3 Chapter Books for 3 Year-Olds

I wrote here a while back about how Harper and I fell hopelessly in love with the Winnie-the-Pooh gang.  What I haven’t mentioned is that this sent us on a wormhole-ish hunt for toddler-friendly chapter books. It is really so fun to read chapter books together – the curling up, the flicker in her eyes as she pictures a scene, or asks me to repeat a detail so she can really really picture it — and it is also, I’ve found, really hard to find just the right books that she can follow, aren’t too dark or complicated, and have enough pictures but not too many. And that don’t involve dying parents. Or dying anyone. We’re just not there yet (thankfully!). I mean, Harper thought the Heffalump was terrifying.

Here are our findings so far:

1. Jenny and the Cat Club, by Esther Averill

"Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing."

“Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing.”

This is, next to the Winnie-the-Pooh books, our biggest hit so far. Harper has been playing Jenny Linsky, drawing Jenny Linsky, telling stories about Jenny Linsky, ever since she recovered from the shock of receiving this (deceivingly!) boring-looking chapter book as a Hanukkah present. Esther Averill’s stories about Jenny Linsky, a shy yet brave little black cat who lives with her master, Captain Tinker, in Greenwich Village, are just nonstop charming. There is nothing scarier than a mean dog who steals Jenny’s signature red scarf – this episode made Harper hyperventilate with anxiety, both at the meanness of the dog, and the great crime of a theft of an accessory. Throughout these sweet stories, Jenny deals with issues like her shyness, smallness, and learning to be generous, all big issues in a preschooler’s life.

For here is the rub – I find that other chapter books, probably naturally, address questions Harper hasn’t even started to consider yet, like getting teased by mean kids. I am so thankful, particularly in the face of horrifying recent events, that this is so – that Harper still lives in a sweet little bubble where her biggest issues are her brother, Hair Puller Extraordinaire, and that sometimes her annoying mama wants her to brush her teeth, and that the meanest person she knows is her imaginary friend Murray. So in that vein, I find that older books, somehow, are the only ones that can manage to be innocent enough for this highly sensitive kiddo. Isn’t that a little weird and sad?

Anyway, good thing this book has been reprinted by the excellent New York Review Children’s Collection, and is just such a lovely object, full of charming drawings, that I find myself looking through it again and again (and unable to choose illustrations to share because they are all the best one). Best of all, this is part of series, so we can read even more about our dear little J. Linsky, as Harper likes to call her.

2. The Magic Treehouse: Dinosaurs Before Dark

I heard about Mary Pope Osbourne’s insanely popular series on, who knows, probably Pinterest. Apparently all kids everywhere love it, though I, elderly ignoramous!, had never heard of it. Harper and I had a very lovely afternoon at a local coffeeshop having hot chocolate and tearing through chapter after chapter of this first book in the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark. She liked studying the pictures, and most of all she liked the idea (as did I!) of this magic treehouse full of magic books (!!!!!!!), and the brother and sister who have adventures together. She was carrying around a notebook and backpack for a few days, just like Jack and Annie in the book. I thought we were really on to something. But somehow the next books in the series have not held her interest. I think they’re a bit too complicated – there’s all this business with magicians and Merlin and legends. But that first one, wow, what a page-turner it was! And we love happy-sibling-propaganda. So this was a good one too.

3. A Bear Called Paddington

I’m cheating a bit here, because we’ve only read one chapter of this book, which Harper’s grandmother gave her for Christmas – Harper’s daddy’s childhood copy! This has been fun for me to discover too, though, since somehow I missed the whole Paddington phenomenon as a kid. Were you aware Paddington is a real bear? From Peru? (Excuse me, darkest Peru?)Who comes to live with a family in London? There aren’t quite enough pictures for Harper’s tastes, and there is that problem familiar to us from our painstaking attempts at Stuart Little of the humor being largely pitched to witty adults, but one chapter in, so far so good. I even heard some stories being muttered about darkest Peru in one of Harper’s marathon story-telling-sessions. Chapter two happens tonight. Wish us luck!

Any other good chapter books for the very wee we’re missing? I have been remiss, by the way, in not thanking lovely commenter Genevieve who this summer led us to many awesome wordless picture books, including our favorite, You Can’t Bring a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum. Genevieve, are you out there? Do you know about chapter books too??

11 responses to “3 Chapter Books for 3 Year-Olds

  1. I’m here and so glad you liked the wordless picture books!
    Early chapter books: try Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins (with two sequels, if it’s not a little old for her right now), about a stuffed stingray, a stuffed buffalo, and a toy called Plastic; definitely the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik, which I grew up on and which are just lovely — I bet they’d be exactly up Harper’s alley — don’t get tie-ins from the TV show, which are not based on the original stories; the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel; Rabbit and Robot, by Cece Bell; Anna Hibiscus, by Atinuke (she lives in Africa, in one book visits family in Canada).

    In this post about Rabbit and Robot (by my favorite kidlit blogger, Fuse # 8 a.k.a. Betsy Bird of the NYPL), she has a “like this? then try . . . ” at the end, listing other early early chapter books. (Betsy would’ve been horrified at the rude librarian you posted about before.)

  2. Oh, and possibly My Father’s Dragon, which was great when my kiddo was three, but look at it first to see if it’s too much adventure for Harper. Less peril than Magic Treehouse, and very gentle adventure, so it might be good – I often recommend it as a good first chapter book.

    And if she has the attention span for a chapter of Magic Treehouse, maybe All-of-a-Kind Family, which is lovely and full of gentle stories. One sister might tease another a bit, that’s all. (There’s several follow-up stories — sadly out of print — and in one of them, someone’s mother dies, but this one is very safe, I think. Takes place in the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, family of five girls, who use their weekly penny to buy candy, complain about dusting until their mother hides buttons to make it a game, etc.).

  3. Thought of another — definitely Cobble Street Cousins series, by Cynthia Rylant.
    Creative, sweet-natured girls who are living with their aunt while their parents are on tour with a ballet company. “Lighthearted stories with happy endings.”

    That blogger also recommended “Big Susan,” a chapter book about dolls that come alive every Christmas, and love their owner.


    • I want to read these. Harper or no.
      Thank you! Why do you know every good book??

      • I’m a children’s book enthusiast who likes to read book blogs, and I enjoy researching tricky book-related questions. Also, my son liked to read wordless books and we were reading chapter books when he was 3, so while he wasn’t as sensitive as Harper, I did seek out chapter books that were age-appropriate. Cobble Street Cousins were a little tame for him when I found them when he was 5 or so.
        He really liked the Ivy and Bean series, which Harper might like in a couple years, but sounds like it might have a little too much mischief/conflict for her right now. My kiddo was fine with conflict / mischief in a book, and we had an Eloise rule, that we could read about mischievous things in books as long as he didn’t imitate them (Eloise pours water down the mail chute, etc.).

  4. Pingback: Happy Sibling Propaganda | household words – amy shearn and her blog.

  5. Hi! Just googling “windsor terrace” and blogs, and found yours. Strange internet world, no? I’ve been having the exact same question for our very sensitive 3-year old who loves the pooh books. Love these suggestions! Have you tried the Frog and Toad books? Also another, similar series (maybe out of print; ours is used) called Mole and Troll.

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