20+ of the Best Early (Beginning) Chapter Books | Read, Learn, Explore

Once kids have conquered beginning reader books, it’s time to move on to early chapter books, which bridge the gap between beginning readers and the longer, more complex middle-grade books (aka chapter books). Early chapter books are targeted at kids from 1st through 3rd grade and are usually around 60-120 pages, with varying amounts of text per page. They almost always have plentiful illustrations to break up the text and further appeal to newly independent readers.

Because early chapter books aren’t too long, kids can read through them quickly–sometimes making it hard to keep up with their demand! If you’re looking for more early chapter books for your child or are just beginning to learn about them, keep on reading for more than 20 of our family’s favorites.

Did I miss your favorite? Please share in the comments! For my master list of book lists, click/tap here.

[Note: I’ve included Lexile numbers with each book to give you an idea of their relative difficulty. However, while guided reading standards like Lexile numbers can certainly be helpful, I don’t think kids need to be limited to one specific range. If kids are interested enough, they can tackle a more challenging book, and they will often thoroughly enjoy an excellent book that may be a little easy for them!]

Favorite Early Chapter Books

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (580L). SERIES. Ivy and Bean are neighbors but neither wants to play with the other until the day Bean’s trick on her older sister, Nancy, goes awry and Ivy offers to help her plot revenge. Since Ivy is a self-proclaimed witch-in-training (to boisterous Bean’s delight), they decide to cast a spell on Nancy that involves catching worms and lots of sneaking around. This story of friendship and hijinks–and its numerous sequels–has been a huge hit with young readers, including my two boys.

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey (530L). SERIES. What do a fox, a shark, a piranha, and a snake have in common? In The Bad Guys, it’s a desire to do good…well, sort of. Led by Fox, this ragtag group of former villains, now dubbed “The Good Guys Club,” works together (kind of) to save a cat from a tree and release 200 dogs from the pound (as you might imagine, these animals are very reluctant to be rescued). This graphic-novel style book is loaded with kid appeal, from its fun premise to its abundant humor (including a piranha who farts, if that bothers you) and expressive illustrations.

The Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell (560L). SERIES. When a squirrel arrives in the barnyard claiming to have seen something “big and scary,” the Chicken Squad (consisting of chicken siblings Dirt, Sugar, Poppy, and Sweetie) launches an investigation. Some very fuzzy detective work leads them to conclude the big and scary thing is a UFO (it’s actually a barbecue grill), so the brave (and gullible) chickens hatch a plan to save the day. The Chicken Squad was first introduced in Cronin’s J. J. Tully mystery series, which is also a great choice for early chapter book readers (though they’re longer and a little more complex than The Chicken Squad).

Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (450L). SERIES. Mercy Watson is a pig living the good life. She’s the beloved pet of Mr. and Mrs. Watson, who feed Mercy her favorite buttered toast and sing her lullabies. One night, when the Watson’s bed starts crashing through the floor, oblivious Mercy heads off in search of buttered toast–and ends up inadvertently rescuing the couple. This simple but highly enjoyable story, with illustrations by the always wonderful Chris Van Dusen, is a great choice for the newest early chapter book readers.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (500L). SERIES. Princess Magnolia seems like a perfectly proper princess, but she’s keeping a big secret. When her monster alarm rings, she transforms into the Princess in Black and uses her ninja skills (“Princess Pounce!” “Hornswaggle Hop!”) to save the kingdom’s goats from monsters. We’re big fans of this intrepid heroine as well as her eventual accomplice, the Goat Avenger (aka the goat boy).

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon (650L). SERIES. Called “Rascal” by her family, Dory is an irrepressible and sometimes babyish six year old who yearns to be included by her big brother and sister. After her exasperated siblings warn her about a Mrs. Gobble Grackers, who steals baby girls, Dory’s overactive imagination takes off, and soon her house is filled with Mrs. Gobble Grackers as well as a bearded fairy godmother and a friendly monster named Mary.  It’s hard not to laugh at Dory’s entertaining antics, and readers will love Hanlon’s detailed illustrations, which look like they could be drawn by a (very talented) first grader.

**Dory Fantasmagory is just one of the many early chapter book series set in present-day and featuring spunky girls. For more, try Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody, Heidi Hecklebeck, and Gooney Bird Greene.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by Jon Himmelman (520L). SERIES. This book, which stars a kind and wise bunjitsu student named Isabel, is actually a series of short stories with Zen-type lessons. For instance, when a bully challenges Isabel to a fight, Isabel simply doesn’t show up for it. When a friend asks her if she lost on purpose, Isabel explains that she didn’t lose because the bully didn’t hit her. Come for the bunjitsu action, stay for the powerful but fun and accessible messages.

Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca (510L). SERIES. When I was a children’s librarian, every 2nd grade class in our school district visited our library each year and the kids could check out two books. Without fail, when the kids left, we found the Magic Tree House section decimated. This hugely popular series about time-travelings siblings Jack and Annie (you likely know them already) has become a must-read for kids. In this series opener, Jack and Annie tumble back in time to the Cretaceous period and meet a variety of dinosaurs.

**For more time-traveling early chapter books, try Time Warp Trio and Secrets of Droon (though the latter is about kids traveling to fantasy lands rather than traveling through time).

Ricky Ricotta’s Might Robot by Dav Pilkey, illustrated by Dan Santat (520L). SERIES. From Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame) comes the story of lonely mouse Ricky Ricotta and his soon-to-be friend Mighty Robot, a powerful robot created by the evil Dr. Stinky to destroy Squeakyville. When Mighty Robot refuses to follow orders, Ricky saves him from Dr. Stinky’s wrath with a well-aimed kickball. This action-packed story entices kids with full-color illustrations, a few graphic novel-style pages, and even some two-page flip book animations (called “Flip-o-ramas”).

Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca (590L). Desperate for a break from her rigorous princess training regime, Cora asks her fairy godmother for a pet. But instead of the dog she hoped for, Cora receive a very cheeky crocodile with a penchant for nipping grown-ups. As you might imagine, the crocodile’s plan to trade places (he wears a dress and dons a mop wig) does not go well, to wonderfully humorous effect. Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca provides fabulous illustrations to this somewhat Roald Dahl-esque story, which also works well as a read-aloud.

Dragon Masters: Rise of the Earth Dragon by Tracey West, illustrated by Graham Howells (510L). SERIES. Of all the books on the list, this is my son Sam’s favorite. When Drake, an illiterate peasant boy, is plucked from the fields and taken to the king’s castle, he learns that he’s a Dragon Master, one of the chosen few who can connect with dragons. As Drake and his dragon, Worm, begin training together, Drake meets other kids and their dragons, and together they embark on magical adventures. If your child enjoys fantasy, then this series is a must-read.

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi (750L). Mo Willems, the master of the beginning reader book (see the Elephant & Piggie series), entered the early chapter book field with this charming story set in Paris. Diva is a tiny dog who never leaves her apartment building  or its courtyard (she’s afraid of being stepped on). Flea is a large, feline flâneur who loves exploring the city but has no home of his own. Might Diva and Flea have some things to learn from each other? Find out in this charming story of friendship and discovery, complete with atmospheric illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi.

Honorable Mention

Roscoe Riley Rules #1: Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Brian Biggs (550L). SERIES. Roscoe Riley has a knack for getting in trouble–even when he has the best of intentions. In this series starter, Roscoe applies Super-Mega-Gonzo Glue to his classmates’ chairs to “help” them sit still during a performance. I admit Roscoe isn’t my favorite protagonist, but my boys loved him. Short chapters and uncomplicated sentences (in addition to the lively narrator and his silly shenanigans) make this book a hit with kids.

Eerie Elementary: The School Is Alive! by Jack Chabert, illustrated by Sam Ricks (600L). SERIES. Being assigned the school’s hall monitor seems bad enough to Sam–but then he discovers that his school is alive! The school’s last hall monitor, now an old, weak man, explains that the school is actually a monster that feeds on students. It’s up to Sam to keep everyone safe from its wrath. This series is a lot of fun, but be warned–it’s probably not a good idea for kids who are easily frightened.

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Lulu And the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont (680L). SERIES. I’m a longtime fan of Hilary McKay’s wonderful Casson Family series, so I was excited to try this well-written, gently humorous story. Lulu is famous for her love of animals–unlike her teacher, Mrs. Holiday, who barely tolerates the class guinea pig. After Lulu rescues an abandoned duck egg on a school trip, her efforts to hide it from Mrs. Holiday become extremely difficult when the egg begins to hatch.

Rainbow Magic: Ruby the Red Fairy by Daisy Meadows, illustrated by Georgie Ripper (620L). SERIES. I have to admit that this is the one book on the list my son Sam wouldn’t read. But this series is such a hit with girls (and, I’m sure, some boys) that I wanted to include it. In this first book, human girls Rachel and Kirsty begin their search for the Rainbow Magic fairies, seven sisters who were banished from Fairyland by Jack Frost. This popular series has spun off other companion series, including Rainbow Magic: The Pet Fairies, Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies, and more. For another fairy series, try The Never Girls.

Galaxy Zack: Hello, Nebulon! by Ray O’Ryan, illustrated by Colin Jack (580L). SERIES. It’s 2120 and Zack and his family are moving to the planet Nebulon. Zack’s fears about attending a new school and making friends will be familiar to kids, but they’ll also be highly intrigued by Zack’s strange new home, complete with alien inhabitants and all sorts of futuristic technology (like hyperphones and hoverbikes).

A to Z Mysteries: The Absent Author by Ron Roy, illustrated by John Steven Gurney (510L). SERIES. When Dink arrives at his local bookstore to meet his favorite author, he discovers that the man is missing! With help from his friends Josh and Ruth Rose, Dink tracks down clues to find him. This 26-book series has been around for a while, but it remains a popular choice for kids who enjoy mysteries. For more mystery series, try the Boxcar Children series and the Cam Jansen series.

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh (720L). SERIES. Adults may recognize Precious Ramotswe as the winsome detective in McCall Smith’s bestselling adult series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Here, readers can get to know a young–and very inquisitive–Precious as she solves her first case and learns some important detective skills. Besides the appeal of Precious herself, this book also offers a fun (but not too difficult) mystery and a wonderful Botswana setting.

Maybelle in the Soup by Katie Speck (760L) SERIES. Maybelle is a surprisingly refined cockroach (she wears pearls) who lives under a fridge and dreams of eating food before it falls to the floor. When Maybelle decides to live her dream, she sets off a chain of events that generally involve humans screaming in horror. I enjoyed this story for its well-done humor as well as for the cute friendship between Maybelle and Henry the flea.

Also Consider

Owl Diaries series by Rebecca Elliott.

Down Girl and Sit: Smarter Than Squirrels by Lucy Nolan, illustrated by Mike Reed.

20+ of the Best Early Chapter Books | Read, Learn, Explore