Early chapter books are an often overlooked section of the middle grade book world. Yet they are a vital link in getting children from sounding out words and sentences to reading with real fluency. Early chapter books are read by kids as young as four and readers–particularly English language learners as old as ten or eleven–though the sweet spot is six to nine years old. Some kids breeze through early chapter books in a few months. Others spend years building the reading muscle. Below are a handful of new chapter book series with diverse characters.
Zoey & Sassafras: dragons and marshmallows by Asia Citro pictures by Marion Lindsay
(first of an 8 book series available now) Zoey and her precocious cat Sassafras have the ability to see magical creatures just like her mother who is a scientist. She uses her ability to help sick or endangered magical creatures who come to her barn for help. Each book features Zoey using the scientific method to figure out how to help the magical creature. Though Zoey & her parents are depicted as an African American family, there is little to mark that identity beyond the pictures. Because Zoey’s interactions are all within her own family, it doesn’t feel unnatural as it might if she were at school or in the neighborhood. The Zoey and Sassafras website has dozens of handy printable resources for teachers. The series is from a small publisher in Seattle, WA, Innovation Press. It’s geared toward the younger end of early readers.
Ways to Grow Love by Reneé Watson pictures by Nina Mata (
second in a 2 book series so far, on sale April 2021) I admit I am especially fond of this series because it is set in Portland OR, my hometown. It features favorite places from my own childhood including the Saturday Market, Oaks Park, and my beloved county libraries. I also liked how the faith of Ryan Hart’s family is depicted in the moral lessons they impart and the summer bible camp they attend. Ryan spends a summer preparing for the birth of her baby sister and adjusting to all the changes that entails from doing more chores to choosing a name. This series is longer and more complex than the others making it best for 6 to 10 year olds. A good companion for readers of Clementine, and Ramona.
And now a personal aside. The majority of children of all races in this country are religiously observant. The entire culture of worship, vacation bible school and summer camp, church based sports teams and scout troops, social justice activities, youth groups, rites of passage, and sacraments, all of it, gets left out of children’s books. There’s absolutely no justification for it. Even in conversations specifically about diversity we seldom include religion. That’s a blind spot that could use some attention.
Wind Riders: Rescue on Turtle Beach by Jen Marlin pictures by Izzy Burton (first in a series of unknown length to be on sale July 2021)
This new series is very much an heir to the Magic Treehouse books. In this series Max and Sophia find a magic sailboat and are transported to Hawaii. They solve a light pollution problem in order to save hatchling sea turtles. The series proposes to feature a new animal and ecosystem with each book and the heroes solve an environmental problem each time. In the illustrations Max is portrayed as a white boy and Sophie is dark-skinned though neither is identified by ethnicity, race or religion. Like Zoey & Sassafrass, this zippy text glazes over racial differences without remark. This one is also geared for the 4 to 8 year old end of the chapter book audience. There is back matter with more information about sea turtles and a helpful diagram showing the parts of a sailing ship.
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, words & pictures by Erin Entrada Kelly
I have seldom read a chapter book as emotionally true as Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey. Our hero is the delightfully cautious and introspective Marisol, a Philippine -American girl living in Louisiana. The two things I appreciated most about this book was the main characters disarming honesty about her many fears, and her steadfast best friend Jada. So many chapter books address the problem of the mean, snarky, bullying girl. It’s easy to forget that children–even girls–are as capable of kindness as they are of cruelty. I loved Jada’s unquestioning acceptance of Marisol’s many quirks. I loved their imaginative play and the hilarious names they gave to household appliances. And I loved the girls unwavering faith in their friendship. I also appreciated the leisurely pace, which meandered from one summer activity to the next while Marisol thoughtfully addressed her fear of climbing the magnolia tree in her back yard. This is a perfect choice for a tender-hearted reader.
JoJo MacCoons by Dawn Quigley (first book in a series of unknown length)
JoJo MacCoons is Ojibway living on her reservation. There’s much all kids will find familiar about this cat loving, overly literal, and wonderfully earnest first grader navigating the friendship challenges of school for the first time. There’s a sprinkling of Ojibway words and elements of her culture in the text making it a gentle introduction to one of the principle tribes of the upper midwest. Plentiful illustrations capture Jojo’s spunky personality perfectly.
There is a Glaring Problem with the books I’ve reviewed above. None of them have POC boys for main characters. It’s not just a problem among diverse chapter books. There are very few white boy main characters in early readers. Jack from The Magic Treehouse and the Waylon series from Sara Pennypacker are the only two that spring to mind. Unless you count series that have been around since the 70s like Nate the Great and Encyclopedia Brown. Boys in this age group have to settle for animal proxies in The Bad Guys, Dogman, The Dragon Masters. We can do better and if we hope to get boys of all races and ethnicities hooked on reading. It would help to have a few characters as well developed as Ryan Hart and Marisol Rainey to usher them into the world of books and show them it’s a place they belong. If I’ve missed a solid chapter book series with a boy protagonist, please drop a comment.