We Recommend: Beginning Reader Edition

Yes, it's time for We Recommend, in which we attempt to find the perfect book based on whatever you send us. So go ahead and e-mail us with your reader's likes, dislikes, favorite books, etc, and we'll see if we can find something inspiring.

Somehow I always want to start this like Metropolitan Diary in the Times with "A friend writes…." But now that I've said that, I can't quite bring myself to do it (maybe next time). At any rate, here's the deal:

Brynna (my five, almost six year old daughter) is reading
on her own, a bit shakily, though. She has the skills, but lacks the
confidence. I'm trying hard but not helping because I can't quite seem
to pin down a book written on the right level. Either it's too simple
and she flies through it, but is bored to death, or it's too hard and
she ends up losing her nerve and looking to me for every other word.

Her teacher has benchmarked her at a "B", whatever that means, but I
don't think that was especially accurate, since she is very shy about
reading to new people and this was done the first week of school. I want
books that are easy enough that she doesn't get frustrated, but
challenging enough that she's making progress.

I've tried those leveled "Early Reader" books and they seem really
hit or miss. She's fine with nonfiction. We've got these phonics
readers about animals from all over the world and she does fairly well
with them. But if it's not informative or story driven she isn't
interested. Silly books without much of a plot just don't tickle her

Titles would be great, but also some advice on how to find the right
kind of thing would be great. It's more of a struggle for her than I
thought it would be, and I just don't want her to lose hope.

Lose hope? Dear lady, no no no! There is more than hope ahead: joy, frustration, elation, thrill. Here's what I think:

Bear in mind that all this comes with a HUGE caveat: I am not a reading specialist. I am only speaking from 1) my gut and 2) my two very different readers, ages 9 and 11. So a real reading person will know more.

But for what it's worth, here is what I think: there's all sorts of crazy pressure to read in this country. And she is 5. 5! She is doing AMAZINGLY WELL. She's way ahead of herself, in my book. The real question, I think, is whether she wants to read books on her own, or no. If the answer is no, I would STRONGLY suggest just letting her read whatever it is she is wanting to read in school with her teachers. If she is home schooled, I would blow it off until she is 7 or 8.

Either way, I think the best thing to do is just read aloud to her (however tedious it can be sometimes—interspersed with joyful, of course). She will get everything she needs from listening to you read, and from trying to make out the labels on cans and the words on signs. Then, when she's a little father along, when it's easy and she's super-interested, bring yourself home some Poppleton. God, I love Poppleton. Or maybe some little bear. Or  Frog & Toad. All those beginning readers series are pretty great. Go to the EZ reader section of the library and have a ball. But not yet.

If, however, she is obsessed and wants to try and try and try, and you want to get her something she can succeed with, and she isn't into the whole Dr. Seuss oeuvre (Hop on Pop is truly awesome, but my guess is this is what you mean by not plot-driven and silly?) then here's my pick:


This is Biscuit. Biscuit is yellow. Biscuit is fuzzy. Biscuit is…you  get my drift.

But really truly seriously: she is starting to read. That is fine. She is not able to read real interesting books on her own yet. That is also fine. Let her read what her teachers want at school, read her every fun thing you can think of, and when she is ready to explore, watch her fly.

But we all know that the real information comes out in the comments. What do you guys think?

24 thoughts on “We Recommend: Beginning Reader Edition

  1. Just so you know… a level B implies a child who can read a simple pattern book.
    Biscuit, in my school is about a C, with some of his many adventures being D. So a perfect match, in my opinion.
    I will look for the lists I have, but if you do a google search for “book list level B” you will probably find some lists of roughly levelled trade books.
    But really, as long as she likes reading? I’d let her read whatever she likes. Then again, I always was a bit of a nonconformist. 😉


  2. What about taking turns reading words or sentences with the books that she really wants to read? I do it with my daughter and it works well for us – especially with rhyming books. You read “I do not like green eggs and ham!” (Slowly and pointing to every word.) Then she reads “I do not like them Sam I Am!”. Just read ahead a bit so you don’t accidentally saddle her with a hard sentence.


  3. With my two readers, now 11 and 8, that early phase of being able to read but finding the available level material too simplistic was HARD. We have gotten through it in two ways: 1) take her to the bookstore or library and give her plenty of time to roam at will; she’ll find stuff that appeals. 2) make it clear that you’ll be happy to read to her just as much as she wants, that way she can continue to enjoy the stories and info that appeals to her understanding without having to struggle with the reading itself 3)comics, graphic novels, and magazines are all aimed at conveying maximum impact with little text. Specific suggestions: Owly has no text at all, and yet tells stories clearly, Binky the Space Cat is funny,the Franny K. Stein series is fun for everyone, as is Babymouse, Jellaby is charming, Ranger Rick and National Geographic Kids will appeal to someone interested in critters.
    If your daughter sees that you appreciate the art and the storytelling of picture books (still) she’ll be more likely to continue to enjoy them. Good luck!


  4. So wise. It’s hard not to worry, especially when the teacher tells you that first graders should be able to read at least C levels. Anyway, I am going to take your advice and ease up. I’m also going to take everyone else’s advice, because there are some great ideas on here. I especially love the idea about magazines and Jocelyn’s list. Thank you all so much!


  5. Thank you so much for this post. We are in the throes of early 1st grade-reading-logs-and-homework around here.
    I am caught between my conviction that forced reading is counterproductive and joyless, my anxiety that my daughter is almost 7! And not really reading yet! And willfully refusing to try! … AND my desire to get an A+ in 1st Grade Parenting by having my daughter do all the homework thoroughly and well.
    I will take a deep breath and remember this post when I start freaking out. And I think I will make an appointment with the teacher to express my belief that early elementary children do not benefit from homework.


  6. I must take a moment to say, Maria, that one of my great regrets as a parent is not ditching first grade homework and just getting a 0 in it. We struggled and forced and she wept and protested and we pushed and pushed. It all ended OK, sort of, but when I found out that another mother came and calmly said “We won’t do this” the teacher said, “OK, if you’re OK with getting a 0 on the homework portion” and she said “Sure.” I WISH I had been brave and wise enough to do that.
    2) Chestnut struggled greatly with reading until she was 8. But our wise pediatrician said “Lots of kids, especially those who are great and building stuff, like her, struggle and aren’t comfortable until well into 3rd grade.” This was so true for her, right now I am fighting with her—FIGHTING—so she will put her book (Zally’s Book) down and brush her teeth, but she doesn’t want to stop reading.”


  7. Oh, Maria, listen to the Great Diamond in the Window! I also think that early elementary children do NOT benefit from homework. Especially if they are FIGHTING IT. It really doesn’t promote love of reading, does it? I just let my kids write down the books I read to them. Their job, to fill in the “log” I would (and will) sign just about anything. The teacher never questioned a thing.
    As for the “we recommend” part… I also wholly agree with reading to this child, and letting her pick what she wants to read. Good books (at about her level) that are natural language and pictures that match are in a series called “Brand New Readers” (I got them at Barnes and Noble) I would not turn it into a reading lesson, but just let her have the books. My kids loved them, and felt like “real readers” when they were at this stage.


  8. Okay, I just need to clarify, my kids WERE real readers, but they were so proud and defined THEMSELVES as real readers when reading those books. I regret the quotes.


  9. When I taught first grade, we assigned homework because the parents freaked out if we didn’t! I also believe that early elementary kids do not benefit from homework. I would rather just have encouraged daily reading (or being read to) without necessarily tracking it.
    My daughter is five turning six and reads fairly well for her age. What worked beautifully with us for getting over the hump was turn-taking. I did a page, she did a page. That way she was able to reach out for things a tiny bit beyond her level that were more interesting to her. And I always helped – especially if she was trying at all. You don’t have to push them to painstakingly sound out every word.
    I second the Henry and Mudge recommendation (those were great for turn taking) as well as Mr. Putter and Tabby (especially Mr. Putter and Tabby Feed the Fish). We also recently discovered a series about a girl named Katie Woo that my daughter really likes.
    Another great idea is to let her listen to books on tape/CD if she is interested. You can encourage her to follow in the book as she listens. We have some books my daughter memorized this way and it made her feel like such a great reader when she could pretty much do it without the tape.
    Good luck!


  10. If she’s wanting to read but most books are just too hard, I suggest Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie series. They’re actual stories, but written very simply. I’m especially fond of My Friend is Sad.
    But I also agree with everyone else, there’s nothing wrong with reading to her and not pushing her to read on her own yet. As long as she loves books, that’s what will matter in the long run.


  11. Our favorites-
    All Tutus Should Be (Brownrigg)
    Dinner at the Panda Palace
    The second one might need some reading by you the first few times but then she’ll get it.


  12. I hate all this levelling stuff passionately. Surely she’ll take off with the reading when she finds something she really wants to read?
    My seven-year-old was a very reluctant reader all through kindy and then suddenly started snatching up whole sentences from catalogs and dinosaur books.


  13. I love all of the parent-teacher dialogue that’s happening here! Speaking as a primary grades teacher, what I think you need to know as a parent is that those primary reading levels are broken down into nearly infinitismal steps. The difference between a “B book” and a “C book” is practically invisible to the untrained eye. So the idea that we should be concerned when a child doesn’t learn according to this precise calendar (everyone reaching a C in September, a D in October…)is ridiculous. Most kids learn to read when they are good and ready. That said, if a child is still reading at a B towards the end of first grade, well, that probably merits further concern/investigation/supports.
    Also: Elephant and Piggie! Elephant and Piggie! Elephant and Piggie! You really can’t lose with those guys 🙂


  14. I have some suggestions for you:
    Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
    His pigeon series is also good.
    I would also read with her. Try You Read to Me and I’ll Read to You series (it’s on my list). Other fun books are Lola and Charlie series.
    I swear by the old standards:
    Little Bear, which is a series
    Frog and Toad, which is also a series
    I love these and these older classics are not as silly as Mo Willems or Charlie and Lola
    When she is past Henry and Mudge, here are my suggestions:


  15. At that age, my older child violently reacted if I tried to get her to read ANYTHING (even though I knew she could) and her younger sister pretty much follows in her footsteps in that regard. (At times I can’t help myself and try to get her to read a line here or there when I am reading to her, as others have suggested above.)
    The older one, now in 4th grade, reads fluently and happily and given her own particular traits, I am sure the younger one, now in 1st, will too. Barring some complication like a disability, I am sure the letter writer’s child will as well–after all, most kids in my generation weren’t even STARTING to learn to read until 1st grade.
    In fact, there is one book which the younger (who formerly grooved on Owly, the wordless graphic novels one commenter mentions above) does quite enjoy reading to herself: Stinky. Written by Eleanor Davis, it is a Toon Book, one of a series published by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame).
    And what’s with giving 1st graders zeroes for anything? Yikes.


  16. Wow, I just came back to see if there were more comments and I am overwhelmed at how great this thread has become. You all rock!
    I agree about forcing reading, but she wants to read, it’s just hard to find things that don’t frustrate her. This is possibly my fault for reading her chapter books for the past two or three years.
    Also, she’s obsessive about homework and can’t get enough. I really think the homework thing depends on the child. I’m not convinced she’s learning anything from it, but she feels so special doing it that I can’t complain. And we totally mark down what we read to her on the reading log.
    Elephant and Piggie is a series!! We had one of these this summer and she read it 70 times at least in the two weeks we had it from the library. I’m going to look for more tomorrow.
    Jenny – I really appreciate what you said about the leveling. We went to a Montessori pre-primary and didn’t go to this school for kindergarten and I feel like we’ve missed the explanation of this stuff. They just said that she was behind, but not how much behind.
    All in all, you guys have been great and I really appreciate all you’ve had to say. This is such a wonderful community!


  17. Thank you guys so much for the reassurance and support of my non-1st-grade-homework-liking household. We have gotten into a little more of a rhythm with it but I’m still uncomfortable and there is still resistance.
    But, Diamond In the Window, doesn’t a 0 in 1st grade homework go on your *permanent record*?! Hehe, kidding – but with a grain of neurotic sincerity in there.


  18. If she likes Science, there are great beginner books like “Does it really rain cats and dogs” and a bunch of other books like it. They’re labeled level 1/2 etc.
    For what it’s worth, I LOATHE Fountas and Pinnel’s letter reading label system or any other leveling system and I’m yet another teacher (although these days I’m a stay at home mom/teacher to my 2 year old).
    I recall the SRA reading system when I was a young child in the 80’s (I started 1rst in 1984). I never liked or paid attention to them other than to blow through them as fast as my teachers would let me. Meanwhile I reading Babysitters Club, The Little Princess, Black Beauty…whatever struck my fancy in one hand and often with a dictionary in the other. No one ever told me I couldn’t read something because it was too hard, and it was fine if I abandoned a book too (Black Beauty was a problem for me until I was 10 and fully realized that it was from the horse’s point of view). I sincerely credit that lack of restriction (other than to encourage me to read whatever struck my fancy) with the fact that at almost 32 years of age, I still devour book after book after book.
    We live in Singapore, and as I refuse to pay for private school (14k for Pre-school? Are you bat-shit crazy??? And it’s MORE for K, 1, 2, and so on? NO WAY…I’ll pay Harvard/MIT prices when it’s time for Harvard/MIT) and there isn’t an option of public school as a foreigner…and as such I’m happy to homeschool my daughter rather than subject her to leveling.


  19. Oh yeah, SRA – I’d forgotten all about that!
    And, T.D.i.t.W., thanks for the info about permanent records. I didn’t realize they started later.


  20. My daughter, who is 8 now, learned to read sloooowly – this is just to say that while some kids may build skills in a relatively straight upward curve, hers was a very long plateau where she wasn’t a grade level until bang! it all clicked (last year at the end of 2nd grade – she’s homeschooled), and then a dramatic spike that pushed her just above grade level.
    While she was struggling, she did enjoy Dick & Jane (I know, really old school, but it worked for her), and the BOB books that we got from the library. Frog and Toad and Little Bear etc were way too hard for her for the longest time, as was Henry & Mudge. The Puppy Mudge series was easier though, and I second Elephant & Piggy & Biscuit. She also really liked Railroad Toad. Poems also worked well – beginning children’s poetry books like Here’s a Little Poem. Poems were less intimidating in size, and many were familiar.


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