By Lavonne Leong
January: new beginnings, long nights — what better time to celebrate Family Literacy Week (Jan. 26 to Feb. 2) than this? And in this transition period from one year to the next, let’s talk about one of the most important reading transitions: from picture books to chapter books.
Adults may not see much of a difference, but to new readers, the transition can be vast and intimidating. Chapter books, says Janice Parker, the teacher-librarian at Fernwood Elementary School, “aren’t coloured. They don’t have many pictures. And they have tons of words.” These days, new picture books rarely contain more than 600 words. By contrast, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has almost 77,000. Even the beloved grade-school standard Ramona the Pest has 27,000. That’s a big leap.
What can happen, says Parker, is that kids’ enthusiasm sometimes falls into the gulf.
“That age can be a vacant spot [in reading] — a hole,” points out Parker. “All of a sudden, this third grade thing happens where the kids, even if they’re reading and following along, there’s this sudden departure: ‘I’m not going to read anymore.’”
It’s not that they’re not cut out to be readers. Often, Parker says, what they need are stepping stones to get from short, lyrical picture books into chapter book land, where relationships deepen and complicate, and plot is the driver; stepping stones in the form of lots of support from you, and the right books for the right kids at the right time.
First, don’t stop reading to them, says Parker.
“Some people think, ‘You should start reading on your own now; here’s a book.’ But reading to your kids is a big, big thing.” While you’re reading, says Parker, “You’re expanding their vocabulary. They can hear your fluency — and it helps with the reluctance” because they can just close their eyes and let the story flow over them.
It also nurtures the personal connection they love. I’ve known more than one child who refused chapter books because they thought that their parents wouldn’t read to them anymore. And I’ve known more than one child who got hooked on chapter books when their parents or guardians took turns with them: read a chapter aloud for us, read a chapter silently to yourself. Cliffhanger chapter endings can be your friend.
Next, let them read what they want! Parents and other beloved adults are sometimes too excited to introduce the books they loved as children. You do get the occasional “old soul,” says Parker, but by and large, young readers don’t really want to read The Secret Garden and Treasure Island. Even the more contemporary classic series like Redwall and Warriors aren’t getting borrowed as much, says Parker, and that’s ok.
What does she recommend? Graphic novels. They’ve got all the colour and visual sense of a picture book, but kids will be getting used to longer and more complicated plots that require more sustained concentration and interpretation. Graphic novels are not just a halfway house between pictures and novels, but a sophisticated art in their own right, and kids gravitate to them naturally.
She also suggests hooking into trends or prior interests. If they love LEGO, or Star Wars, or reptiles, or horses, by all means let them build reading fluency by delving further into topics they already like. When the baby shark song got popular, says Parker, “they all wanted to know about sharks.”
Lastly, let them know they don’t have to give up picture books in order to love chapter books. Picture books are their own thing — incredibly poignant, lyrical, evocative, empathetic, artistic — and even adults can benefit from reading the best of them. The point is to broaden their tastes, not “level up.”
Before you know it, they’ll be reading all kinds of books. My “I only like picture books” third grader did, skipping sideways from picture books to comics to Dog Man to 1,000-page Archie compendiums to Harry Potter. Now she’s deep into book four: The Goblet of Fire. “Mom, do you know what I love?” she said the other day from the back seat, “Plot twists.”
Here are a few places to start, recommended by Parker:
• Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Kids do still read some classics with abandon. This is one of them.
• Snoopy: What’s Wrong with Dog Lips? by Charles M. Shultz. Here’s another one: the loveable late-20th-century cartoon has made a surprising comeback.
• The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey. I hear the groans from adults already, but many younger readers crave the goofiness factor. And if you read them yourself, says Parker, “they have some good lessons in them.”
• The Emmie & Friends series by Terri Libenson. This is the first in a series that kids, particularly those caught up in complicated social dynamics, are “just eating up,” says Parker.
• Wings of Fire: The Graphic Novels by Tui T. Sutherland. Parker recommends these for kids inspired by older siblings but who can’t quite manage the wordy heft of the Wings of Fire novels yet.
• Rubber Band Engineer by Lance Akiyama. Reading comprehension takes all kinds of forms, and in order to build these easy and effective machines, kids will have to hang on every word.