You started with board books when your children were infants, and have graduated to longer picture books now that your child is older. If your child is three or four, it might be time to start a bedtime ritual of reading aloud a chapter book.
The best first chapter books to read aloud have broad appeal so the adult reader enjoys the experience just as much as the child listener, and maybe the other children in the family, too. They should also ideally have short chapters and feature an illustration every few pages. While every child is different, with varying literary tastes (some enjoy gentle, descriptive stories while others require fast-moving action to keep their attention), here are some of my family’s favorites.
Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
The gentle, classic tale of a sweet stuffed bear who bumbles through mild misadventures – getting stuck in a hole, using a balloon to steal honey from bees – and makes amusing observations with his loyal friends Piglet, Eeyore, and Rabbit by his side.
The Wild Robot – Peter Brown
A unique adventure story in which a robot washes up on a deserted island and must figure out how to survive and gain the trust of the wild creatures already living there, plus elude would-be human captors. Refreshingly, the robot is female. See also the newly-released sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes.
Mercy Watson series – Kate DiCamillo
Colorful illustrations highlight the offbeat, humorous hijinks of a pig and her human parents. Mercy Watson catches a burglar, drives a Cadillac, and wreaks havoc on a drive-in movie theater in pursuit of hot, buttery popcorn. The action-packed stories twist and turn, but Mercy always saves the day in the end. See also the delightful spin-off, Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln? about one of Mercy’s neighbors, an elderly woman who escapes her domineering sister’s control to take a spontaneous train journey.
My Father’s Dragon – Ruth Stiles Gannett
Published in 1948, this is a fantasy adventure tale in which a little boy courageously outsmarts a series of animals to rescue a baby dragon from a faraway island. Charming, gentle action is engaging without ever verging on scary – aggressive rhinos are distracted by the novelty of polishing their tusks with toothpaste, for example, to allow the protagonist’s escape.
Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary
Another classic from 1955, this tale of annoying little sisters holds up just as well today. Ramona delightfully torments her long-suffering, straitlaced older sister – throwing a party without informing her parents, ruining a library book, baking her doll in the oven, and locking a neighbor’s dog in the bathroom. Cleary flawlessly captures the spirit of childhood and manages to perfectly articulate what it feels like to be a kid in this and her many other books. See also the rest of the Ramona series, along with the Henry Huggins series and Socks, from a cat’s point of view.
Dory Fantasmagory – Abby Hanlon
A latter-day Ramona Quimby, Dory is a laugh-out-loud hilarious kid who spends a lot of time in a vivid and detailed imaginary world, being pursued by the evil Mrs. Gobblegracker. Dory does things that other people think are weird and annoying, but she is irrepressible, feisty, and authentic. Did I mention these books are hilarious?
Anna Hibiscus – Atinuke
Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa with her African mother, Canadian father, twin baby brothers, and large extended family. Poverty, class and economics in modern Africa are addressed, the love of family is celebrated, and Anna Hibiscus navigates her world with humor and wonder.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
A poor boy wins a behind-the-scenes tour of an infamous candy factory run by an eccentric recluse, and is plunged into a surreal world where he must navigate a series of strange scientific, technological, and interpersonal events. See also The BFG and James and the Giant Peach.
Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
Proceed with caution if your child is a tender soul, because – spoiler alert – the spider dies in the end. This gentle story of courage, loyalty, and friendship is a perennial classic, in which naïve, bumbling Wilbur the pig is saved from the brink of death by the careful scheming of a wise spider.
Magic Treehouse series – Mary Pope Osborne
Siblings Jack and Annie discover a magic treehouse in their backyard which can transport them to the past. There are dozens of these books that teach kids – and adult readers – some light history in an engaging and suspenseful way, as Jack and Annie travel are dropped into historical events and must complete missions given to them before time runs out. If your child is obsessed with something like dinosaurs, outer space, Japan, the Civil War, soccer, or volcanoes, you can bet there is a Magic Treehouse book about it.