reluctant grade 2/3 (and even 4/5) reader, these titles also work as great read alouds for a younger crowd.

Princess Pistachio, by Marie-Louise Gay, is a first chapter book with fun colourful illustrations on every page. The day Pistachio finds a crown and a note under her bed ("Happy Birthday, Princess!") she realizes her true identity: Princess of the island of Papua. Stolen as a child by a witch, she has been living with her adoptive parents ever since. Pistachio is immediately disgruntled with the tedious, non-princess aspects of her life: having to eat spinach, going to school, enduring the shenanigans of her baby sister, Penny. Her classmates make fun of her princess outfit, the boys next door playing knights don't believe her new identity, and her mother forces her to look after Penny, who believes she, herself, is a princess. Pistachio is forced to deal with some truths when Penny runs away from the grumpy Princess Pistachio. Five manageable chapters for a late-grade 2 student. In the sequel, Pistachio and the Pest, Pistachio is stuck minding Penny for the summer.

Book Cover Star of the Week

The Jasper John Dooley series, by Caroline Adderson, really captures the language and thinking of an early school grader. Each book has 12 non-intimidating chapters, usually spanning a week, interspersed with Ben Clanton's illustrations. In the first book, Star of the Week, Jasper's classmates seem unimpressed with his dryer lint collection, so Jasper decides to bring a new baby brother for Show and Tell. Trouble is, the only baby he knows is his best friend's Ori's, which he is not allowed to borrow. Is his mom going to satisfy his request for a sibling? He decides to create a brother, “Earl,” out of wood. His first sleepover with his wooden brother results in a sliver. The creation of a family tree and a heart (for Earl) science project all make up the activities of being Star of the Week, with a final chapter wrapping up all loose plot threads. Left Behind, the second in the series, is just as charming, with Jasper's Nan going away on an Elder Cruise to Alaska. It tackles all the ways in which a youngster would miss the company of a grandma. Throughout the series, Jasper's unique take on the world covers age-appropriate themes: longing, loss, separation, being in trouble, girl/boy dynamics. Early-grade 3 reading level.

Book Cover Jim Nasium

Basketball, football, hockey, soccer. It doesn't matter what sport it is, Jim Nasium struggles to shine, in the Jim Nasium series by Marty McKnight, illustrated by Canadian-resident Chris Jones. There are 10 short chapters with a predictable plot; all helpful to a reluctant reader. Each book begins with Jim feeling down about his lack of ability. Bobby the Bully never misses a chance to make him feel bad, and Jim's best friend Milo usually has a joke or pun to cheer him up. But each time Jim finds expertise in unlikely places: Tiny Twirlers figure skaters or a fast-tackling cat who can catch a football. The text is large, with double line spacing and illustrations to reassure the late-grade 2 student.

Book Cover Pinny in Summer

Pinny in Summer, by Joanne Schwartz, looks like a picture book, but it's divided into four very short “chapters.” Illustrator Isabelle Malenfant's pale pink, blue, and green palette add to the feel of a timeless summer day, where cloud-watching, reading a book, picking blueberries and baking a cake are all part of the agenda. Also, having a picnic, where even a seagull snatching a chunk of cake doesn't ruin the experience. Especially when the seagull returns Pinny's lost wishing stone. Great read aloud for June, as well as a great first attempt at chapter books for a late-grade-2 reader. 

Book Cover The True Story of George

The Orca Echoes series is aimed at 7- to 9-year-olds, with fast-paced storyline in short illustrated chapters, written by various authors such as Frieda Wishinsky, Becky Citra and Jo Ellen Bogart. Ingrid Lee has created The True Story of George, illustrated by Stephane Denis. This first book in the George Trilogy is about a red plastic toy the size of a finger. Brother and sister Mackenzie and Katie find him at the beach. They don't seem too enthralled with the toy, and over time they leave him in various predicaments: submerged in windshield washing fluid, catapulted by a homemade parachute, lost in a snow fort, and finally, strapped to some fireworks. Every other chapter is from George's point of view who believes he is bravely skydiving, escaping fallen fortresses, rocketing into space. After the firework blast, parts of him scatter back to earth. In the sequel, George Most Wanted, Mackenzie and Katie determine to put him back together, putting up posters in the neighbourhood to ask for missing parts. Lee's subtle humour comes across as they get more doll bits than they bargained for. 

Book Cover Whatever After Fairest of All

The Whatever After series, by Montreal-born Sarah Mlynowski, is very popular with grade 3–4 girls. In the first book, Fairest of All, Abby and her younger brother Jonah find a hissing mirror in their basement, and Jonah discovers that knocking three times allows them to step through into a familiar fairy tale, but Abby and Jonah's arrival interferes with the narrative. A day in Fairy Tale Land equals an hour back home so their job is to re-right the story before Mom and Dad notice they're gone. They meet Snow White, who doesn't take the poisoned apple and therefore misses her chance with the Prince. Not only do they have to bring the lovebirds together, but they must also use the Evil Stepmother's mirror as a porthole. Ironic, humourous dialogue and plot twists make for a new take on the Fractured Fairy Tale. For instance, some of the dwarves are named: Alan, Enid (yes, a girl) and Frances. Other books in the series include versions of Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel and Cinderella.  

Book Cover And Then it Happened

The And Then it Happened series, by M. & L. Wade, is favoured by the grade 4–5 crowd. These are ten short stories, each featuring some form of prank by a trio of 11-year-olds. Descriptive, action-driven plots pack a punch, attracting readers who might normally be turned off by novels. The pranksters' ringleader is the infamous Gordon, who either creates or ends up in precarious situations in the neighbourhood, at camp, or at school. In Book One, there's the tale of his sidekick Paolo's dad's expensive beaver hat finding its way into a pig pen. Another story involves Gordon's revenge upon the camp bully in an outhouse. There's one about crazy glue and a Christmas play. The boys usually get their comeuppance, sometimes getting off scot-free. In keeping with the jokey tone of the stories, Book Nine has two cutout eyeholes in the back cover so a student can pretend to be reading. Or there's the book with the upside down cover, which I almost sent back to the publisher until I read the note inside. I have three sets of this series and I can't keep them on the shelf. 

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

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