We Recommend: Chapter Books for a 2 1/2-Year-Old? Sure!

It's We Recommend, in which we use our (alleged) superpowers to find readers the perfect book. Got a kid who needs a recommendation? Write us atthediamondinthewindow (at) gmail (dot) com with the age, reading tastes, favorite books, and any other relevant (or irrelevant) information, and we'll give it a shot. And really? All the good suggestions are in the comments.

 This next one might sound a little crazy, but I actually think it's not, and am interested in hearing what you guys think. Besides, it mentions The Master (Roald Dahl), about whom I have been feeling especially reverential lately. Here's the email:

So I'm looking for chapter books that I can read to my 2 1/2 year old.

What happened is rather what happens at his age: the refusal to nap, and the parental scramble to find a new means to make a toddler get very-needed sleep.  One day, I thought that reading something long and without pictures – in the most droning voice I could muster – might lull him to sleep.  On the contrary; after I'd read the first couple chapters of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", he was enthralled.  He was asking pertinent questions, and could tell me (fairly) accurately what had happened.  So we continued.  And now we're almost done.

The problem is that I'm not sure what to read next.  I hesitate to read "The BFG", with the child-eating giants, and Charlotte's Web ends with Charlotte's death… Maybe "The Secret Garden", since he loves flowers, but there are a lot of rather tangential paragraphs that I remember as terribly boring, even at 10 or 11.  

What would you read to a very imaginative, slightly sensitive, 2 1/2 year old?

First of all: yes to chapter books for the tiny, in this case at least. As with all things, it all depends on the kid, and he wants it, so why the heck not? Second of all: The Secret Garden, lest we forget, spends quite of bit of time early on dealing with the death of her WHOLE ENTIRE FAMILY from cholera (I think). So maybe not that.
Truly, when my two were small, we loved to read longer books. With this caveat: the more episodic type books tend to work better. Ones in which each chapter is its own story, while they fit together into a longer arcing narrative (much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). No cliffhangers. Just story after story after story. All in the context of a larger story.
Of course, the parent who writes in did, in fact, start with one of the best books in the world, which makes it hard as to where to go next, but never fear. Let's work with the very imaginative, slightly sensitive part. Two of my first thoughts were Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, which is so fun and silly and wonderful. Also: there are many of them, so if he likes them it's easy to know where to go next. But I am leaning towards something a bit odder. And quieter.

One of the best ones we read was All of a Kind Family. I have no good, logical explanation for why these books are so compelling to kids. It seems to have something to do with the kid's-eye view of daily life—how much the minutiae means to them, which I think we as adults sometimes forget. But in my experience, many of them, boys and girls alike, absolutely love these books. So maybe this in time? But really, I'm just dancing around here, because I KNOW what I think this person should have read to him.

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Oh how I love this book! Each strange story, each random moment. His homemade tin-foil dimes, his dandy outfits, his boat! The way he repairs his souvenir canoe, then cuts down a dandelion with an axe and has dandelion milk and deviled ham for supper. It is—magic. 

But this will only get them through a few nap times. What great read-aloud chapter books for the sensitive and interested do you guys have to recommend? Put them in the comments, please!

30 thoughts on “We Recommend: Chapter Books for a 2 1/2-Year-Old? Sure!

  1. The Elmer and the Dragon books (My Father’s Dragon, Dragon’s of Blueland, and Elmer and the Dragon) are great. Maybe also winnie the pooh?

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  2. I second Stuart Little and Winnie the Pooh. I also feel your pain. My oldest was like this and starting chapter books early was absolutely the best thing I ever did. My youngest on the other hand, well, her attention span will almost let me finish a board book.
    In any case, I would also recommend Clementine (like Junie B. Jones, but with better grammar), James and the Giant Peach, Pippi Longstocking, and The Worst Witch. We read and loved every one of those.
    And yes, hold off on The Secret Garden. We tried and never made it past the first chapter so many times I lost count. Then, one day, at six years old, suddenly it wasn’t that big of a deal.

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  3. Well that’s curious. When I asked this same exact question on this site about my 3-year-old, I was pretty unanimously scolded for pushing my son too hard, and you recommended Doctor DeSoto by William Steig. It put me off of this site for a while–but didn’t deter me from reading chapter books to him.
    I actually disagree that kids this age want episodic narratives. I think they want more than a bunch of picture books strung together. They want the continuity of the plot, but they aren’t ready yet for descriptions or character development.
    My son loved the Boxcar Children, for some reason. My daughter, at that age, loved The Adventures of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamilo. Yes to My Father’s Dragon. My son loved the Flat Stanley books, which are a bit shorter and easier. Now he’s 4 and we’re reading Charlotte’s Web as part of a city-wide read–he’s totally into it. There’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. He loved The Fantastic Mr. Fox on audiobook.

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  4. I just started re-reading The Wizard of Oz to my 5-year-old, and I think it would work well for an imaginative 2.5 year old. The chapters are pretty short (we usually do 2 a night, so 1 a night is probably right for you) and anything dangerous or scary seeming is wrapped up very quickly–always within a single chapter and often within a couple paragraphs. The only thing that’s iffy for a very young child is that, of course, the Wizard explicitly gives Dorothy and her friends the mission to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. That mission itself is actually accomplished in just one chapter in a non-gory way, but it still might raise questions.

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  5. Lots of good suggestions here.
    How about the Ramona books? Or, if it wouldn’t involve too much explaining of dated references, The Moffats, The Alley and other Eleanor Estes books. There are the Jenny the Cat books, now being reissued by NYRB…in fact, their list might be a good place to look. You can do a search of New York Review of Books in Amazon and see all the children’s titles. They’ve also reprinted Carbonel and its sequels and they might be a good choice.
    How about the Mr. Bass books? The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet would be a place to start. And are the Matthew Looney books still available? The Miss Pickerel books? Not great litrachure perhaps, but gentle and adventurous books.
    The Children Who Lived in a Barn might work…parents disappear at the beginning, leaving the children to fend for themselves (with some help from friends) but the parents do come back happily. (Hope that’s not a spoiler! :^) )

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  6. Nurse Matilda (aka Nanny McPhee); Mary Poppins; Five children and It; The Penderwicks, as well as the already mentioned Winnie-the-Pooh and and Paddington Bear.
    All of them consist of chapter-length stories within an over-arching story frame.

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  7. Oh dear, Amy, I am sorry, we never mean to scold here. It must have felt somewhat different to me.
    And yes, the Boxcar Children are much loved in my experience, but I sort of hate reading them myself (all the talk of Benny and his amazing appetite puts me off), so I tend to go with things they won’t be reading themselves in a few years.

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  8. Little House in the Big Woods was the first chapter book I read to my daughter. You might need to edit some of the scary parts (panthers, etc…).

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  9. James and the Giant Peach was our first successful chapter book read aloud. Right now, I’m reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my barely 5 year old and she is enthralled. Like, she weaseled 4 chapters out of me on Sunday and decided yesterday we need to start reading during the day since bedtime keeps getting in the way of more story.

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  10. We started with Winnie the Pooh when my oldest was 2.5. It’s definitely a good, gentle, safe book.
    What about Dick King-Smith? Mr Ape is silly funny, or Mr. Potter’s Pet, or The Mouse Family Robinson. They’re all pretty short though.

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  11. At the same moment in the almost-losing-the-nap, I had great success reading The Little House by Virgina Burton. Put the kid to sleep every time.
    Now I also have a 2.5 yr old who also wants to read the chapter-y books of his 7 yr old sister, and the Fire Cat (part of Jenny and the Cat Club series mentioned above) is his favorite.

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  12. We love Twig and Children of the Noisy Villiage. My Father’s Dragon is also excellent.
    And Catwings maybe? Oh and Fabels by Arnold Lobel.
    I’m going to stop now before i get carried away!

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  13. Our first chapter book was also James and the Giant Peach. We moved on to Esio Trot after that, then Ramona the Pest, now we’re doing The Mouse and the Motorcycle. My son is 4 and-a-bit but sounds a lot like the boy in the letter. I love the comments here and will be bookmarking this when we’re done with Ralph and need some more books.
    Ooooooh, I just remembered that we were going to start a Fudge book next. So I hereby recommend a Fudge book (I guess Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is the first) instead.

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  14. There are a lot of good suggestions here. A lot of Roald Dahl is super scary, but I really like the Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me. I don’t remember it being disturbing.
    I second the Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh

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  15. My Father Dragon yes. Yes, my children preferred happy, non-stressful stories with characters they loved having a good time. I’d call them “sweet” stories. So in that vein, The Moffats series, The Children of Green Knowe (but NOT the sequels, they stink), were loved here. Good luck with the nap time thing.

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  16. That age we did Winnie the Pooh and just bunches of Thornton Burgess books. The Beatrix Potter books, although not really chapter books, kind of fit in that longer than a picture book phase, too. And I found Wind in the Willows, at that age, was loved AND had the added benefit of being pretty much a guaranteed put-her-to sleep read!

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  17. Someone already said Ramona, but I’m going to modify that a bit and say the Henry Huggins ones by Beverly Cleary. I think starting with the first one (titled Henry Huggins) would be good because it has lots of stuff about dogs and fish that a 2 year old could easily relate to. Some of the language is a bit dated, but so is Charlie and the C.F, so it’s probably fine. Anyway, I think it’s a good one because for little kids because, as you say, it’s episodic and each chapter has a satisfying conclusion. The rest of the Henry books are good too, anything by Cleary, really.
    My other recommendation is stuff by Dick King-Smith. Maybe the Sheep Pig, or Harry’s Mad. They are about animals and are easy for little guys to listen to. Babe (the movie) was based on The Sheep Pig… but of course the book is better 🙂

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  18. I commented on Amy’s post long ago and recommended Bill Peet, I’m going to recommend him again on this thread because his writing is super engaging and because one entire book is just about as long as two chapters of a chapter book–especially the earlier books. And the vocabulary is impressive. And maybe Mercy Watson books by D’Camillo?
    And Amy, come back and join the blog–it sounds like you have great input for us parents looking for good suggestions!
    I’m reading the Secret Garden to my five year old now. I’ve picked an enormous, hardbound, version from the library that has a ton of beautiful and intricate pictures. I’ve found that finding the right version of a book is critical to its acceptance. Just a thought.

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  19. @Amy–I’m sorry if I was one sounding scoldy.
    I will say (again) that we started our 3 year old on A Cricket in Times Square in preparation for a trip to NYC (along with Lyle Lyle Crocodile and other NY based books), and he loved Trumpet of the Swan pre-kindergarten too. Just keep picture books in the mix too, please–too many gorgeous things to read in that genre to miss!

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  20. Oh oh oh! I just found a book that has been a perfect read aloud w/ my seven and four year old (first non picture book we’ve had success with together). Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins. We just wrapped up and they were begging me to go get the next one from the library. There are three books about the toys and each chapter is mostly a stand-alone story. There aren’t many illustrations but the ones that crop up are truly lovely.

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  21. Thank you all for some great suggestions! We started The House at Pooh Corner, which is good but a little tangential at times. Almost done.
    I’m curious about all the recommendations for James and the Giant Peach – I vetoed that originally because the parents disappear in a freak storm, and James is left with his abusive aunts for more than just the first chapter… it seems a bit much for even a precocious 2 1/2 year old…?

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  22. YES to Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon! Yes also to Pippi and James and the Giant Peach. My kids also loved The Littles when they were younger. Thanks for the great suggestions!

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  23. Late, but just in case you are still checking:
    1. another vote for Winnie-The-Pooh.
    2. The actual Rev Awdry train stories. They are weird in some ways, & weirdly dated, but sort of comforting in an intro-to-bad-behavior way. Sometimes. (In an unfortunately predictable manner, my son loved them & my daughter could. not. care. less.) (They both love/d Pooh, though.)
    3. Half Magic, by Edgar Eager. (Both loved this one. Chapters have cliffhangers. very cheery.)

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