From the day babies first clutch the rounded corners of a board book and fling it across the room, parents have an opportunity (ever-diminishing as it may be) to influence their children’s literary choices.
Book series are an especially potent way to engage kids in books. My 13-year-old son is a chronically reluctant reader, but he can always get his head around revisiting “The Hardy Boys” or Stevie and Susan in John Feinstein’s “Sports Beat Mystery” series.
It’s not just the familiarity of the characters — when kids know they can handle the reading level and style of a series, they are more likely to dive back in. Even for kids for whom reading is not a challenge, the old favorites can be a comfortable and enriching respite before going on to something new.
With the help of Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood and a few discerning kids, we've compiled picks for classic book series with characters and stories that might help guide your kids from baby book-chuckers to lifelong readers.
1. Picture book and board book series
“No No Yes Yes” by Leslie Petrocelli
With titles like “No No Yes Yes,” “Yummy Yucky,” “Quiet, Loud” and so on, Petrocelli’s scenarios seem endless — and hilarious. Readers quickly get attached to the androgynous little character, as the toddler learns life lessons with bold colored backgrounds, such as, “Apple pie, Yummy! Mud pie, Yucky!”
“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” by Mo Willems
Willems uses an unlikely, but simply drawn pigeon to declare some basic truths — like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” which kicked off the series in 2003. The colors are muted mauve, pink and teal. The pigeon is a bit of a trickster — your kids will love to get involved in putting him on the right track.
“Skippyjon Jones” by Judy Schachner
The kitten with a hyper-active imagination and a bilingual vocabulary lives with his mom, at least when he’s not conjured up some far-off land. The stories are both more complex and mature than Pigeon stories and resonate most with slightly older kids.
Other picture-book and board-book series to check out:
- “Olivia” by Ian Falconer
- “Diary of a Worm” by Doreen Cronin
- “Ella the Elegant Elephant” by Seattle locals, Carmela and Steven D’Amico.
- “George and Martha” by James Marshall — a classic.
2. Pre-chapter and beginning reader books
For kids ages 5–7, depending on reading level and interest, pre-chapter books are a step up from picture books. They’re typically highly illustrated stories kids can read to themselves, with large fonts and simple, age-appropriate and upbeat themes.
“Boris” (Branches series) by Andrew Joyner
Boris, a pretty regular warthog with an adventurous spirit, is one of a handful of characters in Scholastic’s "Branches" group of character book series for young readers. Each title (Boris, Missy, The Notebook of Doom, Looniverse, Lotus Lane) has its own series of four books and provides something for everyone. Each Boris book has instructions for a special project, like building a compass, in the back.
“Anna Hibiscus” by Atinuke
Atinuke, the series’ author, is a well-known Nigerian storyteller. This four-book series is unusual in many ways — the African setting, Anna’s multi-cultural, middle-class family (Canadian mom, African dad), and Atinuke’s portrayal of real-life issues, like poverty, class and economic disparity. Life for Anna is different, but not so foreign that kids can’t relate. Family and community loom large, though strangely, no single African country is named. Thankfully, the other qualities fo the stories — and the joyful vibrancy of Anna — overcome the problem of not knowing which part of Africa she is in. Recently, Atinuke began writing Anna Hibiscus picture books as well.
More book series to check out:
- “Katie Woo and Friends” by Fran Manushkin
- “Captain Awesome” by Stan Kirby
- “Amelia Bedelia” by Peggy Parish is an old classic.
- “Flat Stanley” by Jeff Brown is another old classic.
3. Chapter books for elementary schoolers
Somewhere around ages 5–8, your kids will likely migrate from "beginning readers" to chapter books. Formatting for these books ranges dramatically — from large font with illustrations to no illustrations and smaller print — which provides choices for nearly everyone. Be sure to visit websites as well; many have great content, like games, references and author blogs.
“Secret Agent Jack Stalwart” by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
Jack Stalwart is a much younger, much more modern version of James Bond — he’s got all the gadgets and all of the resources and energy to solve crimes across the globe. His parents are kept in the dark about what he’s up to — trying to find and save his "secret agent" older brother, who has been lost on a mission. Kids love the various geographic locations — from China to Italy — that they explore while on the wild ride with the 8-year-old secret agent. The large, reader-friendly font is inviting for new chapter book readers. Kids who like this will have Anthony Horowitz’s several lengthier adventure series — like Alex Rider - to look forward to in middle school.
Be aware: Missing parents (alive, just not so aware of what is going on!)
“Geronimo Stilton Adventures” by Geronimo Stilton
Geronimo Stilton and Thea are siblings who live in a city reminiscent of somewhere in Italy — although it’s a mouse’s world. Geronimo is a reticent mouse journalist whose work leads him reluctantly into crazy adventures. His sister Thea, who has her own colorful titles within the series, is quite the opposite: adventurous, glamorous and always ready to go. The pages burst with cartoon-like illustrations, with one cheesy pun after another. With more than 50 titles in the series, your kids will likely outgrow it before they finish it!
“Calvin Coconut” by Graham Salisbury
Calvin lives in Hawaii with his mom and little sister and is entering fourth grade when the series begins. Life in Hawaii includes a lot of action; the story lines fly from house to beach to school and back — kind of different from Seattle in winter! Calvin is a nice kid with fun friends, who have everyday adventures.
“Marty McGuire” by Kate Messner
As much as Salisbury gets it right for boys, Messner hits the spot for third- and fourth-grade girls. The stories and characters are reminiscent of Beverly Cleary – upbeat, lots of drama and emotion, fitting for the age. Illustrations help carry the longer text for kids new to chapter books.
“Baby Mouse” by Jennifer and Matthew Holm
Okay, so Babymouse is a little bratty sometimes. But she’s got heart! The illustrations are so expressive, that you can feel her going from exaltation to despair and back again. She’s one of my favorites, despite the edgy dialogue.
Be aware: Babymouse rates on the snark-o-meter – not always "nice." Sort of like Judy Moody.
“Classic Matt Christopher” sports series by Matt Christopher
For kids who love sports more than reading, check out Matt Christopher. He’s written dozens of books for kids ages 6–9 and 8–12 that cover sports from baseball to ice hockey to skateboarding. While the main characters are not always the same, the athletic theme is always there — lots of otherwise reluctant readers find themselves picking up one Christopher book after another, as they find lots in common with the kids he writes about. Younger readers can tap into Jake Maddox Sports Stories, which are highly illustrated, larger font and aimed at earlier readers.
Be aware: All boy main characters.
Others to check out:
- “Double Detectives,” by Zack Norris (modern-day Hardy Boys)
- “Bone” (graphic novel) by Jeff Smith
- “Zita the Space Girl” (graphic novel) by Ben Hatke
- “Freddy the Pig” by Walter R. Brooks
- “Pippi Longstocking” by Astrid Lindgren
- “My Father’s Dragon” by Ruth Stiles Gannett
- “Bunnicula” by James Howe and Deborah Howe
4. Chapter books for upper elementary and middle schoolers
“American Girl Mysteries” by various authors
American Girl has been producing excellent series books based on both its famous doll characters and real historical figures for many years (although some are out of print). Similar to the Royal Diaries series, the Mystery Series have a historical backdrop that is woven into the story. Each book has a "Looking Back" section at the back that provides interesting historical context to the period of the story.
Be aware: All girl main characters
“Amelia” by Marissa Moss
This series does double-duty — the format is great for reluctant readers (primarily girls), and Amelia deals with touchy "tween" subjects like gossip, love, BFFs and siblings, in a voice that includes the reader, as if she were a trusted confidant. Amelia is in fifth grade in book one, and eighth grade in the latest title. The variation from a diary entry, to lists, comic strips and speech bubbles with her friends establishes a successful way to keep young readers engaged.
Be aware: These aren’t exactly chapter books and are more diary-like with a story woven in. Content is generally for kids older than the elementary school girls who are sometimes attracted to the fun cover.
“The Kane Series” by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan once again blends fantasy, history and the lives of every day kids in his follow-up series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The Kane Chronicles brings readers into the world of Egyptian mythology, through the lives of Carter and Sadie. The two siblings, ages 12 and 14, are reunited only to discover that their lives are in peril. Their newly discovered lineage as heirs to the mystical powers of ancient Egyptians might save them. Riordan’s latest series of five books, “Heroes of Olympus,” builds upon the characters and worlds of Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
Be aware: Some scary scenes for younger readers (but all ends well).
Questions to ask when series shopping
About the reader
About parents' tastes
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2013, and updated in January 2021.