What are early chapter books?
Early chapter books are simple, short, illustrated fiction. They are written and designed to help newly independent readers:
- build their reading stamina and mileage
- strengthen their confidence in book selection
- develop a sense of themselves as readers.
Early chapter books foster reading enthusiasm and momentum with stories that capture student interests. Features of early chapter books include:
- length of about 30–60 pages
- word count from 1,000–10,000 words — for example, 'Aussie Nibbles' have about 1,000 words, 'Aussie Bites' about 5,000 words, and 'Aussie Chomps' about 10,000 words
- easier vocabulary, word repetition, shorter sentences of about 5–10 words
- sympathetic line breaks, and sentences that finish at the end of the page
- plenty of white space between lines, paragraphs and chapters
- larger, varied and informal fonts
- supportive illustrations, sketches or cartoons breaking up the text.
Another key feature of early chapter books is the publishing trend for series built around either a specific character or around a particular genre, format or reading level. Series are marketed to readers through clearly identifiable branding by logo, colour, font or design. Being able to easily find another book in a series is a huge support for novice readers as they choose independently what to read next.
Other names for early chapter books
Publishers and libraries have various terms to differentiate early chapter books from regular children’s fiction. Some terms emphasise the beginner reader aspects, for example:
- young fiction
- first steps
- beginner books
- junior fiction.
Other terms are more general aiming to avoid potentially embarrassing older students reading at this level, for example:
- quick reads
- fast fiction
- just-right books
- quick picks.
Whatever you choose to call them in your library, the most crucial aspect is the marketing, promotion and messages teachers and librarians give about reading these books. The aim is to make them seem like the 'right books' for students who need them, with no stigma attached.
What early chapter books are about
Early chapter books need to be entertaining and easy to read (at about 95% accuracy or higher) to fulfil the brief of 'reading for pleasure' for novice readers. Most stories are predictable and uncomplicated. They tend to have a linear plot, which grabs the reader's interest immediately and a central character they can admire or relate to. These stories carry the hopeful assurance that life will turn out all right in the end.
Some regular themes include:
- child as hero/heroine in ordinary or extraordinary situations
- animals (real or imaginary) as pets that provide friendship and a way of understanding others' feelings and attitudes
- families in their daily life dealing realistically, and often wisely, with confronting issues and relationships
- humorous disasters full of slapstick humour, exaggeration and surprise
- scatological adventures that feature 'naughty' references to bodily functions for humorous effect
- problems reflecting emotional and physical ups and downs, dealing with feelings and fears and testing times for friendships
- fantasy heroes, quests and imaginary worlds that allow readers to escape the ordinary and explore worlds of fairies, dragons and superheroes
- school stories that are often subversive and empower students or illustrate strategies for learning to get along in social situations.
Who are early chapter books for
Many children who have learned to read are just beginning to experience the 'joy of reading' on their own. Beginning readers who want to read independently often look for books that reflect the developmental needs of their age.
It's an adventurous age where children are keen to do things on their own and are starting to understand and accept others' viewpoints. They feel more grown-up and want the books they read to reflect this. They don't want life or stories to be too complicated, but they do like to push the boundaries.
|Characteristics of transitional readers
||Text support offered by early chapter books
|Short concentration spans
||Action starts straight away and finishes 2 or 3 pages later. Plot is often linear.
|Decoding and comprehension still requires lots of effort
||Vocabulary is limited, uses high-frequency words. Places difficult words in context and uses strong picture clues
|Visual appeal and props important
||Uses cartoons, speech bubbles, quirky characters.
|Simple and familiar characters and settings important
||Uses stereotypical or formulaic characters and minimal uncomplicated settings.
|Milestones are important as they develop in confidence
||Sentences progress through the story, from simple short sentences to more complex sentences and paragraphs with more description. Short, manageable chapters provide students with a sense of achievement when finished.
Know your early chapter books
It's vital that you know the different authors, titles and series, 'read-alikes' and next steps, series strengths and weaknesses. It enables you to recommend the right book for the right reader at the right time. And, there's no substitute for teachers and librarians having read the books themselves.
Unless a school is staffed by people who enjoy books and enjoy talking to children about what they read then it is unlikely that they will be very successful in helping children to become readers.
— Aidan Chambers, 'Introducing Books to Children'
To familiarise yourself with the literature, you could:
- challenge yourself, and other staff, to read a certain number of books before a deadline, such as over the holidays or before the end of term
- ask for recommendations from students and read those
- keep track of what you have read and share it with others.
Though series fiction can be rather formulaic, it's good to know a few well enough to talk to students about them. Then you can read and highlight titles in a particular genre or from authors writing for this age group like Kate Di Camillo, Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Donovan Bixley, Kes Gray, Jenny Valentine.
Use our Books and Reads tool to explore, find, and share children’s and young adult (YA) books and reviews.
Give young readers plenty of choices
Young readers need plenty of books to read, with a wide variety of reading options including:
- trying out new authors
- taking a 'risk' on unfamiliar titles
- stretching themselves with more challenging reads as well as motoring through easier reads.
Young readers may borrow most of their fiction from the early chapter book section. However, they'll probably also want to keep borrowing and reading other resources such as picture books, sophisticated picture books, graphic novels and non-fiction. Library borrowing limits need to be generous and forgiving.
Early chapter books in school libraries
Strengthen and enlarge the collection
There are plenty of choices and series for this age group. Consult students, staff, reading specialists and suppliers.
Review your early chapter book collection. First, look to the quantity and proportion of early chapter books in your overall fiction collection. It helps to know the range of students reading for pleasure at this level. Is your collection of early chapter books big enough? Other aspects to consider include:
- Do you have the very first chapter books for your able, year 1 students stepping up from picture books, e.g. series such as Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie books?
- Do you have enough of the most popular series for middle primary school, e.g. 'Geronimo', 'Zac Power', 'Magic Tree House', 'Rainbow Magic', 'Captain Underpants'?
- Do you have enough of the high-interest / low reading-age material, which won’t look juvenile for your older struggling readers, e.g. 'Beast Quest', Gary Paulsen’s 'World of Adventure'?
- Are you catering for the boy-appeal/girl-appeal preferences?
- What about graphics, such as 'Baby Mouse', 'Lunch Lady', 'Nancy Drew'?
- Do you have a range of genres — animal books, detective/mystery books, scary books, funny books, NZ authors and illustrators?
Selecting and purchasing resources
Displaying early chapter books in the library
Create a separate section
Having a section for early chapter books separate from the main fiction collection will help young readers find the transition from picture books to fiction much less daunting. It helps them find something appealing to read at the right reading level and is a reassuring stepping stone into the fiction area.
Signs and labels
Decide on your preferred name for this section and these types of books, based on what will work best for your students.
- Decide about labelling individual books. If the books are going to be arranged by series, they won't need traditional author spine labels. But, you'll need some way to differentiate the early chapter books from the fiction. Perhaps use a coloured spot or some other motif on the spine?
- Create labels for the series bins/boxes. Harness the series branding to make a strong visual impact and draw attention to each series. Laminate the labels and affix with Velcro dots so you can rearrange them as suits.
- Create signs with suggestions to help students find 'just-right' books, e.g. 'not too easy, not too hard'.
Arrange books by series
Arranging the books by series rather than by author is another way to help book selection and encourage reading mileage. Once students know they can manage a particular series, they can go ahead and read more of the same, adding valuable mileage.
Consider grouping the more junior series separate from the more substantial series.
Place 'like next to like'. For example, group all the fairy, mermaid and princess books together, so if one series is all issued, another possibility is nearby.
Another strategy is to put the most popular series on the bottom shelf as students will go there anyway to find them. This allows you to give other series a higher profile location.
Use specialty shelves
Use specialty 'bin' shelving or create boxes or baskets for shelving the books by series with as much face-out display as possible.
If you're interested in changing your shelving and would like information and suggestions of schools in your area to visit to get ideas, contact Services to Schools' Capability Building Service.
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