Category Archives: Early Chapter Books

Something sweet for Halloween: Princess Posey and the Monster Stew

This year, I’ve had a number of teachers ask me to help particular students find “just right books” to read in our early chapter books section of the library. These are typically students in grade 2 who struggle with reading, but who want to read chapter books because so many of their peers are reading them. Finding a chapter book that is not too challenging, but that appeals to a kid who doesn’t want to feel babyish, is no easy feat. I have made it a mission to beef up this part of the collection, because I want the kids to find books that are just right in terms of reading level and themes, so that they don’t gravitate towards books that are way beyond them but that look cool, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

One go-to series for emerging readers is Princess Posey. In each of these little chapter books, Posey faces a small challenge, usually centered around having to be more independent, and with some encouragement and guidance and her own indomitable spirit, she always rises to the challenge and grows a little. In Princess Posey and the Monster Stew, Posey feels shy about the fact that even though she’s in grade one now, she’s still a little scared about Halloween. She wishes she could use her flashlight, like she did in kindergarten, and when she thinks about the “Monster Stew” they will be making in her class, she gets shivery. She knows she shouldn’t be frightened, but she can’t quite convince herself to be brave.

Stephanie Greene succeeds brilliantly at portraying the perspective and emotions of a typical first grader. The language is carefully chosen to be accessible to readers who are just getting comfortable with longer sentences and longer stories, but there’s plenty of personality coming through, particularly in the dialogue. The layout is friendly, without too much text on each page, and Stephanie Roth Sisson’s sweet and expressive illustrations bring Posey and her little adventures to life perfectly. Princess Posey and the Monster Stew is a just right treat for Halloween, and all the rest in the series will likely charm even the most reluctant reader. Lucky for us, there are more on the way!

Princess Posey and the Monster Stew is published by G.P. Putnam’s.



An adorable new duo: Rabbit & Robot

It makes me happy whenever I think about how there were so many brilliant books that I discovered for the first time when I worked at The Flying Dragon Bookshop. Goodnight Mr. Tom, Millions and Framed, How I Live Now, Clementine, Bark George… I could fill a post with only the titles. I love that if I close my eyes, I can picture where those books lived in the store and remember going over to the shelves to pull out just the right one to share with a customer. I hope I am able to conjure the store in my mind for my whole life.

The reason I mention this, is that I was thinking about the store today as I was remembering one of my favourite “Flying Dragon Finds”: Cynthia Rylant’s Mr. Putter and Tabby series. Talk about perfect early readers. What makes a perfect early reader? For me, it’s memorable characters, gentle humour, dynamite illustrations that enrich the narrative world beyond the words, and text that manages to still be cleverly crafted and lovely to read even though there aren’t as many words on the page. Cece Bell’s new reader, Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover has all of these qualities, which means I’ve got my fingers crossed that there will be more installments featuring these two quirky buddies.

When Robot comes over to Rabbit’s place for a sleepover, Rabbit has a To Do List prepared for his visit:

1.Make Pizza
2.Watch TV
3.Play Go Fish
4.Go to bed

When Robot suggests shaking things up a little with a game of Old Maid or Crazy Eights, Rabbit is not into it. He is determined that they will stick to the list. When Robot doesn’t want to have the kind of pizza Rabbit planned, Rabbit freaks out. You can see where this is going. The push-pull, give-take of this strange friendship makes for hilarious scenarios that kids are sure to love. The little book is packed with dialogue, which brings the characters’ contrasting personalities vividly to life. Bell’s bold illustrations capture the warmth at the heart of this wacky little relationship. A sweet tribute to the way that the best friendships can stretch us and bring us new experiences and plenty of laughter along the way, Rabbit & Robot is delightful from beginning to end.

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover is published by Candlewick.

Guest Post: Patricia Reilly Giff

It’s a treat to welcome Patricia Reilly Giff to Shelf Elf today, for a stop on her blog tour in celebration of her funny new series for early readers, Zigzag Kids. I asked Patricia about her inspiration and writing process for the books, and here’s what she had to say:

I follow my grandchildren around these days. Jim, the oldest, worked in an afternoon center; he garners funny stories for me. Twelve-year-old Patti is my consultant; she’s a cafeteria food maven and a what’s-new expert in the world of what goes on after school. And don’t forget days-away-from-six-year-old Jilli, who puts in her own two cents about kindergarten; she’s the model for Trevor and Clifton, who tag along at the Zigzag Afternoon Center. This is part of my research. But memory is another. Things haven’t changed that much since my school days, both as a young girl and a teacher. Even the cafeteria still has its own distinctive smell, even though cheese poppers have made a late appearance. And the memory of my teaching days is very clear. I worked with so many unhappy kids, that I’m conscious of them on every page I write. They’re grown now, those students of mine, but I suspect there are many kids of today who have lives like John who lived in a basement apartment with cement floors, who couldn’t bathe because the family clothes were kept in the tub, or Angelina whose mother was an alcoholic. Happiness was hard to come by, and reading was low on the priority scale. I want to entice all children to read—to laugh over my books, to be happy as they read about the antics of my characters. And maybe something else. Those characters usually have something going for them—Gina wants to be an opera singer, Sumiko would love to be an Olympic star, Mitchell wants to write a book. I want to tell readers that everyone has something…you just have to look for it.

Be sure to check out all of Patricia’s other visits throughout her blog tour, and take a look at this lovely new series perfect for new readers:

August 10th Cynsations
August 11th Random Acts of Reading
August 12th Where the Best Books Are!
August 14th Mundie Moms
August 15th The Children’s Book Review
August 16th Chicken Spaghetti
August 17th Patricia Reilly Giff
August 25th
September 7th

Number One Kid and Big Whopper are published by Wendy Lamb Books.

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Practicing the Piano

Things I love about Moxy Maxwell:

1) She makes lists.

2) She knows what matters to her.

3) She is not shy about wearing a crown when crown-wearing is called for.

4) She likes parties more than practicing the piano.

5) She is crafty.

6) She is good at excuses, and is confident in her excuses even when they stretch way beyond the realm of believable. (Good life skill).

Those readers who have already met Moxy, in Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little or in Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes, very likely have their own lists of reasons to love this irrepressible, sassy young lady. Peggy Gifford’s series is difficult to resist, because who doesn’t like watching a kid with a talent for trouble try to get out of the fixes she gets herself into? And the books are funny – from the concepts, to the photographs, to the outstanding chapter titles.

In this, the third book in the series, Moxy is preparing for her piano recital, in which she and her sister are slated to play “Heart and Soul.” She is very concerned about getting her cape and crown just so. Her mother (and her piano teacher) are very concerned about getting Moxy to stop playing the song when it is actually over, since she has yet to prove that she can finish the piece rather than playing it on and on and on endlessly. As with the other two titles, the story takes place over the period of one day and Moxy’s brother Mark takes plenty of photographs of events as they unfold.

I think Moxy Maxwell is a hoot. But it’s a series where I wonder if kids find the books funny to the same degree, and in the same places, as I do. I’m pretty confident that kids will find lots of laughs here, I just wonder if they’ll think it’s as funny as I do, and end up as charmed by the whole package as I am. Is the humour more of the, “Gosh, kids can be a riot” variety, thus making it more amusing for someone who is no longer a kid? I don’t know. I have read quite a few reviews by reviewer/parents, who say that this series has been a hit with their kids. From the bookselling perspective, it sure is an easy sale, especially for those girls who’ve read and loved Clementine (or Judy Moody or Just Grace) and want something in the same vein. Moxy fits that bill to perfection.

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Practicing the Piano is published by Schwartz & Wade.

Here’s an interview with the author at Becky’s Book Reviews.

More reviews: Book Nut, Kids Lit, emilyreads,

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters

I read the first Alvin Ho book last year, as it was one of the finalists for the 2008 Middle Grade Cybils Award. It was a hoot in every way and it guaranteed that I would be picking up Lenore Look’s next Alvin adventure. The second in the series, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters is (dare I say it), even funnier than and every bit as clever and charming as its predecessor. I started reading it yesterday morning while sipping tea in my sunshiney living room and I kept on reading straight through until I finished it. It is a complete delight and it makes me hope for many more tales about the uproarious Alvin Ho.

Alvin is still pretty freaked out by the world in general at the beginning of this second book. This is why things do not look good when his dad proposes that they go on a father/son camping trip. His dad thinks it will give Alvin confidence, and make him less afraid of the woods and the great outdoors. Alvin thinks not so much. The novel follows Alvin as he tries to avoid the trip, prepare for the trip and survive the trip.

One of the many impressive things about this slim book is Lenore Look’s gift for characterization. She can reveal a great deal about her characters in a single phrase. For instance, Alvin describes Anibelly, his little baby sister, as “a stoplight in the middle of my life” because she’s always right there in the middle of things whenever he needs to just keep moving. The secondary characters – Alvin’s dad and his Uncle Dennis and Anibelly – all come through as complex and fully believable people in the story. The voice is outstanding, and while Alvin is certainly precocious, he’s convincing for his age. LeUyen Pham’s black and white illustrations add a great deal to the madcap feel of the narrative and bring the characters to life perfectly.

This is charming, clever and heartwarming hilarity perfect for precocious readers everywhere. (Adults included).

More Alvin fans:

Maw Books



Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters is published by Schwartz & Wade Books.

Sunny Holiday

sunnyThis was a random library find for me the other day. I haven’t read any of Coleen Murtagh Paratore’s other titles, but I know of her Wedding Planner’s Daughter series. It was the cover that grabbed me, and it’s no wonder! My well-honed Julia Denos radar is clearly at work. I love her art (she’s got oodles and oodles of talent, that one). The brightness of the colours, the fab pink shoes and the quirkily-named title character all said “sweetness” to me. I was right. There is some serious sweetness going on in this slim novel for younger readers, with enough struggle to be thought-provoking and to inspire conversation.

Sunny is as bright and positive as her name. Her mother likes to remind her that “the sun shined so bright and long the day (Sunny) was born, the stars got jealous and complained to God.” She tries to see the good in the world, in the people around her and in herself. It might not always come easily, but Sunny is willing to work at it. She loves holidays more than anything and she’s troubled by the fact that January and August are lacking in the holiday department, so she starts planning holidays with particular kid appeal to fill in the gaps. Sunny’s life isn’t perfect in every way. Riverview towers, her apartment building, might be full of many interesting and warm-spirited people, but the neighbourhood leaves a lot to be desired, what with the litter, the straggly trees, the chain-link fences and the polluted river. Sunny’s dad is in jail and she only gets to visit him the first Sunday of every month. Her mom works long hours as a hotel maid and then fills up her nights taking care of Sunny and taking college courses. Still, Sunny’s home is full of love and creativity and wisdom. The novel is a gentle portrait of a little girl who faces some hard situations with natural grace, humour and hope.

I read Sunny Holiday in one sitting. It was Sunny’s voice that drew me in, her poetic way of seeing the world. I loved the first chapter called “Dandelions.” Here’s one of the nicest bits:

“We don’t have a park or a yard, either, just one long, dirty-gray cement sidewalk. But that doesn’t stop a dandelion. A dandelion seed is smarty-pants-smart. That seed sails off on a wispy balloon, riding free on a summer breeze, search-search-searching for a home. It knows for sure it will find one. All it sees is sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk. Does it give up? No, it does not. That little seed keeps searching until it spots a crack. “Whoopee! Whoopee! Whoopee!” it shouts, and dives in for a happy landing. But then that seed realizes it’s all alone and sits there shaking, not sure just what to do next. Does it give up? No it does not. It sends down a skin-skinny raggedy root, far below, where no one can see, look-look-looking for dirt it can trust. that may take a very long time.”

Each little chapter is so short and yet there is a lot of emotion packed into every tiny package. I was reminded of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (gosh I love that book!) There’s the same true kid’s perspective in this book and in places, the same heart-squeezing effect as Sunny struggles against the circumstances of her life. My only complaint is that in places, Sunny came off a little Pollyanna-ish. You almost couldn’t believe that she would be so persistently positive. This is a small thing however. Mostly, you’ll just wish you could manage to see the world the way she does, always looking for good things and working to make changes to improve the rest. This would be an excellent title for use in the classroom, to initiate conversations around inclusion, compassion and creativity. It handles the more challenging background issues carefully, with just the right amount of information for a younger reader. Perfect for Grade 4, I should think.

Sunny Holiday is published by Scholastic Press.

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally)

bobbygirlsWowza! There are so many early chapter / middle grade series out there now, and it seems like more and more crop up all the time. I think that this is fantastic because this is such a critical stage for readers, when they first start reading more independently. We need good stuff to grab them, and finding a great series always feels that little bit more delightful because you know you’ve got a lot of great reading ahead. It’s wonderful to have an increasingly wide choice of titles of a really high caliber for these newer readers: Clementine, Alvin Ho, Moxy Maxwell, and now Bobby versus Girls (Accidentally).

This is Lisa Yee’s debut series for middle grade and it’s already grabbing lots of stellar reviews. Speaking of stellar, it will be one of Horn Book’s starred titles for September/October, and it deserves it. Bobby versus Girls (Accidentally) follows Bobby Ellis-Chan as he tries to navigate the beginning of Grade 4 without seriously embarrassing himself. This isn’t easy to you when your dad, a retired football star known as “The Freezer” also happens to be your stay-at-home mom, your best friend is a girl and has suddenly started acting like one, and you have a natural talent for making yourself look goofy in front of your whole class. Lisa captures perfectly that tricky time for kids around the age of 10 when boys and girls aren’t supposed to get along, let alone be friends. She shows how this time of figuring out friendships and taking chances with new people is not simple for a kid who has always had the same best friend since forever. I liked that the characters are well-drawn in not a lot of pages, and there’s a sweet sense of humour that will appeal to boys and girls alike. She’s got the up and down again dynamic of friendship at this age just right. It’s day-to-day life, captured with freshness. Plus Dan Santat’s bold and expressive illustrations looked pretty great even in draft form in my ARC, matching Lisa’s energetic and straight-up writing style completely. Put Bobby versus Girls (accidentally) into the hands of any kid trying to figure out a friendship gone wacky. Problem solved!

Bobby versus Girls (Accidentally) is published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

Ivy + Bean


Do you know a little girl who has recently graduated to reading chapter books and needs a simple story with engaging, real-life characters? Is she a nice girl (Ivy) or a fiesty, devil-may-care girl (Bean)? Then I think she will be just right for Annie Barrows’ Ivy + Bean books.

Bean and Ivy could not be more different. Bean likes making plans, practical jokes and tearing around her street motorcycle-racer style. Ivy likes dresses, sparkly headbands and reading. Ivy is nice. Bean thinks nice “is another word for boring.” (I kind of agree with her). Both of their mothers think the girls should be friends, and both of the girls think that idea is disgusting. But as fate would have it, the girls are headed towards friendship and they discover that you can never really tell what someone is all about until you hang out for a while. This little book is the first in a series of 4 (with more to come, I believe). It’s a bit light in terms of plot, but I think it’s mostly about setting up the characters and their relationship, and Barrows does this neatly and consistently, creating two kids who seem entirely belivable.

The book has a certain elegance and spare quality that I like, which comes from the clean text and Sophie Blackall’s understated black-and-white illustrations. It’s refreshing to find a book for the younger girl reader that isn’t all sparkles and shinyness and glitter. (BTW, I got a bit of a giggle over a few reader reviews on Amazon. One person objected because of the Wiccan imagery and another wrote that Bean was a poor role model for girls because she believes nice = boring and often gets into trouble. In my opinion, if you think Ivy + Bean is objectionable, you need to get out more).   

The book reminds me a little of Clementine and Ruby Lu though it’s not as funny or sophisticated. I imagine a younger audience would find lots to enjoy here. Check out Sophie Blackall’s beautiful website and Annie Barrows’ website isn’t half bad either.