The other night as we were starting our bedtime routine, my soon-to-be 4-year-old surprised me. Instead of picking out the same picture books that have been in her bedtime rotation for years, she reached in the back for a kids’ chapter book with a funny-looking fox on the cover. Were we about to read my kids’ first chapter book? Like diapers and high chairs, a child’s first transition to big kid books rarely happens on a fixed timeline. It’s thought to say when a child is ready for their first chapter book, but it’s up to us as parents to give them plenty of options so that as soon as they’re ready, they have the tools they need to move forward.
So what are the best first chapter books for early readers? Is there a perfect first chapter book for children? I reached out to librarians, teachers, educational experts, and other parents for their recommendations of the best books to encourage beginner readers with varying attention spans and big imaginations. The following list has everything you need for your own bookshelf, so that when your young reader is ready for that next milestone — the chapter book — she can just reach out and grab it.
Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo, Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
This award-winning series can cross age gaps faster than Mercy Watson, pig hero can sprint off to the neighbor’s house in search of sugar cookies. Whether you start this book as a read-aloud to your three or four-year-old, introduce it as a first chapter book for your five-year-old to read alone, or use it as a language arts lesson for older ages, there’s no questioning that this series is a home-run for all.
Magic Treehouse Series by Mary Pope Osborne.
These books have been around for awhile, so there's a chance you remember this series from your childhood, but I promise (and teachers agree), these books still hold up. The Magic Treehouse series tells the story of Jack and Annie, siblings who discover a treehouse in the woods filled with books that transport them through time and space to new adventures, like exploring the surface of the moon, helping Shakespear in Elizabethan England, and assisting Washington in the Revolutionary War. The simplicity of the writing and magic-filled storylines will have you happily agreeing when your little asks for “one more chapter, please?” before lights out.
Blastoff! Readers by various authors, a Scholastic imprint
This nonfiction imprint from Scholastic is for young readers who are much more interested in the world we live in than one that’s in a galaxy (or a treehouse) far far away. They cover a wide range of subjects, from “Delivery Drivers” to “Baby Sea Otters.” These early chapter books are almost guaranteed to answer the never-ending list of questions your kid asks about the everyday world.
Owl Diaries Series by Rebecca Elliott
Friendship. Cute animals. Adventure on every page. Owl Diaries is a huge hit amongst parents, librarians, and little kids alike. It’s a series published by a Scholastic imprint called Branches that’s aimed at early readers. Other series favorites from Branches are Haggis and Tank Unleashed, Press Start!, and Diary of a Pug.
Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Another oldie but a goodie, Nate the Great’s been introducing kids to the mystery genre for over forty years. Don’t be surprised if your little reader becomes a super sleuth overnight after reading only a couple of chapters. (Maybe she’ll even be able to tell you where she put that remote you’ve been looking for all week long)
Zoey and Sassafras series by Asia Citro, illustrated by Marion Lindsay
A multi-award-winning series, Zoey and Sassafras combine real scientific discovery with magic. A sick baby dragon who needs help? Merhorses in trouble? Cat-erflies?! Your kid will squeal with delight at the creativity and silliness of these stories, and you’ll stay for the adorable illustrations.
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Road Dahl
Nobody knows how to enchant children better than Road Dahl. There’s just something about animals outsmarting unkind humans that your kid (and the kid in you) will delight in together, chapter after chapter. Other teacher recommended Road Dahl chapter books to consider are Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach...but maybe save The Witches for when they get a little older to avoid any 2 AM night terrors.
Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Every kid can identify with the feeling that they’ll never grow up. But for Stink, the feeling is quite literal...one morning, the ruler reads one inch shorter than it did the day before. This book is fun and funny, and throughout the book are “cartoons” from Stink himself that your kid will love.
Pedro, First Grade Hero, by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Tammie Lyon
Pedro is a character your child will surely connect with; he’s kind and maybe a little unsure of himself, but he always tries his best. With diverse characters, creative adventures, and lively illustrations, this series is a must for your shelves.
Jasmine Toguchi series by Debbie Michiko, Illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
If you haven’t heard of Jasmine Toguchi yet, make sure to get your hands on a copy. This spunky, adventurous Japanese-American girl has been making the best-of reading lists since 2018. If you’re new to the series, start with Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper. Don’t be surprised if it stays in your bedtime rotation for weeks on end.
Mr. Putter and Tabby, by Cynthia Rylant, Illustrated by Arthur L. Howard
“Classic, rich writing and humor,” says Chris Bulsa-O’Meara, a librarian of twenty years. This series has stood the test of time as a hit for beginner readers and their parents, recommended by librarians and teachers again and again. And if your kid does fall in love with these books, as I'm sure they will, don't forget to introduce another Rylant classic into the mix: Henry and Mudge.
Baby Monkey, Private Eye, by Brian Selznik and David Serlin
This bestselling graphic chapter book combines fantastic black and white illustrations with hilarious storylines that are sure to keep young readers hungry for more. This is an especially wonderful book for very young readers, as kids can choose to just look at the imaginative pictures, or follow along with the breakout text easily.
Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows, Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
When I asked other parents for their recommendations, this series won by a landslide. After grabbing a copy for myself, I see what all the fuss is about. This multi-award-winning series tells the story of an unlikely duo who don’t seem like they’d get along, but their differences end up making them the best of friends. It’s got heart and spunk in equal spades, and the lovely illustrations alone are enough to keep you just as interested as your little reader.
So that’s our ‘best first chapter books for kids’ list! (For now!) Pick a few or all of these for your shelf– just make sure that when it comes time to introduce your beginner reader to the chapter book genre, you give her a variety. Mix up nonfiction with fiction, graphic chapter books with text-only, easy storylines with slightly more advanced ones. “Let your child choose whether they need something a bit more challenging or easier,” says Irene Stanhope, a teacher and curriculum specialist for grades K-12. “The important part is to make it fun, keep them interested, and build their confidence in reading.”