Category Archives: Short Chapter Books

Saying Goodbye: Kindred Souls

“Do you have a book to help my child deal with the death of …?”

Whether concerning the death of a pet, relative, or friend, we get that question so often in the library that we’ve developed an annotated list of relevant titles.  Most are stories.  Yes, there are non-fiction books that may explain death medically or theologically, but when dealing with life’s difficult transitions, children (and perhaps adults) often benefit most from stories.

Stories can help children understand, express, and process their emotions, or even empathize with a friend’s loss.  Here is a recent short chapter book, sensitively-written, about the passing of a beloved grandfather.

kindred soulsKindred Souls, by Patricia MacLachlan (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.0; 128 pp)

There are few things ten-year-old Jake loves more than daily walks with his 88-year-old grandfather, Billy, around their Kansas farm.  Billy and Jake are, as Billy says, “kindred souls.”

Billy often shares with Jake memories of growing up on that very farm.  And when they stop by the remnants of the sod house where Billy was born, Billy remarks “I loved that sod house.”

When Billy gets sick and is hospitalized, Jake decides he will build Billy his sod house once again to “make him well.”  The whole family helps to make the house just right for Billy’s return home.  It is the perfect gift.

Jake expects Billy to live forever; Billy knows better, and the sod house seems a kind of fulfillment for him, bringing him back to where he began.  He tells Jake he is happy, and that he loves him.  And somehow that is enough.

This is a simple, beautiful story of a loving family, the bond between grandfather and grandson, and the grace to let go when the time comes.

P.S.  I found a superb blog called Books that Heal Kids, written by an elementary school counselor.  She reviews hundreds of children’s fiction titles, both picture books and chapter books, that address various behavioral or life issues that affect kids.  There’s an excellent index to search for particular topics, everything from death to adoption to forgiveness to cliques.


Wimpy Kid for Dogs: Stick Dog

stick_dogStick Dog, by Tom Watson (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.5; 189 pp)

Subtitle: “…a really GOOD story with kind of BAD drawings”

The hero of the tale, Stick Dog, is not called that because he likes sticks.  (Though, as the author observes, all dogs like sticks.)  He is called that because the author is, by his own admission, not very good at drawing.  As long as you agree not to hassle him about his drawings, he will get on with telling you the story of Stick Dog.

Stick Dog lives in a nice dry empty pipe under Highway 16, complete with an old couch cushion to sleep on and lots of cast-off tennis balls to chew.  He has four good friends who often come to visit: Poo-Poo, Stripes, Karen, and Mutt.  (Poo-Poo is NOT named after you-know-what — he’s called that because he’s a poodle.)  It’s a good life.  But Stick Dog is always on the look-out for something even more important than a home and friends:  FOOD!

So when summer comes, it means one thing to Stick Dog and his friends: humans grilling hamburgers.  When one afternoon that meaty scent comes wafting over from a nearby park, the dogs decide they MUST have hamburgers.  But of course humans are not just going to GIVE them hamburgers, are they?  The dogs will need a PLAN.

And so begins the Quest for Hamburgers.  There are distractions along the way (including an evil squirrel), and outrageous schemes suggested by the dogs (driving a car?  jumping off a cliff?)  In the end, nothing happens quite as planned, but everyone is happy (including the picnicking humans).

The story is cute and funny, and the dog’s dialogue and thinking seem perfectly, well, doggy.  Some adult reviewers bemoan the simplicity of the plot, but kids love it.  And Stick Dog is an admirable character.  He’s loyal and patient with his friends, a good leader and team-builder.

The text resembles a kid’s school notebook with lined paper, amply illustrated with lots of the author’s kind-of-bad drawings (jumping on the ever-popular Wimpy-Kid-format bandwagon).  It may just inspire would-be young authors into thinking,  “Hey, I can draw better than that!  Maybe I’ll write a story ….”  And don’t let the page count scare away readers wanting something shorter; the large font and pictures make this more the equivalent of a 90-page chapter book.

stick dog hot dogThe sequel, Stick Dog Wants a Hot Dog, came out October 8 — I loved it, too!

Dragons Lite: Shorter Dragon Stories

In a recent post, I reviewed a classic dragon quest tale, Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider.  A great adventure, but at 500+ pages, a little hefty for some.  What if you’re just starting chapter books, or need a read-aloud for younger ones?

For those who would like a simpler, shorter dragon story,  here’s one old and one new which are good choices.

fathers_dragonMy Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (lexile: 910; AR book level: 5.6; 80 pp)

Though his mother doesn’t like it, Elmer Elevator befriends a stray alley cat, brings him home, and sneaks him saucers of milk.  In appreciation, the cat tells him of a far-off place he visited in younger days called Wild Island.  It’s populated by wild animals, and they have enslaved a poor baby dragon, tying him up and forcing him to ferry them back and forth across the river that divides the island.

Elmer decides to set out and rescue the dragon, and with the cat’s help carefully prepares for the journey.  The funniest part of the story is the strange array of supplies Elmer packs in his knapsack, including: chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a toothbrush and toothpaste, six magnifying glasses, and seven hair ribbons.  It turns out, of course, that each is just the right thing to trick one of the animals on Wild Island so Elmer can get to the dragon and free him.  They become good friends, and the dragon is happy to fly Elmer back home.

This funny little dragon story was a Newbery Honor book in 1949, and is still popular over 60 years later.   There are two later sequels.  Elmer and the Dragon (80 pp), tells of their adventures on the way home from Wild Island, complete with an island full of canaries and a buried treasure.  In The Dragons of Blueland (80 pp), Elmer helps the dragon rescue his family from those who have discovered their secret home.  You can find all three in one volume, Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon.

thomas-dragon-queenThomas and the Dragon Queen, by Shutta Crum (lexile: 770; AR book level: 5.3; 267 pp)

A kingdom at war, a fierce dragon who kidnaps a princess, and a very unlikely knight who sets out to rescue her and in the process discovers his own strengths — all make up this simple fantasy quest with good characters and an unexpected plot twist.

Twelve-year-old Thomas is the oldest of nine children, and is always busy taking care of his younger siblings.  He dreams of being a knight, but he is small for his age, and only the son of a leathersmith, not a noble.  He gets his chance one day, though, when Sir Gerald happens by, and makes Thomas his squire.

Thomas learns his duties at the castle, but one day when all the knights are away, the princess is carried off by a dragon.  Thomas bravely sets out to rescue her — but he’s so small, he can only take a short sword, and has to ride a donkey instead of a horse.  In the end, however, it will not be his stature, but rather his courage, perseverance, quick wits, and good heart that lead to success.

This is a perfect read-aloud for younger children.  The storyline is not complicated, all of the main characters (including the dragon, it turns out) are good, and Thomas has loving, wise parents.  There are enough scary moments to make it adventurous, and a happy ending for all.

Alien Imagination: Escape from Planet Yastol

Pamela Service has written several short, fun science fiction series that are sure to appeal to those looking for easier chapter books.  In earlier posts I’ve reviewed her Stinker from Space and Alien Agent series.  Here’s the beginning of her latest, full of weird aliens and fast-paced adventure.

real-aliensEscape from Planet Yastol (Way-Too-Real Aliens #1), by Pamela Service (lexile: 620; AR book level: 4.2; 102 pp)

Imagine you’ve written a pretty cool story about another planet and the aliens living there — cool enough to win your school’s annual writing contest and get published!  THEN imagine discovering that everything you’ve imagined (in the book) is REAL!

That’s what happens to 11-year-old Josh Higgins.  One day when he and his sister Maggie are walking home from school, they’re kidnapped by these weird blue guys, and then whisked away to the planet Yastol — the very place Josh wrote about!  Turns out humans are the only creatures in the galaxy that can “channel” other places: they think they’re writing fiction, but it’s really true.  And the blue villains want a precious resource Josh described in the book — but he and Maggie aren’t about to help them.

Of course Josh wrote the book — he knows Yastol.  Can he use that knowledge to outwit the bad guys, find some help, and, most importantly, get back to Earth?

In the end, he and Maggie escape with the transportation device that brought them to Yastol, which sets the stage for more extra-terrestrial adventures in the sequels.  The next two books so far:

The Not-So-Perfect Planet (lexile: 630; AR book level 4.1; 115 pp)

The Wizards of Wyrd World 3 (lexile: 700; AR book level 4.6; 112 pp)

Hair Power: Fake Mustache

Tom Angleberger has written several wacky and fun books for kids, but he’s recently burst into prominence with The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and its sequels.  (See my review here.)  Not content to simply build on the popularity of all things Stars Wars, Angleberger has now given us (drum roll, please):

Fake Mustache, by Tom Angleberger (lexile: 710; AR book level: 4.6; 202 pp)

Subtitle: Or, How Jodie O’Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind

The Heidelberg Handlebar #7 is not just any run-of-the-mill fake mustache — it’s unique, made from a real mustache, and with the power to make a 7th-grade boy who wears it seem like a man-about-town — or a governor — or maybe the President of the United States!  So when Lenny Flem, Jr, loans his best friend Casper Bengue ten dollars so he’ll have enough to get the Heidelberg Handlebar #7 — watch out!

Soon after, the bank in their town of Hairsprinkle is robbed by a “short, well-dressed man-about-town sporting a spectacular handlebar mustache.”  Hmm.  Then the not-too-obviously named Fako Mustacho uses his new-found wealth to purchase a novelty company, get himself elected governor, and set his sights on the White House.  Only Lenny knows the truth, but he’s on the run because Casper has framed him as the bank robber.  Into the story gallops Jodie O’Rodeo, once-popular cowgirl star of the The Jodie O’Rodeo Showdeo.  Will Jodie O’Rodeo’s trick riding and Lenny’s Super Sticky Hand be enough to stop Fako Mustacho from taking over the world?

Fake Mustache is a funny story with wacky characters, short chapters, and fast action.  It would be a great classroom read-aloud (especially if you gave everyone fake mustaches and sticky hands to go with it).  It will SOON be in the Decatur Public Library!

Fantasy Light: Beast Quest

Swords!  Dragons!  Wizards!  I have long loved fantasy adventures, in which the humble hero is called to undertake the quest, rescue the kingdom, and save the world.  Little wonder my favoritest* book series of all time is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings.

Younger guys who’d like to experience the adventure of a quest without tackling the 1200 pages of Tolkien’s masterpiece will like this Beast Quest series — battle the beasts and save the kingdom, all in under 80 pages.

     *Yes, ‘favoritest’ — more favorite than my other favorites.

Ferno the Fire Dragon (Beast Quest series, #1), by Adam Blade (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.5; 78 pp)

Trouble is brewing in 12-year-old Tom’s village — crops burnt, the river drying up, horses attacked, and no one knows why.  So Tom volunteers to go to the king for help.  But on arriving at the palace he learns that the whole kingdom of Avantia is in peril.  The evil wizard Malvel has enslaved six magical beasts that normally protect the kingdom, forcing them to destroy the land instead.  Tom takes on the quest to find and free each of the six beasts from its enchantment.  Along the way he’ll get help from many people, including the good wizard Aduro and his friend Elenna and her pet wolf, Silver.

Looking through a lot of reviews, I’ve found a common theme: parents who say these books are not very deep or exciting, and boys who think they’re AWESOME.  And that’s a good summation.  They’re short, fast-paced, and straight-forward.  Each introduces another scary beast that Tom and Elenna must confront.  And (with the exception of one minor character) no one dies in the first 8 books (all I’ve read).

Like the Magic Tree House books, Beast Quest is an ongoing series with lots of titles, each the same length, with very predictable (and therefore easier-to-read) plot elements.  Each set of 6 books is a quest with a unified theme.  There are 54 titles so far, but only the first 24 are usually found in libraries in the U.S.  (The rest are available in the U.K., where the series originated.) So far at our library we have:

  1. Ferno the Fire Dragon
  2. Sepron the Sea Serpent
  3. Cypher the Mountain Giant
  4. Tagus the Night Horse
  5. Tartok the Ice Beast
  6. Epos the Winged Flame
  7. Zepha the Monster Squid
  8. Claw the Giant Ape

You can see all the titles in our library system here, and the series list through #36 can be found here.

Sorta Scary, Sorta Funny: Shorter Ghost Stories

“Where are your really SCARY books?”  We get that question a lot in the library — and sometimes from kids who may not be ready for the REALLY scary stuff, either in terms of book length or creepiness.  For those who want their ghost stories lighter, shorter and fun, here are couple of series I like.

Dying to Meet You (43 Old Cemetery Road series, #1), by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise (lexile: 730; AR book level: 4.9; 160 pp)

Ignatius B. Grumply is a famous children’s author of ghost stories with some big problems.  First, he has writer’s block, and his publisher is breathing down his neck to get something written.   So for inspiration in working on his next book, he moves into a creepy old mansion in the town of Ghastly, Illinois.  And then he discovers the house is already occupied — by an 11-year-old boy named Seymour Hope (Grumply hates children) and a ghost named Olive C. Spence (Grumply doesn’t believe in ghosts).  Olive and Seymour conspire to convince Grumply otherwise.  And in the process, they may just team up to help him write his best story ever.

The story is fun and fast-moving, cleverly told via the Klise sisters’ unique format of letters, newspaper clippings, drawings, and even a tombstone engraving.  Those who like word play will enjoy the names of the characters, including I. B. Grumply himself, Paige Turner (the publisher), and Anita Sale (the realtor).  And check here for a video of Kate & Sarah Klise talking about the book and the old house that inspired the story.

Other titles so far in the series:

Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost! (Ghosthunters #1), by Cornelia Funke (lexile:  760; AR book level: 4.4; 144 pp)

Poor nine-year-old Tom: he’s a klutz, his big sister Lola is always picking on him, and he’s scared to death to go down into his apartment’s creepy cellar.    It only gets worse when he discovers an actual ghost haunting the cellar!  No one in the family believes him — except his wise grandmother, who connects him with her best friend Hetty Hyssop, who happens to be a world famous ghosthunter.

It turns out Hugo (the basement ghost) is actually just a timid ASG (Averagely Spooky Ghost), who has been ousted from his usual haunts by a nastier IRG (Incredibly Revolting Ghost).  So Tom, Hetty and Hugo join forces to tackle the IRG, and Tom begins his training as a certified Ghosthunter.

The ghosts are not so so much scary as they are yucky and campy (think of those in the movie Ghostbusters).  The fast-paced plot and accompanying illustrations make this an inviting chapter book for boys who want a ghost story that’s not too long and not too scary.

Tom continues his training in the other titles in the series: