I’m excited to be judging first-round Cybils this year in the categories of Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books. There were over 50 entrants for Early Chapter Books this year and we just finished picking the shortlist. Now, round 2 judges will take over to pick the final winners — 1 in each category!
There were some standout Early Chapter Books that had diversity in the mix and I wanted to highlight the best Early Chapter Books I’ve read so far. How about you? What Early Chapter Books are you loving? Please share!
#OwnVoices Early Chapter Books
For fans of Ivy and Bean, Clementine, and Dory Fantasmory, look no further for #OwnVoices early chapter book series. All these #OwnVoices series have the same elements of humor, heart, and adventure with the added benefit of learning about new cultures through osmosis.
Too Small Tola by Atinuke
Tola lives with her family in Lagos, Nigeria. Her grandmother looks after her, and her sister and brother. Their father sends them money from the U.K. where he works. They live huge apartment complex where the water and electricity are frequently out. Tola may be small but she’s not too small to carry a heavy load from the marketplace, carry water, or help out a neighbor when he breaks his leg. Too Small Tola gives the reader a realistic slice of life in urban Nigeria in an upbeat and memorable way. This is a must-have to learn about what city life is like in Nigeria.
Kudo Kids: The Mystery in Manhattan by Maia and Alex Shibutani and Michelle Shusterman, illustrated by Ma Van As Yaoyao
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“After their adventure in Tokyo in The Mystery of the Masked Medalist (which I managed to miss), Andy and Mika are traveling from their home in California to New York City. Their father is a travel writer, and their mother is a sports reporter who is covering the NCAA tournament in Madison Square Garden. Their aunt and cousin live in the city, so they are also glad to visit them. Since their parents are busy, the kids plan on hanging out with cousin Jenny, who is taking a gap year after high school, and helping out her mother, who is a very busy stylist who is starting her own fashion line. Jenny is supposed to deliver the showcase piece of her mother’s first show but has managed to damage it slightly. She gets a friend at the Fashion Institute of Technology to repair it, but the dress goes missing! Even though security camera footage shows no one taking the garment bag out of the room where the friend put it, the dress is GONE. Looking for the dress takes the group all over the city, and the kids use their skills (honed in Tokyo and by reading The Westing Game!) to figure out what happened and get the dress back in time for the show.” [middle grade series, ages 8 and up]
Jasmine Toguchi series by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
This is a pitch-perfect early chapter book series with a strong relatable girl character who grapples with issues readers can identify with like friendship conflicts, keeping up with older siblings, and annoying cousins. It’s also infused with Japanese culture that makes it a rich reading experience. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
My Furry Foster Family series by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Melanie Demmer
8-year-old Kaita Takano and her family foster animals up for adoption. Sometimes the pets need behavior modification before they can be successfully placed but Kaita is up to the challenge. This early chapter book series is part of the trend of rescue animals and is a welcome diverse addition. [early chapter book series, ages 5 and up]
Sadiq and the Desert Star series by Siman Nuurali, illustrated by Anjan Sarkar
Sadiq is from Somalia but that’s not the point of the story. This is a STEM story about Sadiq and his friends who learn about astronomy at school and visit an observatory. Their fascination motivates them to raise money to build a telescope of their own to find the desert star that Sadiq’s father describes as well as try to see Mars. Can a telescope built of paper towel tubes be powerful enough to see the moon and stars? Somali words are sprinkled throughout the book and the DIY telescope project is also included at the end. [early chapter book, ages 5 and up]
Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, illustrated by Ruaida Mannaa
A lot of the chapter books on this list are centered on small and easily resolvable problems but this one tackles microaggressions and bullying. Farah’s solution to protecting her little brother from bullies puts her plan to attend magnet school in jeopardy. This more mature plot has gravitas that will appeal to kids who like realistic fiction. Pair this with the Girls Survive series as part of a unit on racism. [chapter book series, ages 8 and up]
Lily and the Great Earthquake: A San Francisco Earthquake Survival Story (Girls Survive series) by Veeda Bybee
There aren’t a lot of chapter books that cover historical fiction, especially racism, so this series is a welcome addition to a classroom library. In this book, Lily and her family already face racism living n San Franciso’s Chinatown, but when the Great Earthquake destroys their home, Lily must guide her brother and neighbor on a perilous journey to meet her parents in Oakland. This book depicts the racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 1900s from structural racism in the form of exclusionary laws, to the limitations of where they could live and work. It’s a powerful story on a lesser-known chapter of American history. [chapter book series, ages 8 and up]
Diary of an Ice Princess: Snow Place Like Home by Christina Soontornvat
I would describe this as Airbender + Disney Princess + Percy Jackson. Princess Lina is a “half-blood” with a Windtamer from the Boreas Greek wind god side of the family and a human father. Like her mother, she has special powers. Her grandfather is upset that she can’t control the winds yet. Her best friend, a groundling like her dad, wants her to attend boarding school with her. Will Princess Lina be able to control her powers to fit in? [early chapter book, ages 7 and up]
Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina
Juana and her dog Lucas are back in another charming installment that describes their upper-middle-class life in Bogota, Columbia. Juana’s big problema begins when her mother starts to wear more perfume than usual and style her hair in a fancy way. Will her mother’s new boyfriend be a big problem for Juana and Lucas? Kids who have single mothers and have nuclear families can relate to Juana’s response to a new person thrust into her life. I love Juana’s personality and her views, especially in the lists that she makes to analyze people, are hilariously funny. She’s the new Ramona with an added bonus of learning about life in Columbia, South America! [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
King & Kayla and the Case of Found Fred by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers
Kayla and her dog King find a lost dog, Fred, at her grandmother’s house. Fred is not a stray; he has a human family, but how to get him back? Kayla and King are on the case to solve the mystery of where Fred came from. Can they return him to his family? [early chapter book, ages 7 and up]
Rafi and Rosi by Lulu Delacre
With Spanish words dropped in, this series about Rafi and Rosi, brother and sister Coquí frogs, introduces readers to Puerto Rican culture. Readers will be charmed by Rafi and Rosi’s adventures planting mangroves at the beach to the sparkling Parguera Bay. There’s also a scientific discovery from the sand at the beach. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Rafi and Rosi Carnival! by Lulu Delacre
This early chapter book series combines Puerto Rican culture with science. In this book, Rafi and Rosi, brother and sister Coquí frogs, introduce readers to Carnival. In the back pages, readers can make their own Vejigante mast and carnival float. There’s also a project to make a periscope! [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi, illustrated by Hatem Aly
I love this early chapter book featuring a Pakistani-American 2nd grader with a knack for exploration and mischief. This is perfect for kids learning how to read independently. Yasmin is a strong girl character that kids can relate to, doing typical things that second graders do like dressing up, exploring their neighborhood, and painting. Small details about Pakistani culture enrich this lively early chapter book sure to charm those kids who like Ivy & Bean, Clementine, and Dory Fantasmory.
Knight of the Cape (Definitely Dominguita #1) by Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrated by Fatima Anaya
Review by Randomly Reading:
“There’s a new chapter book series in town and it’s all about a girl with a great big imagination. Cuban American Dominguita Melendez loves to read even more than playing with the other kids in her class during recess. Lately, she’s been reading Don Quijote, a book her grandmother loves, to feel closer to her abuela who has recently moved to Florida. But when the class bully, Ernie Bublassi, demands to know why she’s reading it, she tells him she’s studying to become a knight. Throwing the book into the playground dirt, he tells her girls can’t be knights, making Dominguita all that much more determined to do exactly that and go questing for adventure…and to help people in distress.” [chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith
What I love about this series is that Azaleah’s family is an upper-middle-class African American family living in Washington D.C. Her mother owns a successful restaurant, and her father is an attorney. 8-year-old Azaleah, while also trying to complete an extra credit project for school, solves the mystery of her younger sister’s lost stuffed animal. Kids who like chapter book mysteries may clue into the culprit quickly as it’s an often-used plot. [chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Lola Levine series by Monica Brown, illustrated by Angela Dominguez
Lola Levine is excited! This summer break she is getting a kitten. But Lola’s happiness soon turns to distress when she realizes her little brother might be allergic to her new pet.
I love that Lola is an animal lover, and while she makes a judgment error when trying to keep her pet, she realizes her mistake and makes amends. [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Ruby Lu and Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeYuen Pham
Both book series are laugh-out-loud funny with an interesting outlier cast of characters. Chinese culture is embedded in the text. [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Clubhouse Mysteries series by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon M. Draper writes a solid mystery with enough suspense and danger to hook readers. She does a brilliant job of bringing in issues like gentrification and development in inner cities and the backdoor politics that accompany it shown through the lens of four friends, all African American boys. They form a club to solve mysteries with the first one landing literally next door when they unearth a box of bones. The answer to what they are and why they are there illustrates the hidden avarice that affects and plagues their neighborhood. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Jada Jones series by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
As a candidate for class representative, Jada is ready to give the campaign her all. But when rumors start to fly about her secret fear of public speaking, she isn’t sure who she can trust. And the pressure to make promises she can’t keep only adds to her growing list of problems. Is winning even worth it when friendships are on the line? [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too) by Leslie Kimmelman
Sam and Charlie are neighbors and friends who just happen to be Jewish. Sam too is Sam’s little sister. I love the play on names with traditional boys’ names for the girl characters. Jewish culture is interwoven into sweet stories about sharing and friendship. [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Great Early Chapter Books with Diversity Characters
I’m not sure why but Early Chapter Books are like newborn clothes; they are either GIRL or BOY. What happened to gender-neutral? My favorite book out of all these Early Chapter Books is Lulu and the Hamster in the Night but I can’t imagine a boy picking up this book and reading it. This genre of books felt a little girl audience heavy as well. I’m not sure if this is a new trend or just a fluke.
Sherlock Sam series by A.J. Low, illustrated by Adan Jimenez
Think of this series as Encylopedia Brown meets Foodie Boy set in Singapore. It has the same elements of humor, annoying older sister, but with a mystery twist. The cultural references to Singapore were all new to me and made this an especially rich read. [early chapter books series, ages 6 and up]
Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay
It’s interesting that there were quite a few animal adoption-themed Early Chapter Books this year but this is exactly the kind of Easy Chapter book that I wish there were more of. Lulu and Mellie just happen to be girls of color but that’s not the point. Their adventure as rescue pet adopters is perfectly pitched. I’m really impressed with this series — last year, another Lulu book made the shortlist.
The plot is a classic sit-com; the girls stay at their grandmother’s house but with their rescue hamster but as she doesn’t allow furry animals, they have to hide the hamster during their weekend stay. The hamster, of course, gets out and has to be rescued. What makes this book sing is the pacing of this very sweet story that is wonderfully descriptive without ever dragging the plot down. I hope this one gets a win this year! [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Katie Woo’s Neighborhood: Best Neighborhood Ever by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Laura Zarrin
Katie Woo and her friends have gentle adventures in this sweet series and this book is no exception where Katie learns about animal dental hygiene, farming, and taking care of pets. [chapter book series, ages 5 and up]
Princess Posey and the First Grade Ballet by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson
I love that the characters include diversity as a small detail that reflects the world around but is not the point of the story. You see the children of color in the charming illustrations. It’s a sweet story that gently introduces the idea of poverty to a young audience. Instead of judging, the story models how to be kind. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Mystery of the Missing Lion: A Precious Ramostswe Mystery for Young Readers by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh
I don’t care for the block print illustrations but they do a good job conveying a different culture, in this case, Botswana in the Okavango Delta where Precious’s aunt lives in a Safari camp. I love that this is a realistic portrayal of modern-day life in Africa. Precious visits her aunt where a tame lion used in movies returns to the wild where it is accepted. There’s a stilted quality to the writing that harkens back to an era from the past that may not be for every reader. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Emma is on the Air Big News! by Ida Siegal
Emma is a spunky budding journalist in search of big news which comes in the form of a worm found in Javier’s hamburger. Now, there’s a mystery to solve. I love that there are Spanish words sprinkled through the book, reflecting Emma’s Hispanic heritage. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Izzy Barr, Running Star by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson
Izzy happens to be African-American and this book, thankfully, doesn’t fall into easy stereotypes. Her issue will resonate with any kids who have a nuclear family. Izzy is frustrated sharing her father with her half-brother who only lives with them on weekends. It’s just that Izzy now has a sport she competes at too, but her father seems to make it to more of her brother’s games than her track meets. There’s also her running rival, Skipper Tipton, whose dad is the coach. With the big meet coming up, can Izzy resolve her issues with her father and beat Skipper? [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Critter Club: Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley, illustrated by Marsha Riti
This is an Early Chapter Book that really is easy and it happens to be about rescue animals with a diverse cast! Ellie and friends run an animal shelter in Ms. Sullivan’s barn and when a new pig arrives Ellie thinks it brings her extraordinary good luck so she’s panicked when the pig gets adopted. Will her luck disappear with Plum the pig? [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Battle Bugs: The Lizard War by Jack Patton
The reader has to infer that Max is a boy of color from a single illustration. He likes insects so when his mother who works at an auction house discovers, The Complete Encyclopedia of Arthropods, wedged behind the bookcase, she brings it home for him. There’s something weird about this book. When Max reads it, he falls into a battle between bugs and lizards. His vast knowledge about insects is about to come in handy if he is to save his new insect friends. Factoids about Arthropods are seeded throughout the book. It’s a nice way to teach kids about science. [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]
West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O’Donnell, illustrated by Aurelie Grand
There’s a lot of diversity in this book: Myron is autistic, his teachers Mr. Harpel and Ms. Chu are of color, and Hajrah seems to have ADHD. When Myron’s school cafeteria gets repeatedly trashed and snacks go missing, his perspective of being autistic makes him able to filter information and catch clues that others don’t see.
Is the culprit the school bully, Sarah “Smasher” McGuintley, or is something else going on? Liam O’Donnell also writes the excellent detective graphic novel series, Max Finder. Max is mentioned in this book as well as another well-known fictional detective, Encyclopedia Brown. Readers with a nose for sleuthing will appreciate these kinds of details! [early chapter book ages 6 and up]
Scholastic sent me a book from each of the Branches series. These are new Easy Chapter Book series from more than a dozen authors. These three series were both engaging and had diverse casts.
Princess Pink and the Lank of Fake-Believe: Moldylocks and the Three Beards by Noah Z. Jones
I like fractured fairy tales and this one is fun because it’s markedly irreverent. The cartoony illustrations and dialogue bubbles also give it a graphic novel feel. Even though there’s a princess called “pink”, this still would appeal to a boy if he gives it a chance. Princess Pink, after all, is misnamed. She is not a princess, does not likes princesses, and does not care for the color pink. [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Amazing Stardust Friends: Step Into the Spotlight by Heather Alexander
For every girl who has dreamed of joining the circus, this is the early chapter book for you. Marlo and her mother are joining the Stardust Circus; Marlo’s mom is the new cook. When Marlo meets the girls who perform, she wants to get in on the act but she has to find a special talent to be allowed to join the circus parade. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Kiki: My Stylish Life by Kyla May
This notebook novel would appeal to reluctant girl readers in older grades or even middle school because the plot that revolves around friendships and girl bullying is more relatable to girls ages 10 and up than a first or second grader. Kiki wants to be a fashion designer and has a tight cluster of close friends. When Mika Maeda moves into town, suddenly she seems to have a rival because Mika is stylish too. Is there a communication problem between Kiki and Mika or are they too much alike? When Kiki’s dog goes missing and turns up at the fashion show, will it be a showdown or is it all a big misunderstanding?
Lily’s New Home by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez
Lily and her family move to New York City. On her first day settling in, she explores the neighborhood which is so different from her old home. There’s a public garden and welcome signs in Spanish! But some things are familiar too, like the public library. Lily gets a new library card and checks out some books. When she returns home, the little boy on the stoop reading becomes her first new friend. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Want to Play? by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez
Pablo can read in English and Spanish, but when his sisters are playing loudly, he can’t read at all. he decides to go to the playground instead and play games with his friends. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.