Friday, June 22, 2012

Uncharted Territory: My Read-Aloud Chapter Book Journey with My Six-Year-Old Boy

When my oldest, Matthew, was four we dove into the world of chapter books with the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osbourne.  It was a great series to start us off.  While my little Nolan napped each afternoon, Matthew and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete stoop of our condo and entered new worlds together.  Those were magical times.

Now a six-year-old, Matthew started to tire of the expectability of his favorite series, so this January we ventured out.  All my childhood favorites are too girly for his tastes, so I find myself in uncharted territory.  This adventure into the literary unknown makes me ridiculously excited.  Here is our journey in chapter books this year to-date:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
I can't even remember how I picked this as a starting point; I was terrified of the movie as a child.  But from the first page, Matthew was completely enthralled with the book.  The quirk, the humor, the air of mystery, and the chocolate reeled my boy right in.  He will never be the same.  He sobbed at the end, not wanting it to be over, and our read-aloud bar got set impossibly high.  Be forewarned:  it's hard to compete with Charlie.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.
The logical next step to replace his beloved Charlie.  Another boy protagonist; another Dahl masterpiece.  A tad darker than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there were times I had to verbally edit as I read.  James's guardians are very cruel and Matthew's only six -- I needed to bring their mean rants down a notch.  Overall, we loved the outrageous, unexpected journey of James and his insect buddies.

Next I tried to read him two of my recent favorites, The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie .  He turned down both after the first chapter.  A Roald Dahl lover to the core, he wanted immediate surprise and humor.  So we went back to Dahl.

Matilda by Roald Dahl.
Another totally quirky story about a girl genius with very unloving parents and a horrible headmistress at school.  Matilda discovered two things over the course of the story -- a unique gift she possessed, and what it means to love and be loved by her sweet teacher, Miss Honey.  Full disclosure: I found myself caught totally off-guard when suicide became the topic of one dialogue.  While if I had pre-read Matilda I might have waited until he was a bit older, I'm not sorry we read it.  Matthew fell whole-heartedly in love with this heroine.  He outraged at her mistreatment, sympathized with her intelligence, giggled at her antics, laughed his head off at her hilarity, and celebrated her victory with his whole being.  A win.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.
When I discovered that Dahl had written a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I knew Matthew was going to go off his rocker with excitement.  He was practically bouncing off the walls.  Even crazier than the first, it was a bizarre ride.  Though I didn't love it as much as the original, Matthew was thrilled to live on a bit more with his favorite fictional kid and the wacky Mr. Wonka.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
Don't miss this one!  Hugo is more than a book -- it is an experience.  This work of art creates a hybrid genre -- part novel, part wordless illustrated story.  Pure magic.  This was my first book of the new year.  I was thrilled when it later passed Matthew's high first-chapter-standards and got the green light from him.  I loved reading this book on my own, but reading it to Matthew was even better.  Selznick creates the perfect mixture of mystery, friendship, history, brains and that magical quality that makes a great story great.  Read more about our Hugo experience {here} and {here}.  As an added bonus, Matthew now realizes that there is brilliance beyond Dahl.

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me by Roald Dahl.
Still, call me crazy, but after Hugo we went back to our tried-and-true Mr. Dahl.  This is a fun, quick read.  I love how Dahl writes about the absurd like it's mundane and every day.  Entrapenuerial animals that have intellectual conversations and own their own window washing company?  But of course.

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.
The movie lured my boys into a love affair with fire-breathing creatures.  After thoroughly exhausting our local library's arsenal of dragon-loving picture books {see our favorites here}, we decided to give the-book-that-inspired-the-movie a try.  Full of names like Snotlout and Dogsbreath and lots of Viking crudity and bravado, this one was way outside my girly comfort zone.  We didn't dislike it, and were slowly plodding our way through, when we exceeded our library renewal limit.  We broke a cardinal rule and left it hanging, unfinished.  Looking back, the worst rule we broke was seeing the movie before reading the book.  Always a bad idea.

100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson.
A woman at the bookstore suggested this one when I said that I had a six-year-old boy that loved Charlie and Hugo.  About a boy that goes to live with his relatives for the summer and discovers a wall of teleporting cupboards hidden beneath the plaster in his attic bedroom, it's an intriguing storyline.  I had a tough time reading the first few chapters, but now that I've hit my stride, this one is a hit.  One night, mid-read, Matthew randomly exclaimed, "Mom, I love this book!"  Almost every night he begs me to not to stop -- because he cannot stand the suspense.  It has all the ingredients for Matthew love:  boyhood, friendship, humor, and lots of mystery, suspense and imagination.  With a dash of baseball for good measure.  We are coming dangerously close to the ending.  Luckily there are two other books in the series, which is probably where we will head next.  **Update: The ending took a sudden dark turn, including a blood drinking witch.  Was not expecting that!  With only one chapter left, we have yet to finish it because Matthew is terrified and won't let me read another page.  We're moving on to a safer option.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
So much of life is about timing.  I bought The Mouse and the Motorcycle two Christmases ago, but Matthew wasn't interested at the time.  But this month is the moment for Ralph to shine.  My boys love their Hot Wheels and are currently on a Tom and Jerry kick; so when Matthew was freaked out by 100 Cupboards, I hoped that a mouse and a red motorcycle might be a great rescue.  It was a hit.  A simple, light story with a motorcycle and a cute rodent was just what we needed.

Mr. Popper's Penquins caught Matthew's attention
while on a book-scoping trip to the bookstore yesterday.

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.
When we first saw Mr. Popper's Penguins at the bookstore, it looked like just the kind of absurdity we adore around here.  As it turned out, it lived up to our expectations and more.  A total delight.  Matthew loved it so much that he said, "I wish we could keep reading this all day and all night!"  If you are looking for a fantastic read for a young boy -- this is it.   (Also, FYI, we watched the movie this weekend.  Though the boys enjoyed it, the movie is nothing like the book.)

Herman by Tyler Roberson
When I was at the Traverse City Book Festival two years ago, my booth was right next to the author's.  Herman  is the short, simple story of a young orphaned farm boy who rescues an orphaned green heron chick and nurtures it to freedom.  The story is based on a snippet of Tyler's father's real life as a boy.  I made a mental note to remember this one and even saved Tyler's card.  I knew Matthew would love this book one day.  Just recently Matthew grew interested in herons and I excitedly ordered Tyler's book.  I liked the slow, homey storytelling and so did Matthew.  It's good to learn to appreciate this kind of story -- that gives a window into a slower, different life than the busy-paced one we are so familiar with.

Our potential What's Next List
We've found it tricky to find good writing, memorable characters, and intriguing story-lines that are  appropriate for Age 6.  But it's a fun challenge.  Some of the ones we plan to try out next are:

1.  Dandelion Fire by N. D. Wilson (the next book in the 100 Cupboard Series)... **or maybe not.
2.  Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans.  This one looks like a sure bet to me.  A smart boy, a mystery, inventions and a magic workshop.
3. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
4.  Something by E. L. Konigberg - From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or The View from Saturday.
5.  The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo if I can ever convince Matthew to let me get past the first chapter.  I know he'd love it.
6.  Maybe The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane , also by DiCamillo.  Too sad?  Too old for him?  I haven't read it yet, but love her writing style.  Thoughts anyone?
7. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.
8.  The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks.  This one is based on a reader's recommendation in the comments.  Thank you!
9.  There's always more Dahl!  If all else fails, we still haven't tackled The BFG , Fantastic Mr. Fox or Danny the Champion of the World .  

I thought he might like The Borrowers or Charlotte's Web, but they have joined the ranks of books that he is decidedly not interested in right now.  Ha.  I have a discerning reader on my hands.  He definitely knows what he loves and what he doesn't.

Suggestions, anyone?


  1. My younger brother and I loved Dahl - reading ur reviews reminded me of some other books we also really enjoyed. We had such different reading tastes but these books brought us together :)
    1. Interstellar Pig by William Sleator - I think this one we read when I was in 4th or 5th grade so perhaps a bit old but definitely a great sci-fi for kids
    2. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L Konigsburg - such a fun mystery of siblings hiding out in a museum
    3. A Wrinkle in Time by M. L'Engle - a great Read but also read it in like 4th grade or so. A space adventure of siblings looking for their missing scientist Dad

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I've never heard of Interstellar Pig - I can't wait to check it out! I LOVE From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It's on my list of books to read to him this year. I want to read A Wrinkle in Time myself (can you believe I've never read it???) to figure out if he's too young at seems like one that would be right up his alley.

    2. I haven't read Interstellar Pig since we were young so no idea what I would think of it now but I just remember my brother and I loved it back then...and I talked to him about it recently and he still says it was his favorite but we were older than 6 yrs old when we read it, I was probably in 5th or 6th grade. But I did think of a few more favorites that would be more age approrpriate for u guys - The Indian in the Cupboard, Stuart Little, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Charlottes Web, A Cricket in Times Square, The Boxcar Children, The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I look forward to reading all of these with my daughter someday. She's only 20 months now but we are enjoying all picture books that include cats and caterpillars at the moment :) Have u started Harry Potter with him yet? Love the series and the 1st one is so magical.

    3. I forgot about Indian in the Cupboard...I've seen it on several people's recommended lists lately. I remember loving A Cricket in Times Square when I was younger - I forgot about that one!

  2. Hi Shelley! I've been reading chapter books to my EL Paso 3. They have grown a bit tired of the Magic Tree House too. I did read "Charlotte's Web" to them this time around and they loved it very much. Perhaps it was because each character had his/her own special voice (!) ~ I love to read out loud to these kiddos. But I was wondering what chapter book to bring to El Paso in September. You have given me some very good ideas and recommendations ... so I'm not worried any more!

    You have given your boys such a treasure in reading. I have always said that reading is the highest form of pleasure (at least in my life). I miss you! I miss seeing your sweet boys! I hope to drive to Detroit some time this summer, before I return to work. Perhaps late August. It will be good to reconnect with you then. With love, Aunt Carol

    1. Hi Aunt Carol! I can't wait to see you again! It feels like forever. I agree about reading -- it is the highest form of pleasure and relaxation. I love how they keep the mind turning constantly too; I think so many deeper things when I'm reading a lot. I've hardly enjoyed reading more than I have this past year. I had taken an accidental reading break after becoming a mom. Coming back to it makes it seem even more precious. And reading with the boys is an extra sort of special too. I love that you're reading with your El Paso 3! I highly recommend Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie -- it drives me nuts that Matthew won't let me read them to him. =)

  3. Hey Shelley, you've got lots of great choices here!! I'd say Edward Tulane may be a hard one. My 4th graders had a hard time paying attention to this one at times, and it is truly sad, but very sweet at times.

    Have you tried any of the Wayside School books by Louis Sacar? The are very silly and fun. Plus, he will love Holes by Sacar when he gets older!

    1. Hmmm...I've never heard of them. In fact, I just heard of Holes and Sacar this past week. I'll have to check out the Wayside School stuff. Our 100 Cupboards book ended up getting too creepy and dark. We need something silly and fun next!!!

    2. Oh, and -- thanks for your opinion about Edward Tulane. I'm trying to preview a lot of books before reading them to him. But it's hard to keep up. I JUST finished When You Reach Me and love, love, loved it! But I think it's a tad to old for him yet too. Now I'm reading A Wrinkle in Time in the few minutes before I fall asleep at night. I've never read it and When You Reach Me made me want to.


Thanks for joining the conversation!