Read Together

15 Essential Chapter Books for Elementary School Kids

These new and classic chapter books invite your young ones into complex worlds that they can understand.

Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images
The Back To School Issue 2023

There is a special joy a parent gets when watching their child fall in love with a book, but whether you’re browsing your local library, walking through your favorite bookstore, or scrolling through a seemingly-endless list of titles online, helping your child find the perfect read can be a daunting task.

But it’s an important one, especially when children are transitioning from picture books to chapter books. With most reaching at least a hundred pages, the right chapter book can not only entertain, but also build up a young reader’s reading endurance — and even their patience. Just as adults are drawn to watching “just one more episode” of their favorite binge-watchable television series, the right chapter book, especially ones with cliffhangers at the ends of chapters, can have your child begging to stay up late to read “just one more chapter.”

And wouldn’t it be great if that book was one that you and your child could enjoy reading together? Whether it’s a graphic novel, a light and silly read, a fantasy with larger-than-life characters and situations, or a story firmly grounded in reality, the right chapter book will have parents just as hooked as their children, creating the perfect bonding experience, especially as kids head back to school.

It may be tempting to suggest an “old reliable” book to your kid. After all, they’re reliable for a reason. But while there is a long list of children’s tales that are still beloved by many — from true classics like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to comparatively newer titles, such as the works of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda) and Louis Sacher’s Sideways Stories From Wayside School — new books are released each year that seem poised to become classics in their own right, captivating and sparking the imagination of today’s kids.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the quantity of books currently on the market, have no idea what kids are reading these days, or are just looking to introduce your child — and yourself — to something new, Fatherly has curated a list of 15 chapter books that were released within the last 10 years, broken down into different age ranges and across different genres, that will become treasured favorites once added to your child’s home library.

Lower Elementary Reads

Eerie Elementary: The School Is Alive! by Jack Chabert

Most kids have stepped foot in an elementary school, but how many have spent time in one constantly being threatened by ghosts? Hopefully not too many, but young readers will get a kick out of the Eerie Elementary series, where nearly everyone is in danger at school all the time, and it’s up to a small group of kids to save them through clever problem-solving. While The School Is Alive! is written in an age-appropriate way, it may be a little scary for kids who are prone to being fearful. You know your children best, but most early readers will enjoy having a few mild frights.

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa

This charming story of two unlikely pen pals, a giraffe and penguin, is a great way for children to learn that animals — or, even better yet, people — who look different and come from different parts of the world can still find a lot that they have in common. The narrative unfolds not only through narration and illustrations, but also the correspondence between the animals, making for a fun reading experience. At just over a hundred pages and fewer than 10 chapters, Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is an excellent book for elementary school-aged children and beginning readers looking to build their endurance. Also, don’t miss Megumi Iwasa’s follow-up, Dear Professor Whale, another story of two animals who develop a close long distance friendship.

Sofia Martinez: My Family Adventure by Jacqueline Jules

Jacqueline Jules’ expansive Sofia Martinez series offers excellent reads for all early elementary school-aged kids, but they will especially be embraced by those within the Latinx community. My Family Adventure, the first book in the lineup, centers on Sofia, a 7-year-old with two older sisters, who is eager to stand out and do things her way. Young children will enjoy reading about a character who is among the youngest in her family and who gets in all sorts of fun situations. Sofia’s immediate and extended family dynamics are quite beautiful to see play out, and the series also wonderfully includes common Spanish words and phrases into the narrative for authenticity, with a glossary provided to non-Spanish speakers.

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

The creator of Captain Underpants returns with a graphic novel book series centered on Dog Man, who, as the name suggests, is part dog, part man, and all hero! He’s also the faithful companion of a not-too-bright police officer, whom Dog Man helps solve problems in creative ways. Like Dav Pilkey’s other works, readers can expect broad humor and story elements that will elicit genuine laughs from your children. This is a great story about loyalty, friendship, and the importance of outside-the-box thinking. While kids may be interested in skipping the author’s note, it’s worth taking a moment to read it with your child, as Pilkey explains how his early struggles with dyslexia ultimately lead to his career as a writer. It’s an inspiring bit of personal history that should remind kids that challenges do not have to be permanent barriers to success.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

It’s understandable why some kids may not enjoy reading period pieces, but it’s hard to imagine any child not being immediately gripped by author and illustrator Brian Selznick’s beautifully and creatively told story of Hugo Cabret, a young orphan in 1930s Paris who has inherited his family’s interest and skill in all things mechanical. Selznick’s superpower is moving the story forward, and deepening our understanding of the characters through his illustrations. Sections of the book are told without words, just as portions of a motion picture might be played out without dialogue, making this an accessible book for readers for lower-level and/or younger readers, while still being a stylistically-interesting read that will appeal to older kids and more seasoned readers as well.

Dragon Masters: Rise of the Earth Dragon by Tracey West

This fantasy-adventure story is perfect for kids with vivid imaginations, love fantasy, and are often swept away by films like How to Train Your Dragon. While there are plenty of age-appropriate battle sequences, Rise of the Earth Dragon’s greatest strength lies in how the book subtly teaches kids about how to communicate effectively with others and draw on the strength of your friends. Tracey West’s Dragon Masters series is a great entry point for kids who are just starting to explore chapter books, as the vocabulary and storytelling won’t pose too much of a challenge for most early readers.

Upper Elementary/Lower Middle School Reads

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

A gripping, first-person narrative told through the perspective of Ivan, a gorilla that has been held captive for 27 years. Ivan is blissfully unaware of his figurative shackles until he meets and befriends Ruby, a baby elephant recently taken from the wild who changes his world view. It’s easy for young readers to fall in love with the vivid, albeit contained, world that Ivan paints, and adults will enjoy the clear literary kinship between Applegate’s novel and classics like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Kids who have trouble parting with the characters they love will enjoy learning that The One and Only Ivan is the first book in a series, and has been recently adapted into a film currently streaming on Disney Plus. This beautiful tale of friendship and possibilities is perfect for kids in upper elementary and early middle school grades.

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles

Summer reading can often feel like a chore, but Lamar Giles’s The Last Last-Day-of-Summer is just the book parents need to get their kids away from the screen and into a book. This quirky sci-fi adventure follows Otto and Sheed, two young Black male cousins, who are working to solve a mystery while traveling through time. The first in the Legendary Alston Boys series, this book’s exciting and funny time-bending narrative makes it the right read for kids — and parents — who enjoy Phineas and Ferb. Children without siblings, and/or kids who have strong bonds with their cousins, will also enjoy seeing Otto and Sheeds’ brotherly relationship unfold.

Space Taxi: Archie Takes Flight by Wendy Mass and Michael Brawer

Archie Morningstar is an 8-year-old boy with a talking cat who stays up past his bedtime to fight crime around the cosmos. We bet you’re intrigued, and your kids will be too! This debut in the Space Taxi series kicks off on “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” when our young hero learns that his dad drives aliens around in a taxi throughout outer space in the twilight hours. This fast paced sci-fi adventure story is filled with humor and, as you might expect from a story centered among the stars, a fair amount of educational information sprinkled throughout. This is a zippy and exciting read for second- through fourth-graders.

Dog Diaries: A Middle School Story by James Patterson

Readers who have enjoyed following the adventures of Rafe, the main character in James Patterson’s best selling Middle School series, will get a real kick out of becoming better acquainted with Junior, Rafe’s faithful canine companion. This spinoff is told through Junior’s perspective, providing a new way to see a well-established literary world. Parents should be warned that there is some animal potty humor — after all, dogs will be dogs, and as all pet owners know, butt sniffs and peeing in the house comes with the territory — but this is a fun, and often silly, story of friendship and loyalty, proving that dog’s really are humans’ best friends.

My Pet Slime by Courtney Sheinmel

Representation matters in all forms, and My Pet Slime is a fun read for all kids in upper elementary grades — but especially for those who have allergies. The first book in Courtney Sheinmel’s series centers on Piper, a young girl who wishes she could have a pet. The problem, unfortunately, is that she’s allergic to just about everything. However, thanks to a little literary magic, she ends up becoming the owner of a pet out of slime that has come to life. With bright, colorful illustrations and a wonderful premise, My Pet Slime will resonate with your kids, and even teach them a thing or two about caring for a pet in the process.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

This fast-paced and funny graphic adventure novel is a great fit for kids in upper elementary school grades. The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is the first in a series centering on Hilo, a seemingly normal kid who is anything but normal — and anything but what he seems to be. The vividly and boldly illustrated book captures larger-than-life moments, like Hilo, who heralds from outer space, battling large robots, with all the excitement they deserve. With a visual and narrative style that seems ready to adapt for an animated show on Nickelodeon, the stories of Hilo and his diverse and well-rounded group of friends will capture the attention of even the most reluctant of readers.

Middle School Reads

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Even though your middle schoolers might feel too old for fairy tales, they will love The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainini’s fresh take on the stories your children grew up loving. Like most fantasy stories, and most fairy tales, there is quite a bit of peril, violence, and some mild romance. It’s always fun when readers think they can predict what is going to happen next in a story, only to find out that their expectations have been used against them, and The School for Good and Evil delivers on that front in spades.

Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Some parents may find it difficult to discuss race with their children, but Sharon M. Draper’s Blended does an excellent job of introducing what could be challenging topics in a compelling narrative. The story centers on Isabella, an 11-year-old biracial girl who feels caught between her divorcing parents. Throughout Blended, Isabella encounters several microaggressions — intentional and/or unintentional insults about her race and gender — that end up having an impact on her self-esteem and shifting the way she sees the world. As it’s common for children in upper elementary and middle school grades to feel out of place, Blended provides a mirror for some kids to see themselves in an ultimately uplifting piece of realistic fiction. Parents should be advised that there are some mature themes, like a shooting and police brutality, but everything is presented in an age-appropriate way that will keep your kids glued to the book to find out what happens next.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

If your middle schooler has fallen out of love with reading, or is itching for books that feel less kiddie books, then Ghost, the first in Jason Reynolds’ four-part Track series may be perfect for them. It’s a gripping coming-of-age story of Castle Cranshaw, nicknamed “Ghost,” who seems destined to be the star of his middle school track team, if only he could outrun his trauma brought about by a toxic and abusive parent first. While Ghost is somewhat mature in its themes, and — mild spoiler alert! — its unresolved ending will frustrate some, it’s a page-turning story of friendship and overcoming, or perhaps, outrunning, one’s obstacles.