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
in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood and a few discerning kids, we've compiled picks for new and classic book series with characters and stories that might help guide your kids from baby book-chuckers to lifelong readers. Secret Garden Bookshop Picture book and board book series
With titles like , by Leslie Petrocelli No No Yes Yes 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!” Publication date: 2003 Books in series: 10-plus
, by Mo Willems Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Pre-literacy, picture driven story lines 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 – beautiful. The pigeon is a bit of a trickster – your kids will love to get involved in putting him on the right track. Publication date: 2003 Titles in series: 10
, by Judy Skippyjon Jones Schachner Pre-literacy, picture driven story lines 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 the Pigeon – and resonate most with slightly older kids. Titles in series: 10-plus
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.
CLASSIC FAVORITE: George and Martha, by James Marshall
>>Next: Pre-chapter books or beginning readers
Pre-Chapter or Beginning Reader Books
For kids from 5-7, depending on reading level and interest, pre-chapter books are a step up from picture books; highly illustrated stories kids can read to themselves, with large fonts and simple, age appropriate and upbeat themes.
, by Andrew Joyner (Branches series) Boris Highly illustrated, color, with large font and speech bubbles , about 80 pages 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. Ages: 5–7 Publication date: 2013 Number of titles in series: 4 per each character/title
, by Atinuke Anna Hibiscus Highly illustrated, black and white, large font text, multicultural, about 110 pages Atinuke, the series’ author, is a well-known Nigerian story teller. The 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, 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 series other qualities – 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. Ages: 5–8 Publication date: 2010 Titles in series: 4
Others to check out: Katie Woo and Friends, by Fran Manushkin; Captain Awesome, by Stan Kirby
CLASSIC FAVORITES: Amelia Bedelia, by Peggy Parish (1963); Flat Stanley, by Jeff Brown (1964)
>>Next: Chapter books - elementary school
Chapter Books – Elementary School
Somewhere from 5 to 8 years old, your kids will likely migrate from "beginning readers" to chapter books. Formatting for these books range dramatically – from large font with illustrations to no illustrations and smaller print – which provides choices meaning that there is something for nearly everyone. Be sure to visit websites as well; many have great content, like games, references and author blogs.
y Elizabeth Singer Hunt , b Secret Agent Jack Stalwart Moderately illustrated, black and white, 115 pages 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 worldwide. 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. The best element of the series are the geographic locations – from China to Italy, that readers get to 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. Ages: 6–9 Publication date: 2007 Titles in series: 14 Be aware: Missing parents (alive, just not so aware of what is going on!)
, by Stilton : Geronimo and Thea Geronimo Stilton Adventures Highly illustrated, colorized text and drawings, speech bubbles, 130 pages 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! Ages: 6–9 Publication date: 2004 Titles in series: 50-plus
, by Graham Salisbury Calvin Coconut Moderate illustrations, black and white, multicultural, 160 pages 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 November! Calvin is a nice kid with fun friends, who have everyday adventures. Ages: 7–10 Publication date: 2009 Titles in series: 8 , by Kate Messner Marty McGuire Moderate illustrations, black and white, 160 pages 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. Ages: 7–10 Publication date: 2011 Titles in series: 3
, by Jennifer and Matthew Holm Baby Mouse Graphic novel – pink, black and white story board and speech balloons, 100 pages 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. Ages: 7–10 Publication date: 2005 Titles in series: 16 Be aware: Babymouse hits the snarky-o-meter – not always "nice." Sort of like Judy Moody.
, by Matt Christopher sports series Classic Matt Christopher No illustrations, 115 pages For kids who love sports more than reading, check out Matt Christopher. He’s written dozens of books for kids from both 6-9 or 8-12 years old 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 – and 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. Ages: 8–12 Titles in series: 50 + (14 sports) Be aware: All boy main characters
Other 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
CLASSIC FAVORITES: Freddy the Pig; Pippi Longstocking; My Father’s Dragon, Bunnicula
>>Next: Upper /elementary/middle school
Chapter Books – Upper Elementary/Middle School
, by various authors American Girl Mysteries No illustration 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 their 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 content to the period of the story. Ages: 9–12 Publication date (American Girl Mysteries): 2012 Publication date (American Girl History Mysteries): 2000 Titles in series: 25 + Be aware: All girl main characters
, by Marissa Moss Amelia Diary-style, highly illustrated in color, 40 pages 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 5th grade in book one, and 8th grade in the latest title. The variation from diary entry, to lists, comic strips and speech bubbles with her friends establishes a successful way to keep young readers engaged. Ages: 9–13 years old Publication date: 2005 Titles in series: 17 Be aware: These aren’t chapter books per se, more diary-like with a story woven in. Content is generally for kids older than the elementary school girls that are often attracted to the fun cover.
by Ursula Vernon , Digger Black-and-white graphic novel, Hugo Award Winner 2012 Best Graphic Story, 130 pages This graphic novel series began as a web comic on the site Graphic Smash in 2006, where it developed a huge fan following. Digger, a wombat, finds herself at the end of long, one-way tunnel. In her quest to return home she confronts themes of fear, religion, magic and girl power, to name a few. This is a complex but beautiful story, well worth the accolades. Your kids will think you’re pretty hip if it finds its way to your house. Vernon also wrote the highly acclaimed Dragonbreath, in which she uses a combination of text and graphic novel to chronicle the everyday adventures of Danny the Dragon, in a series aimed for younger kids. Ages: 10–14 Publication date: 2005 Titles in series: 5 Be aware: Edgy themes, use of weapons, some scary places – graphic by nature. Note: This series, unfortunately, is not easily available these days. Look for used copies.
y Rick Riordan , b The Kane Series No illustrations, 550 pages 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, 12 and 14, are reunited only to discover that their lives are imperiled; 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. Publication date: 2010 Titles in series: 3 Be aware: Some scary scenes for younger readers (but all ends well).
Other recommendations for ...
Gods and goddesses: The Olympians, graphic novel series by George O’Connor
Family read-aloud favorites: Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; Half Magic, by Edward Eager (1954); Swallow and Amazons (1946), by Arthur Ransome
Anthropomorphized characters for upper elementary/middle school: Return to the Wild: Seekers, by Erin Hunter (also her previous series, Warriors and Seekers); Redwall, by Brian Jacques
Magical world for upper elementary/middle school: Children of the Lamp, by Philip Kerr, Amulet (graphic novel series)
Questions to ask when series shopping
About the reader
1. How old is the reader?
2. Is your child a reluctant or voracious reader?
3. Is he reading at grade level, above or below?
4. Does she prefer lots of illustration and larger font?
5. Does he prefer realism or fantasy?
6. Like animal stories, animal worlds?
7. Like action or friendship stories?
8. Like humor or tension in stories?
About parents' tastes
1. Are you concerned about violence, sadness or ‘tone’ in stories?
2. How about the "snarky" factor? Some books aspire to our best selves – others have bought into the general cynicism of the day – most are somewhere in between.
3. Are you looking for a series you can read aloud?
4. Are you looking for cultural diversity in the main characters?
5. Do you want a hardcover or paper back?
Susan Welch is past co-owner of Hullabaloo Family Bookstore of West Seattle. She has remained passionate about children’s literature, mostly through her work with children’s book clubs at TOPS elementary school, which ran from 2006 – 2012 at various grade levels.