When my daughter was very little, I came across Ruth Suehle’s GeekMom post about her dislike–well, okay, hatred–of Junie B. Jones. At the time, my toddler and I were barely working on the alphabet, much less early chapter books, but I made a mental note to avoid the series.
Fast forward to today, and guess which books my 7-year-old brings home from the school library every week?
Recently I picked one up and skimmed through it, and I suddenly remembered (and agreed with) all of the problems Ruth also found in the books’ pages. The character is grating and doesn’t act or speak like any first grader I know, and the grammar… Oh, the grammar.
I don’t want to discourage my daughter from reading anything, as she’s just discovering her love of books, so like Ruth I won’t outright ban the series. Instead, I found similar early chapter books with protagonists I actually like to leave on my daughter’s nightstand, not-so-subtly stacked on top of Junie B. Jones.
The Princess in Black
Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black series for early readers is part chapter book, part picture book, and all adventure. Princess Magnolia isn’t like other princesses: She’s secretly the Princess in Black, a swashbuckling hero who stops monsters in between tea parties and brunch. She’s fearless, kind, and has moves like “Princess Pounce!” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little SMASH!”
Princess Magnolia doesn’t just appeal to girls; any kids who love the idea of an unlikely hero with a secret identity will get a kick out of this series. And who doesn’t enjoy a little swashbuckling?
This series, which is already over 15 books, also follows a young girl with a secret: Heidi Hecklebeck is a witch. She keeps her magic on the down-low, although she can’t help being tempted sometimes to use a spell to solve her problems. Most of her problems are real-life and solved with real-life answers, however, from adjusting to life at a new school to dealing with bullies to feeling jealous of something her friend has that she doesn’t.
Heidi may not be as naughty as Junie B. Jones, but that doesn’t mean she shies away from speaking up or getting upset at her friends. Conflict is normal and natural, and it’s nice to see a young reader series that doesn’t avoid it outright.
Olive & Beatrix
The “Branches” books from Scholastic are a fantastic bridge from picture books to chapter books, giving early readers a boost of confidence that they can read chapter books just like the big kids. While The Owl Diaries and Lotus Lane have made it on my daughter’s reading pile, the Olive & Beatrix early chapter books have a bit of a geeky twist, making them the biggest hits.
The books follow a pair of twins, one of which is a budding scientist and the other is a witch. When the two get themselves into big problems, it takes working together and using their strengths to solve them. Like Heidi Hecklebeck, just because the book is for young readers, it doesn’t mean it’s free of conflict: the sisters fight just like real sisters would.
All of these books build literacy confidence and, like Junie B. Jones, have been planting a love of reading in my early reader. Pick them up or check them out this summer if you’re looking for ideas to keep your 1st or 2nd grader reading over the break.