Ask the grumpies: Children’s chapter books for sensitive young readers

Alice asks:

To the best of my knowledge, my kid read her first independently-read word when she was about 2.5. Now, at 5, she’s technically proficient. If we do every-other-word in a new book, she reads them all with some mispronunciations for more complex words. I’ve really struggled and failed to find books for her that she might want to read independently, though. She’s reluctant. The problem is that from an emotional level, she Does Not Want to encounter (a) rule-breaking/bad choices, (b) mean behavior between characters, or (c) things that scare her. She will ask me to stop reading a book to her if the drama level is too high for her. And it seems like all of the books I can find at her technical reading level are too high-drama for her, even things an adult would look at as no big deal. For more than a year, I’ve been reading nonfiction to her at bedtime, along with a couple of beloved Boynton board books. Nonfiction doesn’t bother her, and the Boyntons are meant for a pretty young audience.

I was a voracious reader, but didn’t learn to read until 6 and didn’t fall in love with it until 7. I’ve been worrying that I’m not setting her up to be a big reader because I haven’t found the books she loves yet. I would very much like for her to be someone who enjoys reading, though. A love of reading has brought me so much good, I want the same for her.

High sensitivity is not uncommon among gifted kids.  DC1 and I were/are very similar (DC2 OTOH, delights in books about protagonists behaving badly– during our last poetry unit, one of hir poems is dedicated to Bad Kitty).  I’m still a little traumatized from Matthew dying (spoiler, but not from Bad Kitty).

Non-fiction is great.  DC1 read a ton of it in preschool and early elementary school.  Scholastic was wonderful for increasing our non-fiction library.

For fiction, one thing to look into is older books.  There are a couple of types of older books.  There’s books like Penrod or The Great Brain that are horrific to our 21st century sensibilities in terms of kids casually abusing each other or their pets– you’ll definitely want to avoid those.  But there’s also early-mid 20th century slice-of-life books where nothing bad ever happens and you just don’t get that emotionally engaged with the characters.  So *early* Henry books from Beverly Cleary, but not later Ramona books (where the reader actually identifies with Ramona and her feelings, or, in my case, with Beezus).

The Five Little Peppers are another series of books in this genre.  The first two in particular.  From our adult eyes, bad things seem to happen (and are overcome), but the way it’s written kids don’t really pick up on the problems because of all the “good cheer”.  Similar is All of a Kind Family.  Eleanor Estes has a number of these (here’s Ginger Pye — the Moffats might not work out as I’m vaguely remembering that DC2 loved them and DC1 and I cringed a bit).  IIRC I didn’t have any problem with Betsy-Tacy, but once Tib got added to the mix things got a bit more dramatic (as an adult reading these to DC2, who loved them, there’s a lot of very interesting and pretty modern social commentary on class, religion, and immigration that completely went over my head as a kid).

Similarly, Pippi Longstocking has all sorts of adventures that should make one cringe, but they don’t because she’s so irrepressible.  (Though be careful– Pippi in the South Seas is kind of racist and definitely colonialist.)

L. Frank Baum has a number of short stories set in Oz or related places where nothing at all bad happens– they’re dreams of magical lands made from candy.  DC1 and I could also handle the first two Oz books without problem– there are adventures and from an adult standpoint it seems like bad things happen, but as a kid they weren’t emotionally bad.  In the third book, there are some genuinely terrifying creatures, like the nome king, the wheelers, and a princess who cuts off people’s heads so she can change her head depending on what she wants to look like for the day (this last one, oddly, I did not find as horrifying as the former two when I was a kid).

A more modern book with “just the right size” adventures is The Adventures of Miss Petitfour.  The worst thing that happens in this book is running out of marmalade and that is easily solved by a trip to town (with a bit of magic thrown in).

Books recommended by commenters:

Nate the Great — these are very short mysteries.  They do hit a perfect sweet spot, but they just don’t last very long… they get outgrown pretty quickly.  Cam Jansen is somewhat similar, but has longer staying power, and you may need to screen some of them first.

Frog and Toad — DC1 loved these with what would have been to pieces except they have extremely good binding.  There are a few bits here and there that are uncomfortable but they get resolved very quickly and everything is going to be ok.

minca recommends:

– Sophie Mouse
The Owl Diaries
– My Furry Foster Family
– Mrs. Piggle Wiggle
– Zoey & Sassafras
– Calvin & Hobbes
– Magic Treehouse (she’ll skip any “scary” parts)

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle does have situations that *should* set off people behaving badly triggers, but for some reason, especially in the first two books, they didn’t.  Again, I think it’s that it seems more abstract than personal in a lot of these early-mid 20th century books by American authors so the logic centers are engaged rather than emotions?

As your kid gets older, 20th century American magic books like those by Edward Eager will be readable — they do have bad situations but you KNOW that everything is going to turn out ok… in the end everything always seems to happen for the best.  The same is not true for British books of the same vintage (exception:  Bed-knob and Broomstick … though also compare The Borrowers to The Littles and it’s clear that the American version is more optimistic and fun)– with those there often seems like if anything is going to go wrong it will, and at best they will get back to where they started but with more knowledge, after a lot of fighting.  For a more modern take on adventure where it’s obvious everything is safe underneath, try Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

Grumpy Nation, what books would you recommend for sensitive children?


26 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Children’s chapter books for sensitive young readers”

  1. zenmoo Says:

    From Australian authors, I recommend the Ella & Olivia series (two sisters who are 5 & a half and 7). It’s very low-key – the girls make pizza! They have a sleepover! They do chores to collect Cool Kitties! . The author is Yvette Poshoglian.

    There is a spin-off series called Olivia’s Secret Scribbles.

    There is also the Billie B Brown series. That is also aimed at the 5 to 6 year old market.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Those sound great! That also reminds me of Fancy Nancy who mostly uses multi-syllable words while playing dress-up. Neither of my kids were that into her, but they’re also not really into fancy clothing. They do like words though.

    • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

      I think the “Ivy and Bean” series is quite similar. My 6 year old enjoys them (along with some horrible series about fairies, but they get to pick their own books…)

      • rose Says:

        seconding Ivy and Bean.

      • ZM Says:

        Actually I really don’t like Ivy & Bean (although my 7 year old does like them They are a step up from the Ella & Olivia series in terms of behaviour and situations. I also find Judy Moody kind of annoying.

  2. Turia Says:

    I’m wondering if the Judy Moody books might work. Judy gets grumpy and there is occasionally low-stakes disappointment, but they’re much gentler in terms of rule breaking than Ivy and Bean (which I also love but might not be right here especially given the sibling relationship).

    My kids adore Calvin and Hobbes but his raison d’être is rule breaking and ‘bad’ behaviour, so I don’t know that I’d recommend him for this particular reader.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Dc1 didn’t like Judy Moody or the Stink books but less sensitive DC2 did (Stink more than Judy because stink gets into more trouble).

      I think if I were to go with comics I’d recommend things like breaking cat news or other similar low stakes animal comics. Not Garfield or Heathcliffe (though I guess as a kid I liked both even with the bad behavior? Maybe it was ok when animals did it?)

  3. delagar Says:

    Dav Pilkey’s Dragon books are perfect for this reader — Dragon is sort of a doofus, but a very sweet one, and all the choices are happy ones. More here:

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Maybe that’s why DC2 is so meh on them when zie loves captain underpants and dog man (who thrive on worlds of uncomfortable humor) by the same author.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So… I just read the second Dragon book (DC2 had it checked out from the library in hir quest to read all the Dav Pilkey books) and it’s got a bit of an Amelia Bedelia theme going, which is not great for people who don’t like to cringe. It’s really short so all the misunderstandings are resolved quickly, but I felt a little uncomfortable reading it. (Especially since I know that if Dragon didn’t know what a litterbox was, there’s no way that Dragon is going to know to spay and neuter.)

  4. Omdg Says:

    My daughter really enjoyed the Breyer stablemates series. Low drama, and about horses. In fact, this was the series that motivated her to read.

    Also recommend Bread and Jam for Francis, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. Daughter really liked Morris the Moose has a Cold, but Boris the Bear does get kind of aggravated with him, so maybe not for your kiddo.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is possibly my favorite book of all time. Yes, the main character faces racism and sexism and classism, but she also overcomes them. (I guess there’s a little bit of White savior in there, but really he only provided the opportunity and enforced the rules, which is the minimum that should be done so maybe he shouldn’t get kudos for that! The focus is definitely on the country bunny herself.)

  5. Lisa Says:

    I’d recommend The Thimbleberry Stories in the vein of nice little stories where nothing much happens (the protagonist is a chipmunk who loves tending his house and visiting various neighbors). My oldest loved the “My Father’s Dragon” series, but there is a bit of peril and rule breaking, so it might be too much (the protagonist runs away from home to save a baby dragon who is enslaved to a bunch of jungle animals – the antics required to save him are delightful but running away and baby dragon slave are both unpleasant). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading favorite board and picture books over and over at that age, either. Clearly, this is a smart kid who will move on when she’s ready. And there is a ton of delightful picture books, board books, and nonfiction out there!

    Also, I wouldn’t fret about her not loving to read on her own yet. My oldest is very bright but didn’t learn to read until kindergarten and hated it until they were proficient enough to read the books they loved. At that stage, they’d much rather have me read something interesting to them than muddle through something on their own. They’re 15 now, and still like to have me read bedtime stories at night, so clearly it’s also a comfort thing.

  6. grrlpup Says:

    If she likes cats and comics, the manga Fuku Fuku: Kitten Tales consists entirely of a kitten being cute and doted on by an elderly owner.

  7. Socal Dendrite Says:

    My kids were also sensitive and early readers. At ages 5 and 6 they read and re-read many of the Scholastic “Branches” series, with the Dragonmasters and Firehawk series being the top favorites. These do have some peril, but it must be reasonably mild because mine were 100% fine with them (for context, Disney movies were way, way too scary for my eldest kid until he was 8). They also enjoyed Magic Treehouse but occasionally commented that certain parts were too scary (but kept reading… so maybe this was good for them?). Other hits include the Wrenly series, Sophie Mouse, Zoey and Sassafras, Owl Diaries, Unicorn Diaries. Separately, I recommend reading as many of the Elephant and Piggie books as you can get hold of. She’ll be able to read them with ease and you might be tempted to dismiss them at first but the humor is quite sophisticated and they are fantastic for “acting out” together. Our kids’ teachers noted that my two put a lot of expression into their voices when they read and I credit at least some of that to the zillion times we read Elephant and Piggie books with feeling. They still regularly grab these off the shelves to read to their lovies :)

  8. rose Says:

    The Big Orange Splot by Pinkwater
    Look at ‘A Mighty Girl’ for all sorts of books for different girls…
    Upside Down Magic might be a bit too old for her now but perhaps down the road…….

    Reading aloud to children fosters their enjoyment and awareness of story telling as a pleasure. The longer you can keep reading books aloud with your children the better. They will tell you when they can read silently faster than you can read outloud but the companionship and knowledge of what they are reading about is special.

  9. Cloud Says:

    Yours Sincerely Giraffe, by Megumi Iwasa was one of my younger daughter’s favorites. It is very gentle and charming and I really enjoyed reading it with her, too!

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