We have recently truly entered the “Chapter Books” phase of reading aloud to N. Last year we read one genuine long chapter book, Margaret Sidney’s The Five Little Peppers, which we were able to read only because we had already read a lavishly illustrated abridged version many, many, many times. In other words, because N. already knew much of the story from the abridged version, he was able to follow it in the original version (and The Five Little Peppers is especially tough because it is not a particularly literary or well-constructed narrative, unlike other old children’s literature, and its language seems quite old-fashioned). Much of our reading during this past year has been dominated by what I might call “pre-chapter books” because they consist of illustrated, loosely interlocking stories that don’t need to be read consecutively but that do add up to a larger narrative. These include James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price, A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington, and W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine (modified/updated version).
But I date the true beginning of the Chapter Books Epoch to a month ago when we finished The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. N. loved it so much he insisted on immediately beginning it again. It was such fun to read it to him. I loved hearing his questions as he processed the story and watching him thrill with suspense as he wondered what would happen next. He hated stopping at the end of a chapter each night and always begged for just one more chapter, or even just the first few pages of the next chapter (this makes chapter books not the best idea for bedtime reading!) . Through it all I remembered my own love for this book as I child when I read it myself (and I hope I am not robbing him of that pleasure by reading it to him at this young age). Now we’ve read it through completely twice, and have read various favorite chapters even more times. N.’s approach to chapter books so far is no different than that he takes with the books listed above or with his favorite picture books: repetition. He wants to hear them over and over until he has completely mastered every detail.
Now we are reading another childhood favorite of mine: Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books! We’ve read the first four books (and I don’t think we’ll read the rest yet; Betsy’s high school and marriage is probably not appropriate for nor of interest to a nearly-5-year-old!) and are halfway through reading them a second time. I enjoyed seeing how N. is learning narrative conventions as we read novels. During our reading of The Railway Children, N. had no idea what was coming next and did not pick up on the little clues to the plot’s resolution’s that are seeded throughout the text, but as he listened to the Betsy-Tacy stories he began to notice these clues and to guess accurately what would happen next (“Mommy! I think the princess is Naifi!”). Learning to decode the structures of texts is perhaps as important a literacy skill as reading the words themselves.
We're also reading The Wind in the Willows now, which N. loves and I’ve never read. I’d love to find something similar to the Betsy-Tacy books that is about boys: old-fashioned, well-written, by a single author (not a syndicate like the Hardy Boys)… any suggestions? I love reading aloud and am so thrilled to be in this era of N.’s relationship with books.