Starting Chapter Books: Worry-Busting Advice and 9 Top Picks

Lindsay, mother of six-year-old Addison, has questions about chapter books. What age should you start? How do you know if you're picking a good one? Here's what she wrote:

So speaking of chapter books, what age did you start chapter books with the kids? (I guess with multiple kids, the youngers earlier than the elder probably.) Also, do you already have a post about what chapter books you would start with? I feel like I'm ready to start something with Addison, but I'm not sure where to start since I'm so limited in my kidlit. "Harriet the Spy" was a favorite of mine in childhood, I remember, but is that still too old. Tips?

Thanks for asking, Lindsay! Here are my tips and answers to your questions.

When to start reading chapter books:

With you: Start reading chapter books aloud to your kids at whatever age you want. I honestly don't remember how old my oldest was when we started. You don't need to worry about starting them too early or too late, and you don't need to "save" the chapter books so that they can read them on their own later. There are so many great chapter books that you are not in danger of reading them all. I distinctly remember trying to read Charlotte's Web to him, and then deciding to wait another year or so, when it became apparent he wasn't into it.

Independently: Kids can start reading chapter books on their own once they can recognize a good amount of sight words, pick up clues from word context (not just picture context), and sound out some words. I know I'm not giving you specific numbers, but see the "5-finger test" below.

How do I know if this book is too advanced for my kid? 

With you: If you've been reading it aloud to your child, you can pause and ask your child a few questions like "What did you think of that? Do you understand what's happening here?" to gauge their interest and comprehension. A child doesn't need to get every joke in the book in order to appreciate it. You don't need to have 100% comprehension in order to get something out of a text. So if your child is interested, and basically understands what's happening I'd give the book a green light.

Independently: Try what teachers call the "5-finger test." Here's how to do it: The child reads a page of the book. Any time they don't know a word, or have to stop to sound it out, they put up a finger. If they use all five fingers on one page, the text is at "frustration level." The difficulty of the text will be getting in the way of the flow of reading, and the child won't be able to enjoy the experience. The kid should choose a different book. Of course this is just a rule of thumb. If a kid gets to four fingers and just doesn't seem that interested in the book, let it go. If the kid gets to five fingers but she's still very engaged, go for it.

Some chapter books to start with . . .
Here are some of my favorite chapter books to read to and with my kids. Mix in some favorites from your own childhood, for sure, because there's nothing like re-living a book through your child. It's so enjoyable.

Click cover images to see these books on Amazon. If you make a purchase through these links, I earn a small commission. Every one of these books is a series, so if your child likes the book, just hand 'em the next one!

Mercy Watson -- The many misadventures of a pet pig.

Princess in Black -- This pretty princess is actually a monster-fighting heroine.

Alvin Ho -- The hilarious life story of a boy who can't talk at school.

Mr. Putter and Tabby -- An old man and his cat pass the time.

Henry and Mudge -- A boy and his dog who are best friends.

Fly Guy -- Wacky adventures of a boy and his pet fly.

Clementine -- Friendship and life in the first grade.

My Father's Dragon -- A fantasy adventure and a classic

Geronimo Stilton -- A mouse who runs a newspaper

Check out some next level chapter books I recommend! 

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