Thursday, April 28, 2011

Illustrated Early Chapter Books

First, I just have to say that I wrote this post twice. The first time I wrote it I walked away without saving (always a mistake, I know) and came back to find the computer had mysteriously rebooted and it was gone. After crying a bit and wallowing in self pity I decided that I liked the post enough to try to recreate it. The second time I wrote it I saved about 30 times - every time a child interrupted me. And without further ado, here is version 2.0.

You start with a baby who looks at the pictures in picture books for about five seconds before wanting to chew on the book. Ideally, you end up with a young child who enjoys listening to chapter books. How do you get from point A to point B? (I'm just talking about listening to books here, not the child reading the books for him or herself.) In my mind I think of the progression as something like this:

  1. Picture Books
  2. Early Readers: These are books with multiple chapters, but each chapter is a separate story. Examples include the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel and the Little Bear series by Elsa Holmelund Minarik.
  3. Illustrated Early Chapter Books: These are books with multiple chapters that tell a single story. They are illustrated on every page.
  4. Early Chapter Books: These are books with multiple chapters that tell a single story. There are usually only one or two illustrations per chapter. An example is the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.

Picture books are plentiful, beautiful, and easy to find and enjoy. Picture books are an interesting genre because they can be very simple and very complex. Some picture books have no words at all, and some are actually written at a fifth or sixth grade reading comprehension level. You can read picture books to children forever. You just need to start simple and gradually get more complex.

Early readers are also pretty easy to find. Step into Reading is a early reader program that goes through four steps in increasing difficulty. I Can Read is also a early reader program that has four levels. The Frog and Toad books are actually I Can Read books Level Two. I highly recommend any of Arnold Lobel's books as great early readers. The thing about early readers is that they are typically a single story or the books are broken into chapters but each chapter tells a different story. In the Frog and Toad books, for example, all the stories are about the same two characters, but the stories can be read in any order.

There are many early chapter book series. Magic Tree House is one of the most popular. These books are longer, often around ten chapters long. They are also much more sparsely illustrated than picture books or early readers. There are usually only one or two illustrations per chapter. It is a big jump, particularly if you are trying to transition to chapter books with a preschooler, from early readers to early chapter books. They just still need the pictures.

That's why I started looking for illustrated early chapter books. They were much harder to find than I expected. (There are a few, like the Magic School Bus series, that I'm not discussing here because they are just deal with topics that are not right for a preschooler. I need something that works for a preschooler, not just a grade school aged child.) Here are five series I found that are illustrated early chapter book series that would be interesting to a preschooler.

  1. Mr. Putter and Tabby by Cynthia Rylant: This series is about an elderly gentleman named Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby. They have many adventures, often with their neighbor Mrs. Teaberry and her dog Zeke. The adventures are often simple, but the stories are sweet, the relationships are genuine, and the mishaps of the characters make Michael laugh out loud. They paint a porch, fly a (model) airplane, go on a train ride, bake a cake, in addition to many other activities. We've read almost all of these books and have enjoyed every one. There are three or four chapters in each book and each page has a full color illustration. These books are a great transition from early readers to early chapter books.
  2. Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman: This series is about a young cowgirl on a working cattle ranch and her talking horse Cocoa. The books are beautifully illustrated on each page and the stories are accessible for a preschooler. These books are also usually four chapters long. I thought that the cowgirl and ranch theme might turn him off, but Michael enjoyed these and looked forward to the next one.
  3. Henry and Mudge by Cynthia Rylant: This is another series by Cynthia Rylant. This one is about a boy and his really big dog named Mudge. Again, the pair have really simple adventures. One story is about a mud puddle, another is about camping, a third is about catching a cold. Somehow, even though the main character is a boy, Michael likes the Mr. Putter and Tabby series more, but this one is still a great illustrated chapter book series. These books are also usually three or four chapters each and are illustrated on every page.
  4. Mercy Watson by Kate DiCamillo: These are books about a pig and her misadventures. The books are beautifully illustrated and extremely well reviewed. These books are longer, around 8-10 chapters each. We read a couple of these and then abandoned the series. I think that the jump in length was a little too hard and the content was just a little too old. It's close though, and fits the criteria of an illustrated early chapter book so I wanted to mention it just in case it works for you. We'll revisit them in a few months.
  5. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown: This series is about a young boy who became flat (only one inch thick) when a bulletin board fell on him. He has a series of adventures and solves mysteries as only he can, because he is flat. This series is a little higher level for two reasons. The books are longer, around 9-11 chapters each. The illustrations are not on every single page, and the illustrations are black and white line drawings rather than full color illustrations. We have only read two of these so far, but Michael seems to like them and the stories are able to appeal to him as a preschooler so I'm including the series in this list. Definitely try the other ones first though. They are more appropriate.

That's it. That's all I could find. If you know of any other series that meet my criteria of an illustrated early chapter book series that would appeal to preschoolers, please let me know. I'd absolutely love to find more. Otherwise, enjoy the ones I have found. I hope you like them. Let me know if you read them.


  1. I am glad you posted this blog. I have been looking for illustrated chapter books for my 4-year old son and Captain Underpants have worked well for him. I am also going to try "Captain Awesome" and "Bad Kitty" as well.

    Silly works for him. "Stuart Little" was his first chapter book but there were not enough illustrations and the story moved too slowly for his taste.

  2. The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale has color illustrations, and she is a.. superhero of sorts so I think boys would like it, too. (So far there are 4 books in the series). My daughter loved the Chicken Squad books by Doreen Cronin (who brought you Click Clack Moo etc). The illustrations aren't as numerous and they are in black and white but she enjoyed the humor so much she never noticed much. There are three and the characters are also in J.J. Tully set (of which there are two).


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