Over the years, some of my perennially favorite, top-read posts
are my collections of 100-ish-pages-and under chapter books.
These mighty-slim books range widely in their difficulty, style, and content
making them appealing choices for a variety of readers —
those just advancing from leveled readers;
eager-beaver young readers ever looking for new material;
older readers in the mood for something short;
struggling readers who blanch at the site of a longer novel,
even someone looking for something small to tuck in a travel bag.
When I scour my library for these books
I tend to skip over the most popular, lengthy series of chapter books
which are quite easy to find. I figure you already know about them.
Instead I search for stand-alone entries, less-familiar series,
older titles that stand the test of time,
brand new series-openers you may not have heard about yet,
and unique titles that appeal to vastly different kinds of readers.
Today I’ve got about 50 titles
ranging from silly to serious.
The list ascends in order of difficulty as well as maturity of content
so if you’re looking for choices for more advanced or older readers
you might start your search from the bottom of the post.
See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog
written by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
published in 2020 by Candlewick Press
The humorous dialogue between this book’s narrator and its star — a nice dog — will tickle the funny bones of new young readers. From the outset the narrator announces what is supposedly happening on the page — getting it terribly wrong apparently — while our friend the dog continues to correct him in growing consternation.
Just when we get the whole cat business sorted out, the narrator starts talking about a bitey snake, and then in the final story, a squashy hippo! Root for the dog as he wrests control of the narrative in this delightful, award-winning comedy.
Easy-to-read series are easy to find at your library but stand-alone gems like this can be harder to stumble across. This one is definitely worth searching for. Ages 4 and up. A sequel, See the Dog: Three Stories About a Cat, is due out in September.
Fox & Rabbit, written by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Gergely Dudás
published in 2020 by Amulet Books
This book is adorable! I began smiling on page 1 and was smitten by the cuteness and charm in no time flat.
In five stories we pal around with two great friends, Fox and Rabbit, as they amble from one adventure to the next, attending a fabulous fair, cavorting at the beach, exploring Surprise Island, enduring a gardening calamity, and making a bundle with their fresh-squeezed-lemonade stand.
Through it all they navigate a mostly-awesome and only occasionally-peevish friendship, coming alongside, encouraging, emboldening one another in each new escapade. Snappy dialogue, delightful characters, splashes of humor, yummy snacks, and gallons of friendliness combine to make this a winner. On top of that, the illustration work — super-duper-vibrant, sunny as a summer’s day — makes every page like opening a happy present. Ages 4 and up. Books 2 and 3 are already out so you can grab some sequels.
Baloney and Friends, written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli
published in 2020 by Disney Hyperion
Baloney the pig is an energetic idea-guy, a pig with a lot of passion and emotions, and fortunately a pig with some great friends like Peanut D. Horse, Bizz E. Bee, and Krabbit, a fair grumpus of a rabbit.
This collection of stories and mini-comics introduces the whole crew to us and invites us along on some of their shenanigans. Baloney puts on a magic show that gets a little boring for some in the audience, learns to swim in the paddle pool, and figures out how to look on the bright side when he and Peanut are feeling blue. There are also some flashy video arcade games and a wacky Captain Skypork expedition — mini comics that jazz things up. Plus some convoluted hellos and goodbyes to round things out.
And that’s not all, folks! Because Mr. Pizzoli includes four (4!) step-by-step guides to drawing Baloney, Peanut, Bizz, and Krabbit, so your kids can start making their own comics! Jolly fun, a strictly limited word count, and Pizzoli’s masterful comic illustrations make this a treat for ages 4 and up!
A second volume was released in May, 2021 — Baloney and Friends: Going Up!
Donut Feed the Squirrels, by Mika Song
published in 2020 by RH Graphic
Two squirrels, Belly and Norma, are determined to get a doughnut from the food truck that has set up shop in their neighborhood, wafting out tantalizing aromas of something sweet, “like crispy sugar, oil, and a hint of linden flowers.”
But can two squirrels march up to the window, plunk down a stack of chestnuts for payment, and get one of those delicious treats? Nope. In fact, this only leads to quite a nasty reaction from the doughnut man. Thus more elaborate plans are required!
I love this merry romp full of conniving squirrels, gallons of doughnut batter, and raucous mayhem. It’s written in a graphic novel format sproinging with lively drawings making it an ace choice for early readers as well as anyone looking for a zesty, funny read.
Monkey & Robot, written and illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
published in 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Two friends and their small adventures together — a sure-fire recipe for young readers — are introduced in this book. Monkey is a bit of a worrywart and quite a muddlehead at times, while Robot is more of the straight man, more sensible and in-the-know.
In four silly, warmhearted episodes these two “watch” a monster move, play hide and seek, observe a cocoon, and play a board game. Copious humor and happy resolutions mean these work well for extra-young readers. They have about the same level of difficulty as a Frog and Toad story but are perhaps a mite longer and are definitely goofier. Graphite drawings occupy a lot of space on the pages. There are a couple of sequels. Ages 4-7.
The Beast in My Belly
written by Grzegorz Kasdepke, illustrated by Tomek Koztowski, translated by Agnes Monod-Gayraud
published originally in Poland; English edition 2015 by Enchanted Lion Books
This unique offering lands somewhere between a longer-than-usual picture book and a heavily-illustrated chapter book. That makes it quite a jolly change of pace from the glut of easy readers that share the same size, shape, and style.
A young girl is certain there’s a beast in her belly. It has the most disconcerting way of growling! Yet it goes silent when she tries to tell her family about it — especially after a slice of grandma’s cheesecake or a generous breakfast. How’s she going to get rid of it?
Entertaining, quirky, delivered in 15 extremely-teensy chapters with fabulous, off-kilter illustrations rabbiting about the pages, this has a similar level of difficulty to an advanced-beginning reader but with a much more sophisticated look. Ages 4 and up.
Mercy Watson to the Rescue + five more titles in the series
written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
published in 2005 by Candlewick
The Mercy Watson series hasn’t been on my under-100-pages listings earlier mainly because I figured it was so popular I needn’t add it. But it’s more than 15 years old now so just in case you don’t know Mercy — a plump, buttered-toast-loving pig — here you go!
Mercy and her family live on Deckawoo Drive. As the series moves along we meet a number of their neighbors including the elderly Lincoln sisters next door. In this first book of the series, Mercy feels afraid all alone in bed in the dark so she scrambles into bed with Mr. and Mrs. Watson. The three of them are happily dreaming when — creak!! splinter!! — the heavily-laden bed starts breaking through the floor! A fracas ensues involving the Lincoln sisters, one hungry pig, and the fire department, before all turns out well in the end.
Short snatches of text on each page, a mostly advanced-beginner vocabulary, plus colorful illustration work gleaming with retro pizzazz, all make this a supremely happy choice as an entry-level chapter book for ages 5-8.
The rest of the series proceeds thus: Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride follows Mercy, Mr. Watson, and Baby Lincoln from next door on a zippity-doo-da adventure in the Watsons’ keen pink convertible! Mercy Watson Fights Crime introduces a toaster-thief and a wild hullaballoo of a chase. Mercy Watson Princess in Disguise treats us to a Halloween night adventure. Mercy gets reported to animal control after she devours the Misses Lincoln’s new garden in Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig. As usual, a platter of buttered toast patches up wounded heads and feelings. The final book of the series, Something Wonky This Way Comes, ups the ante with buttered popcorn, an outdoor movie theater, and pure pandemonium, pulling all the folks we’ve already met into one grand scene of mayhem. In general the books don’t need to be read in order, but the first and last make the best sense in those positions.
This dynamite author-illustrator team has written another series of books featuring the same cast of characters but at a significantly higher reading level. Those appear further down the post today.
Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo
published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf
Hedgehog and Mutty are two dear friends who live by themselves on a tiny island in a river. One difficult night, a windstorm whisks Mutty up, up, and away and there is nothing for Hedgehog to do but bravely set out to find him.
It’s quite a journey, starting with a swim across the river to the great, unknown forest and a tumble down a hole in the ground where Hedgehog meets a kindly, hospitable Mole. As the expedition continues, more forest animals join the search-and-rescue party. In the end, we’ve met Owl, Beaver, Hen and Chicks, and a little girl named Annika Mae, fast friends planning more adventures together.
This is the first book in a promising new series that evokes the feel of classic children’s literature, created by one of my favorite children’s author/illustrators. The heavily-illustrated pages brim with charm and warmth and the story contains just the right mix of sweetness plus a dash of spicy danger. It would make a darling read-aloud for ages 4 and up, or a fine read-on-my-own for early elementary readers.
Jasper & Scruff: The Treasure Hunt, written and illustrated by Nicola Colton
originally published in the UK; first U.S. edition 2020 by Tiger Tales
92 heavily-illustrated pages
Oh how I love the wave of peppy, heavily-illustrated chapter books available these days, many of them coming to us from the UK. These are just the books I would have snapped up for my young readers, especially my reluctant reader who would have appreciated the low word-counts per page combined with a hefty size and sophisticated style.
This series stars two buddies: Jasper, a cat “who liked the finer things in life” and Scruff, the goggle-eyed dog you see on the cover simply wafting out enthusiasm and pandemonium. I am still awaiting the arrival of the first volume at my library, but was able to pick up the trail fairly easily in this second installment.
One day a stranger deposits a mysterious package in Jasper’s bookstore. It’s a tome about a famous pirate named Black Whiskers and inside is a treasure map with a clue to the whereabouts of the famed Golden Bone! In two shakes of a dog’s tail, these two are off on a wild and wooly treasure-seeking adventure! Jolly good fun for readers ready to transition away from early readers. Several sequels are already available.
Sydney and Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World
written by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Deborah Hocking
published in 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sydney the Skunk and Taylor the Hedgehog have decided to go on an expedition to Places Unknown! They’ve checked their map and made a plan to head out the garden gate, cross the footbridge, and explore the Great Meadow. It is dashed exciting, but not a little nerve-wracking. Also things feel a lot farther than they look on the map.
Also they forgot the food. Just when things are looking hungry and dim, an unexpected friend comes to their rescue. Phew!
This delightful story happily goes hand-in-hand with the most charming illustration work you could hope for. It’s the first of three Sydney and Taylor stories, with one due out in August and one to come next February. I predict these will be wildly popular with sturdy new readers ages 6 and up.
Kondo & Kezumi Visit Giant Island, written by David Goodner, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi
published in 2020 by Little, Brown and Company
Kondo and Kezumi are two pleasant creatures who live on a somewhat fantastical island. It has some familiar features like fruit trees and berry bushes, but is also home to flitter-birds and fluffer-bunnies. One day these two find a mysterious map in a bottle revealing islands galore just waiting to be explored in the seas around them! So, despite Kondo’s concerns, they set off on a voyage of discovery!
Two great friends, gallons of adventure, foul winds and fair sailing, all await sturdy young readers in this jolly series. They’re written a good step up from the Mr. Putter books and are a nice, satisfying length.
Bold, colorful illustrations bring panache to every well-designed page. There are already two more volumes available: K&K Reach Bell Bottom, and K&K Are Not Alone. Ages 5 and up.
A Bear Named Bjorn, written and illustrated by Delphine Perret, translated by Antony Shugaar
originally published in France 2015; English edition 2020 by Gecko Press
Bjorn and his forest friends star in this delectable book coming to us from France via the fab folks at Gecko Press.
In six pleasant episodes, Bjorn wins a sofa that’s just right for sharing with friends, hosts a dress-up carnival, enjoys an ordinary day filled with a satisfying lot of nothing-much, receives a present and has quite a time choosing one to give in return, gets fitted with glasses, and prepares for a comfy winter’s sleep.
Besides the nicely bite-sized stories, a luxuriantly ambling pace, charm, and genuine gladness, this book has a distinct graphic style to the pages and line drawings that feels, somehow, very European. And the pages are all lime-sherbet green! Cracking it open, one feels immediately whisked away to Someplace Else, an almost Emerald City effect.
Great choice for capable, young, independent readers or read it aloud to ages 4 and up.
Wolf and Dog
written by Sylvia Vanden Heede, illustrated by Marije Tolman, translated by Bill Nagelkerke
published in 2013 by Gecko Press
Here’s one for beginning readers who like a generous splash of Tabasco sauce in their stories!
Dog and Wolf are cousins, but Dog is a tame fellow who answers to a boss, while Wolf is a Wild Thing! He snarfs his food, pays no heed to a few fleas in his coat, and has a propensity to bite when riled.
Nine snappy stories full of zesty banter, wry humor, spicy interchanges, and sharp teeth introduce us to this mismatched duo. Unlike many chapter books at this level, these tales include a raucous heap of taunting, insults, lying, and double-crossing. In one episode, Dog has a flask of strong drink to bolster his courage for a daunting show-down.
Thus they will certainly not suit everybody but if you have a reader who is bored by “charming” or “cute” stories, especially an older beginning-level reader who may be working hard at age 10, 11 or older to conquer some reading challenges — perhaps something as audacious as this will fit their needs nicely. A fairly easy vocabulary, smart page-design, and jaunty, eccentric illustrations complete the package.
Safari Pug: The Dog who Walked on the Wild Side
written by Laura James, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans
published in the UK in 2017; first US edition 2018 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Pug and his owner, young Lady Miranda, have appeared on my blog several times in the past as they are enormously jolly chapter books that your leveled-reader graduates will surely enjoy.
In this episode, Lady Miranda gets the notion that Pug ought to meet a lion in order to demonstrate his fearlessness. Off they traipse to the Safari Park. There they happily encounter penguins, meerkats, and a darling little lion cub before things take quite a dicey turn! Pug and the lion cub are stolen by the villainous Arlene von Bling! Horrors! Pug proves his mettle tremendously in this lively adventure! Read it aloud to ages 4 and up. Hand it to kids ready for something longer than Mr. Putter stories. And look for several other Pug adventures already on the shelves.
Starla Jean: Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship?
written by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by A.N. Kang
published in 2021 by Roaring Brook Press
Starla Jean is a little girl who has one baby sister, several nice neighbors, and a whole lot of moxie. One day when she and her dad are at the park, Starla is surprised to see a chicken in the shrubbery! A skinny, ugly chicken that appears to be lost. Starla’s dad says — in that unthinking way distracted parents bumble into — that if she can catch it she can keep it.
Of course, Starla nabs that chicken and carts it home to the astonishment of her mother who thinks that chickens really do not belong in houses. By now, however, Starla has named the chicken Opal Egg and become quite attached to it.
Find out what transpires in this perky tale, the beginning of a new series. Charming illustrations depict a quaint, vaguely-European-looking town with zippy red squawks and bawks peppering the pages. The second volume is due out in September, 2021.
Digby O’Day, Up, Up, and Away, written by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
published in the UK in 2015; first US edition by Candlewick in 2016
Coming to us from the UK, the Digby O’Day adventures are always a jolly treat. They’re a collaboration between the one-and-only Shirley Hughes and her daughter. I’ve featured a couple of them in the past but want to draw your attention to them again.
In this volume, Digby, Percy, and a new parrot friend named Ariel head off to an exciting air show for the day. Ariel belongs to Digby’s snooty neighbor, Lou Ella, and he’s not at all happy living with her. When a peeved Lou Ella comes to the air show to haul Ariel back home, Ariel, Digby, and Percy all inadvertently make their escape in a hot air balloon. Wild adventures await them!
Charming, retro illustrations dominate the pages of these nicely stout books. A surprisingly ratcheted-up vocabulary makes them a good choice for capable young readers ages 6 and up. Extras include Q&A with Shirley and Clara, games to play while you’re stuck waiting somewhere, a spot-the-difference puzzler, and more.
Down Girl and Sit: Smarter Than Squirrels, written by Lucy Nolan, illustrated by Mike Reed
published in 2004 by Marshall Cavendish
If your reader is a dog lover who loves funny stories, the Down Girl and Sit books are made to order. In this series opener we meet two neighboring dogs who believe their names are Down Girl and Sit. You can imagine why.
Down Girl is our narrator and she is a dog not lacking in self-confidence, quite sure she knows better than her human, Rruff, about most matters in addition to being far smarter than birds, squirrels, and cats. Down Girl has a plan for saving Rruff from all manner of mischief by, for example, waking him up well before that scary alarm clock goes off, and eating up the entire bag of dog food in the shed so it doesn’t attract squirrels.
Mayhem, silliness, and plenty of tail-wagging are the ingredients in these four chapters. There are several further volumes starring these two. Happy and giggly for ages 6 and up.
The Dragon of Doom, written by Bruce Coville, illustrated by Katherine Coville
published in 2003 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Edward is a young lad from the village of Pigbone, a homey place to be sure but utterly devoid of excitement until the day Moongobble turns up along with his faithful toad, Urk. Moongobble used to be a shoemaker. In fact, he was a rather famous shoemaker who had been helped out of a jam by a couple of elves. This in turn got him interested in dabbling in magic himself, but he’s definitely not got the hang of it yet. In fact he is quite terrible at it.
Quick as you please, Edward has landed himself an ace job as Moongobble’s helper. Things turn dicey, though, when Fazwad the Mighty shows up to test Moongobble for official Magician status. When Moongobble’s spells fizzle, Fazward issues an ultimatum: Moongobble must fetch the Golden Acorns of Alcoona which are guarded by the Dragon of Doom! Failure means he will be banned from ever practicing magic again.
This lighthearted fantasy is the first in a series of five. It’s a lively tale with vocabulary that’s not too difficult and straightforward sentence structures, making it a great choice for newly-independent readers. Sequels — which I have not read — are The Weeping Werewolf, The Evil Elves, The Mischief Monster, and The Naughty Nork.
Here Comes Lolo, written and illustrated by Niki Daly
published in 2020 by Catalyst Press
Lolo lives in South Africa with her mom and grandma, whom she calls Gogo. She’s an affectionate, artistic, happy girl who warmly welcomes us into her world.
In four episodic chapters, Lolo seeks to win a gold star for reading, longs for a fashionable hat, finds a lost diamond ring, and helps rescue an abused dog. Though the setting is foreign to most of us, the plot lines are relatable for children from most cultures, and except for some unfamiliar names, the reading level is accessible for children just graduating from easy readers. It’s a pleasant, diverse choice and if you like it, two more volumes of Lola stories are available.
Wolf Pie, written by Brenda Seabrooke, illustrated by Liz Callen
published in 2010 by Clarion Books
Three pig brothers have collaborated on a sturdy house of bricks when along comes Wilfong Wolf threatening to huff and puff and blow it down! Obviously, though, this brick house can withstand Mr. Wolf’s efforts so he decides to stage a sort of siege, stationing himself at the door and waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
While he waits, however, a couple of things happen. First, Wilfong becomes quite enamored by the stories being read aloud inside, the songs sung around the piano, and the hot chocolate shared by the Pygg brothers on wintery days. And second, the Pyggs take pity on him when he begins to freeze in the harsh winter weather and reforms his pig-chomping ways. In four delightful chapters these new companions tiptoe towards friendship, take a trip to the seaside, and band together to trick an unruly, hungry pack of visiting wolves.
Clever, energetic, and friendly, with vibrant illustration work, this is not much more difficult than Frog and Toad but the text is a good bit longer. It would make a jolly read-aloud for ages 4 and up as well.
The Great Cheese Robbery, written and illustrated by Chris Mould
published in the UK in 2015; first U.S. edition 2018 by Aladdin
Miniature worlds are universally beloved. This story introduces a group of “pocket pirates,” wee adventurers whose home is a ship-in-a-bottle in an old musty, dusty junk shop.
Join tiny-but-daring young pirates Buttons and Lily, and older, slower-moving, loyal Uncle Noggin and Captain Crabsticks as they seek to foil the dastardly baseboard mice gang! It’s a tale packed with derring-do and peppered with close calls. Clever repurposing of ordinary objects will tickle readers’ fancies as the pirates use a celery stick as a battering ram or a music box mechanism as the motor for their keen elevator.
Illustrated with bold drawings throughout, it’s a winning caper for ages 5 and up. And ahoy, matey — three more Pocket Pirate adventures are available!
Teaflet and Roog Make a Mess, written by Jeanne Birdsall, illustrated by Jane Dyer
published in 2021 by Alfred A. Knopf
If your tastes run to charming tea parties, strawberry banquets, fuzzy hedgehogs, and woodland neighborhoods, this book has got you covered.
Teaflet and Roog are a brother and sister who live in a “higgledy-piggledy house” nestled in an enormous tree in the land of Trelfdom. Their neighbors and friends include baby raccoons, bluebirds, and plump hedgehogs. Roog loves to stir up sugary, buttery treats in his kitchen, while Teaflet has a knack for coming to the aid of small creatures in difficulty.
This makes for some wee snaggles between the two of them as for instance when a baby hedgehog decides to nap in the cake pan and winds up covered in chocolate cake batter. But mostly the two of them live amicably together. Just now, though, the tension has been ratcheted up. Roog is in the midst of a whirlwind of preparations for the 10th annual Strawberry Jam Party; Teaflet is currently housing a gaggle of stray and untidy animals; and wouldn’t you know it — persnickety Inspector Maple from the Department of Neatness chooses just that week for her dreadful inspection.
Can Teaflet and Roog juggle compassion, cookery, and Neatness Inspections and come out on top? Find out in this gentle, sweet-natured story. Illustrations created with darling felted wool figures and a copious helping of sugar and spice make this a winner for children who like their stories safe and cute. It’s got a good bit of text and a fairly challenging vocabulary. Ages 5 and up.
A Long Road on a Short Day
written by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustraed by Eugene Yelchin
published in 2020 by Clarion Books
Samuel’s mama is longing for a brown-eyed cow to provide milk for the new baby and perhaps a splash for a hot cup of tea as well, so Samuel and Papa set off to see what they can finagle. Starting with their best Barlow knife, they’re aiming to make a series of trades with their neighbors and wind up with a cow.
It’s winter and a storm is approaching meaning it’ll be a long road to walk on a short day. Cold, too. Yet farm after farm, neighbor after neighbor, Samuel keeps up with Papa, helping out one way and another along the journey. There are times — as when he plays a bit of snowball catch with Mr. Snow’s collie or when he stoops to cradle the soft head of a new kitten at the Perry farm — that Samuel wishes it wasn’t a brown-eyed cow his mama wanted so badly.
In the end, Samuel’s good heart, stout legs, and savvy bargaining help to yield two fine prizes. It’s a well-paced, well-told story with a distinctly traditional, old-fashioned vibe. Read it aloud to children as young as 4 or hand it to readers who have graduated from early readers.
Rats on the Roof and Other Stories, written and illustrated by James Marshall
published in 1991 by Dial Books for Young Readers; this edition 1997 by Puffin Books
James Marshall was one of the most talented children’s authors and has brought the gift of laughter to generations of kids. This quirky collection of tales fits his M.O. delightfully. If you’ve got a reader who specializes in silly, this is the ticket for them.
Seven, unrelated stories relate the ridiculous goings-on when Otis and Sophie Dog seek to send some noisy rats packing; when two foolish sheep wind up as guests of a sneaky wolf; when a wily cat gets his comeuppance after he smuggles his way into a mouse wedding in hopes of gobbling up the wedding party; and more.
Funny through and through, it makes a boisterous read-aloud for the kindergarten crowd or a jolly first chapter book. Marshall’s wicked sense of humor also makes this a fine choice for older reluctant readers and his droll, black-and-white illustrations add to the fun.
Willa the Wisp, written by Jonathan Auxier, illustrated by Olga Demidova
published in 2020 by Amulet Books
Auggie lives on a remote island, home to a host of weird, one-of-a-kind creatures. He has a special way with animals, a knack for caring that makes them all adore him, from the Long-Beaked Curmudgeon to the Yawning Abyss. That’s why he’s been named caretaker of the Fabled Stables.
One day the stables — kablam! — reconfigure themselves. A mysterious new stall appears for something called a Wisp. The stall strangely opens onto a moonlit swamp and from the darkness comes a plaintive howling! Despite his fears, Auggie knows it’s up to him to rescue this poor creature. Soon he finds the Wisp being pursued by some dastardly villains, which requires some quick thinking on Auggie’s part and some help from his island companions.
Heavily illustrated in vibrant color, this magical tale is the first in the Fabled Stables series. It makes a sparkling choice for young chapter book readers or could be read aloud to ages 4 and up.
The Whale, written by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Preston McDaniels
published in 2003 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Quite a few years ago I posted about the first book in this series — The Storm. I’m highlighting this second title because any quality series of eight books is a happy discovery for those of you with hungry bookhounds. These are gentle, kindhearted stories with a sea breeze of adventure that work especially well for young children who read at levels beyond their peers or for reading aloud to young listeners.
Pandora the cat, Seabold the dog, and Whistler, Lila and Tiny the mice, live in a lighthouse on a lonely island. These erstwhile lonely folk have found comforting companionship with one another after some dramatic rescues described in the first book.
Now it’s time to rescue another person — Sebastian, a baby beluga whale who has been separated from his mama. The islanders’ courage, kindness, and conscription of one cranky cormorant all help save the day. Sophisticated language and story-telling, plus soft, sepia-toned drawings, give this story a different tone than the more bouncy, high-octane chapter books on today’s list. Animal lovers and gentle souls will love them. Ages 4 and up. Here are all the titles in order:
Not For Sale and Blackberry Juice, written by Sara Cassidy, illustrated by Helen Flook
published in 2015 and 2016 by Orca Book Publishers
53 and 64 pages, respectively
Two warmhearted stories follow a move-to-the-country for 9-year-old Cyrus and his brother Rudy.
In Not For Sale, Cyrus is dismayed at the news that money woes mean his parents are selling the house he came to as a two-month old adoptee. Suddenly instead of little brother Rudy being the scaredy-cat, it’s Cyrus who’s having nightmares about leaving this familiar place. Not to worry, though. He’s got several surefire tricks up his sleeve to ensure the house never sells, including midnight forays on tiptoe to purloin as many For Sale signs as the realtor can put up!
Cyrus’ ruse does not work, however, and in Blackberry Juice we see the family settling into their slightly-scruffy seaside farmhouse, meeting a new, colorful neighbor named Rachel, and coping with all manner of Nature that gives Cyrus a definite run for his money.
Contemporary, humorous, warmhearted, these stories took me by surprise — the cover images did not wow me, but the stories did, especially the second volume. A few black-and-white illustrations break up the pages but it’s mainly text. Happy read-alouds for ages 5 and up and good choices for elementary-level readers. There’s a third installment out as well, Black Gold.
Too Small Tola, written by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu
published in 2021 by Candlewick
I am a complete fan-girl of Nigerian author Atinuke, creator of the Anna Hibiscus and No. 1 Car Spotter stories among other superb books for young readers. I am always chuffed to see a new title from her and this one is as yummy as fried plantains!
Tola is a little girl, short in stature, living with her older brother and sister and her utterly-in-charge Grandmommy in the tenements of Lagos, Nigeria. The steamy, noisy city leaps off the pages, acting almost like another character due to Atinuke’s vivid, authentic descriptions. I have never been to Nigeria, but my years living in Guinea-Conakry had enough parallels that reading this book easily whisked me back to the pungent markets, slimy gutters, squelching mud, and outsized female personas of that West African world.
In three chapters, Tola goes on an exhausting marketing run with Grandmommy and is rewarded deliciously; Tola and some neighbor-women stand up to a scoundrel boy at the water pump; and Tola and her brother team up to help their dear Muslim friend, a story that highlights the extraordinary talent of African tailors as well as Easter and Eid celebrations. I love this book! Top-notch diverse fiction to read aloud to ages 5 and up or hand to readers confident enough to manage some Nigerian names and expressions.
Cat Diaries: Secret Writings of the MEOW Society
written by Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey, and Laurie Myers illustrated by Erik Brooks
published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Co.
Cats of the world have been busy writing stories about their lives. Now they’ve gathered to read them aloud to one another. Eleven of their enormously-varied tales are presented here, some authored by those present, some penned by cats from bygone days including entries from Ancient Egypt and Blackbeard’s pirate ship. One is written by a Spanish cat and appears in dual-languages.
It’s a fun concept and the variety provides a nice energy. The advanced vocabulary and warmhearted, clever stories make this a good choice for young, precocious readers.
Gloria’s Way, written by Ann Cameron, illustrated by Lis Toft
published in 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The kids from The Stories Julian Tells are some of my favorite people and each of them stars in several books in Ann Cameron’s series. This one highlights Gloria, with Julian, Huey, dear Mr. Bates, and a new friend, Latisha playing large roles.
Each chapter presents a separate episode in the lives of these supremely ordinary, wonderful kids. Gloria rescues a valentine from a cranky parrot, helps train a squirrel-obsessed dog, battles with fractions, and navigates the ever-tricky waters among friends. Through all the mischief and mayhem, Julian’s dad, Mr. Bates, is always a source of wise counsel and friendly good cheer. The whole package is steeped in real human interactions, peppered with child-size problems and kindhearted, level-headed solutions.
It’s also a great example of a book with a small page count that’s not babyish, has more extensive text, and is only lightly illustrated. Read it aloud to ages 5 and up. Hand it to readers at about a 2nd grade level. I think it’s best to start with the The Stories Julian Tells to get a feel for this crew, but it’s not essential.
Harriet Tubman, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Gillian Flint
published in 2021 by Philomel
Harriet Tubman was perhaps my first hero as a child. I must have read and reread the old Scholastic biography of her a dozen times. Thus I welcomed the ambience of affection that permeates this new, lyrical biography of Harriet as we trace the arc of her life from birth into slavery, through a childhood marked by horrific cruelty, to her escape North and the incomprehensible courage she showed in ushering many, many others to freedom via the Underground Railroad. The book also briefly chronicles her life as a Union spy during the Civil War and other pursuits later in life.
This is the first of the She Persisted series of biographies I’ve had a chance to see and I am happy to heartily recommend it as well as surmise that the whole series will be a hit with many elementary-age kids. Emerging from the picture books created by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger, these under-100-page biographies promise to be better written and more attractively-packaged than many nonfiction series for children. For starters, I am happy to see that each one has been penned by a different, fabulous author, reducing the cookie-cutter style that is too often the case with series.
Here’s the list of women besides Harriet Tubman whose stories have either already been published in this series or are slated to hit the shelves in 2021: Claudette Colvin, Sally Ride, Virginia Apgar, Nellie Bly, Sonia Sotomayor, Florence Griffith Joyner, Ruby Bridges, Clara Lemlich, Margaret Chase Smith, Maria Tallchief, Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey. My girls, especially, would have eaten these up when they were ages 8-11.
26 Fairmount Avenue, written and illustrated by Tomie DePaola
published in 1999 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Tomie DePaola, one of our most beloved children’s author/illustrators, wrote a series of chapter books comprised of his childhood memoirs, a most unusual genre for an early chapter book!
This is the first volume and takes place when he is about 4 or 5 years old. His memories here revolve around the exciting time when his family was building a house at 26 Fairmount Avenue. The process of constructing the house is full of setbacks including a hurricane! Tomie’s and our anticipation builds until the day they can finally move into the new place, a house of their own.
Along the way we spend time with his beloved grandparents, find out why little Tomie was so peeved with Walt Disney’s Snow White movie, and watch him walk right out of kindergarten on Day One. Tomie’s voice in recollecting these small moments is that of a dear grandpa telling children what it was like “back in the old days,” but without any of the fustiness that might conjure. Love, curiosity, affection, and humor all grace these little vignettes. This is not for kids who need non-stop, Star Wars-level action, but it is a wonderful, unique set of books that can be read aloud or handed to sturdy young readers ages 6 and up.
The Cricket Winter, written by Felice Holman, illustrated by Robyn Thomas
published originally in 1967; this edition 2006 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
This book is a great example of what I’m hunting for when I compile these under-100-pages lists: a very short chapter book that stands on its own and appeals to a wide age-range of readers.
Simms Silvanus, age 9, is a bright, interesting person who sadly is mostly shushed and hushed by his inattentive parents. Meanwhile Cricket, who lives a lonely life beneath the floorboards of Simms’ room, has recently been jilted by his one true love. When Simms builds himself a working telegraph key and teaches himself Morse code, suddenly communication and companionship blossom between these two.
This friendship draws Simms into the drama and duress of a whole community of small creatures sheltering in his house and coping with a bullying rat threatening their lives. How can Simms help his undersized partners survive? Be aware that the rat comes to a Bad End, one deemed necessary for the survival of the others but shocking and sorrowful nonetheless for those who are gentlehearted. For those who can tolerate that portion of the action, it’s a splendid, thoughtful, warmhearted story that could be read aloud to ages 6 and up. The sophisticated style and vocabulary demand some moxie from independent readers.
The Lucky Stone, written by Lucille Clifton, illustrated by Dale Payson
originally published in 1979; reissued in 1986 by Yearling
Tee and her great-grandmother, Mrs. Elzie F. Pickens, love one another to the moon and back again. One of Tee’s favorite things is to sit with her great-gran and hear her tell stories about a small stone, shiny and black as night, and the way that stone has brought luck to each of its owners in a long sequence starting back in the days of slavery.
Mrs. Pickens’ tales crackle with down-home, storytellin’ speech patterns, thrum with a profound heartbeat of humanity, spotlight Black history and culture and this family’s particular history over the passing of decades, and culminate with Tee coming into possession of this precious stone. What luck will it bring her?
Lucille Clifton had the keenest ability to craft vibrant, authentic dialogue in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and warm, strong characters we wish were our own neighbors and friends. Her work came early in the canon of vibrant, African American children’s literature and is a treasure worth seeking out. Independent readers need to be comfortable with great-grandmother’s AAVE. Read it aloud to ages 7 and up.
Leroy Ninker Saddles Up, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
(+ five more books in the series)
published in 2014 by Candlewick
Leroy Ninker is a feller with a dream, a yippie-i-oh dream to be a cowboy. He’s got a hat, boots, and a lasso. He just needs to procure a horse. And there just happens to be an exceptionally cheap horse for sale! Name of Maybelline. Time for Leroy to take fate in his hands and wrestle it to the ground.
Kate DiCamillo infuses this humorous, warmhearted story with copious five-dollar words, imparting an unusual amount of flamboyant personality into her characters, human and animal alike. A generous splash of absurdity, matched by Van Dusen’s comical, exaggerated illustration work, means this will read like a dream to late-blooming readers who have a more developed sense of humor. But this splendiferous, spaghetti-lovin’ horse will surely also win the hearts of young readers ages 7 and up who are ready to tackle the zesty vocabulary.
It’s the first in a series of six Tales from Deckawoo Drive, the latest one having been published in June 2021.
Characters from the Mercy Watson series overlap with this one
but this set is quite a few steps up the ladder in difficulty.
Curiously for children’s literature, the protagonists in most of the Deckawoo stories are adults,
with children entering as side characters who provide sage advice
and clear-headed thinking. A brilliant switcheroo.
In Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, we meet Francine, a top-notch animal control officer, who meets her match when she encounters a shimmering, glowing raccoon screaming names from the rooftop like a crazed banshee. Happily, in the end Francine gets her gumption back.
Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln? sees Baby, the younger of two elderly sisters who live on Deckawoo Drive, escape the tyranny of her sister Eugenia by taking an utterly unpredictable train trip, meeting lovely new people doing marvelously irresponsible (according to Eugenia) things, tasting joy for the first time, and discovering herself.
Next up, Eugenia herself takes the starring role in Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package. Eugenia, who is as practical and unromantic as a pair of hip waders, has her world turned upside down when she receives, quite impertinently, an unexpected package containing something most surprising and — egads! –frivolous!
Books five and six in the series turn to the Endicott children, Stella and Frank, who have been so marvelously neighborly along the way. Stella’s story, Stella Endicott and the Anything-is-Possible Poem thrums with kindness and hope, pigs and poetry. Frank’s episode, Franklin Endicott and the Third Key contains ingredients like worry and mystery, keys and cocoa. All six clock in at under 100 pages.
The Case of the Missing Cheetah (Secret Spy Society Book 1)
written and illustrated by Veronica Mang
published in 2021 by Viking Books for Young Readers
There are two secret spy societies afoot in this brand new series of highly-illustrated chapter books. One is made up of three friends, Peggy, Rita, and Dot. On a dark and stormy night this trio pursues a figure through the streets who strikes them as peculiar. Suddenly they find themselves introduced and inducted into a second spy society, a club made up of some of the most famous female spies in history.
The three girls are quickly assigned a critical role in the search for Josephine Baker’s missing cheetah. Secret passageways, Girl Scout cookies, Morse code, lock-picking, and a dastardly villain are all part of the deal when you are a spy!
Advanced vocabulary but completely G-rated threat levels make this a happy choice for young independent readers. Biographical sketches of two famous female secret agents are included as well as mini-intros to the rest of the famous cast and a brief presentation of Morse Code. The second volume is due out in November, 2021. Jazzy stuff!
The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, written by Sarah Ellis, illustrations by Bruno St.-Aubin
originally published in 2003; this edition 2012 by Groundwood Books
Jack has lived his entire 12 years in the grim Opportunities School for Orphans and Foundlings. He’s a reader, a dreamer, and a word connoisseur. So when he’s apprenticed to a bookkeeper, the sheer boredom of totting up numbers and the rascally way those numbers have of dancing their way into befuddled sums drives Jack to seize his chance and run away.
So begins Jack’s life of possibilities and freedom. Along his meandering journey he encounters joys and wonders, a few blisters, and a marvelous array of good hearted folks. He also tries out assorted lines of work before settling on something quite novel, perfectly suited to a quick-thinking, clever-tongued, full-of-ideas fellow like Jack.
Set in a vaguely 18th-century world of English villages and country fairs, this lively, witty tale bursts with the deliciousness of words and would make an excellent read-aloud for ages 7 and up. Independent readers will encounter challenging, zesty vocabulary.
The Real Thief, written and illustrated by William Steig
published in 1973 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Gawain the goose is the Chief Guard at the Royal Treasury which houses King Basil’s massive store of gold, jewels, medallions, sundry crowns, and all that important kingly stuff. When first rubies, then gold and silver, and finally — jeepers creepers! — the king’s world-famous diamond goes missing, the steadfast and loyal Gawain is arrested, put on trial, and found guilty.
Before he can be hauled to the dungeon, however, Gawain bolts. He flies off to try to solve the crime himself. Will the real culprit be found and Gawain’s reputation salvaged?
William Steig was a phenomenal children’s author who never talked down to his readers. Here, an unusually challenging vocabulary and style, plus fairly small print, demand sturdy readers with sophisticated taste and an ear for wry humor. For those kids, this slim book is a hidden gem! Suggest for ages 9 and up.
The Blind Colt, written and illustrated by Glen Rounds
originally published in 1941; 80th Anniversary edition 2021 by Holiday House
This is the true-to-life story of a wild mustang colt, as beautiful and smart as they come, who was born blind, and a 10-year-old cowboy named Whitey who loves that colt through and through and longs to bring him into the stable for his very own.
Richly descriptive of the buttes and water holes of the Montana badlands, the creatures great and small that survive there, and this particular band of wild mustangs and their fascinating behaviors, this story follows the colt’s life presenting an unvarnished account of the sometimes harsh ways of nature along the way. It’s a bit reminiscent of Ernest Thompson Seton’s work in that respect. Glen Rounds lived on a ranch and wrote as only one who has ridden the range morning and evening could, with the heartbeat of those who know and love horses. He uses a sophisticated vocabulary, employs a leisurely pace, and illustrates it with small pen-and-ink sketches.
Clearly this is a selection that will captivate some readers and just not work for others. I recommend it to strong readers, especially horse-lovers and Western-fans, ages 9 and up.
Mary Anning’s Curiosity, written by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon
published in 2017 by Groundwood Books
104 pages + backmatter
Mary Anning was born in 1799 in the small village of Lyme Regis on England’s southern coast. From the time she was just a little girl she thrilled over the fossils found in the sea cliffs by her father and cajoled her way into joining him on his treacherous fossil hunts, much to her mother’s dismay.
As she grew older, Mary made many major fossil discoveries. This book is a fictionalized narrative of her early life building up to her first major discovery of a 30-foot-long ichthyosaur at the age of 12! It’s an intriguing, well-told account that employs a sophisticated style and challenging vocabulary. There are several aspects of this book’s really beautiful production that also bump it up to a level for more advanced readers — the prologue is written in an italic font which might confound new readers, and while the trim size is small, the text does fill the pages with only an occasional illustration. A lengthy set of Author’s Notes provide more information on Mary Anning, fossils, the Jurassic Coast and other elements of Mary’s life story.
This interesting biographical novel could certainly be read aloud to young children. For capable, independent readers I suggest those who gravitate towards nonfiction, or kids with an interest in rocks, fossils, archaeology, and generally digging up treasure. Ages 8 and up.
Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo, written by Oliver Scherz, translated by Deirdre McMahon
first published in Germany 2015; English edition 2020 by Dedalus
11-year-old Carlo lives in Germany with his mom. His parents separated five months ago and his dad has returned to his native Palermo, Italy. Five months feels like forever to Carlo. He is tired of waiting for his mom to agree to visit his dad, tired of waiting for his dad to come visit him, tired of the run-around he gets from both of them when he brings up the subject.
So he concocts his own elaborate plan to undertake this journey, quite on his own, telling no one. The plan begins to unravel from the get-go and increasingly spins out of control the farther he goes. Unexpectedly high ticket prices, the unforeseen number of hours required to reach his destination, suspicious adults who won’t believe he’s old enough to travel solo, all throw copious monkey wrenches into his itinerary. Carlo, as nice a boy as one could hope for, ends up stowing away, dodging guards, racing through mammoth train stations, missing said trains, being conned, and losing his money and belongings.
Thankfully he also meets all sorts of folks along the way including a few with very good hearts, and by luck and sheer determination he completes his trek, arriving to greet his flabbergasted, funny, bombastic, affectionate, (and yes, irresponsible) Italian papa.
Beyond all the ruckus and misadventure, this is a story of a boy’s fierce love and longing for his dad. Hand it to kids looking for something a bit different than the typical American plotline for middle graders. Ages 9 and up.
Annie Lumsden, the Girl from the Sea, written by David Almond, illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
published in 2021 by Candlewick Press
Annie Lumsden is 13 years old and lives with her mother in a “wooden, white, and salty” shack just above the tide line on a rocky beach in the north of England. Annie introduces herself to us at the outset of her tale with a depiction awash with tantalizing seaside metaphors. She has “hair that drifts like seaweed” when she swims and “eyes that shine like rock pools.” She won me over in a heartbeat.
Annie and her artistic mother share a dear, intimate relationship, one that shelters Annie from the bruising outside world where her uniquenesses lead to mocking and closed doors. For Annie is an unusual gal for whom traditional classrooms are merely a blur of incomprehensible nonsense, and whose body responds to stresses with inconvenient, alarming collapses, spells during which Annie drifts into watery realms removed from the waking world.
Doctors and teachers try to help, to diagnose, to recommend, but Annie remains a wonderful mystery, a mystery that her mother embraces with a love as vast as the ocean. A mystery her mother spins into a fantastical sea tale. A sea tale that gives Annie a shimmering perspective on just how magical a girl she is.
Told in mesmerizing, elegant language, illustrated with enormously heart-ful, homely warmth, this quiet, poignant story will best serve older readers who are aware of the brokenness of the world, of themselves, and the fierce kind of love that welcomes all the fragmented pieces. Suggested for ages 10 and up.
The Hollow Under the Tree, written by Cary Fagan
published in 2018 by Groundwood Books
Set in 1925 Toronto, here are the main characters in this tale:
Sadie Menkin, bold, young daughter of a famed pie-maker.
Theodore Kendrick, Jr., lonely young heir of the Kendrick Oatmeal Porridge fortune.
One immense, wooded, city park.
One young lion on the lam after an accident involving its circus train.
The story of how all these parties meet and forge a thrilling, unlikely friendship is a little bit quaint, a little bit quirky, a whole lot surprising, and at times a little bit shocking in a few moments of cruelty to the lion, plus the “disappearance” of several pet dogs in the vicinity of that hungry young lion.
For animal lovers, precocious young readers, or readers looking for something short and quite unusual, strap on your seatbelts and give this adventure a whirl. It could be read aloud to ages 6 and up. Unillustrated, but what a cover!
Sleeping with the Light On, written by David Unger, illustrated by Carlos Vélez Aguilera
published in 2020 by Groundwood Books
Davico, age about 6, lives with his family above their restaurant in Guatemala City. His life moves along in familiar patterns — watching lobsters swimming in the big tank in the kitchen, going on outings with his beloved nanny Consuela, coping with Augusto, the ornery cook.
Until one day when the soldiers swarm in and the shooting begins, and sheltering under the big wooden table becomes a new pattern. Danger increases; life shrinks; the adults are tense, fearful, whispering; his older brother Felipe becomes more short-tempered, mean, miserable.
Could things get worse? Yes, and they do when his parents fly off to America, a far-off place with a perplexing language. Davico and Felipe are sent to live with solemn Uncle Aaron and grumpy Aunt Lonia while their parents search for jobs and housing. Finally the boys are given plane tickets to meet their parents in Miami, Florida. It’s a surreal experience, a happy reunion, and a strange new homeland. Gradually Americanisms creep into Davico’s new normal. There are good things here, yet so much hard, so much to miss.
Coursing with raw emotions — anger, upheaval, fear, sorrow, displacement, and bittersweet longing for the Guatemala of better times — this book is a powerful, honest, authentic look at a child-refugee’s experience. It is a tremendous help for developing empathy and understanding. A brief Author’s Note tells a bit about the invasion of 1954 that precipitated a 40-year civil war and the author’s departure with his family from Guatemala. Although Davico is only 6, the portrait of his wartime existence is filled with pain to the point that I would recommend this book for somewhat older readers, perhaps ages 9 and up.
Locomotion, written by Jacqueline Woodson
published originally in 2003; this edition 2010 by Puffin Books
11 year-old Lonnie, aka Locomotion, authors the poems that comprise this powerful novel-in-verse. He’s been guided into this form of writing by his beloved teacher, Ms. Marcus.
As we journey through his poetry, we discover a sweet, wounded boy, hungry for love. His parents died four years earlier in a fire. His younger sister has been adopted, while he has bounced around from house to house to group home, until he has finally landed with Miss Edna.
Lonnie’s poignant, tender, and at times witty poems explore many thoughts and emotions, preeminently his grief over his losses. He misses his parents and sister something fierce. There are also pieces commenting on race, God, hidden wounds, friendship, the writing process, and home. Though the story takes place over just one school year, Lonnie experiences marked growth and a measure of healing. The final poem is one in which the sun is shining both literally and figuratively. A revelatory text offering a piercing degree of understanding, it’s a great choice for older reluctant readers or those looking for a short, thought-provoking read. Ages 10 and up.
I do hope you find some goodies that suit your readers swimmingly!
Don’t forget the links at the top of the post to my other lists of under-100 page books.
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