by Mary Qamaniq-Mason
We do a lot of bedtime reading at our house. When Big Son turned four I really wanted to challenge him to start listening to some chapter books along with his picture books at bedtime, but it was hard to find the right books.
I had a huge mental list of classics that my mom read to me when I was little that I couldn’t wait to read to my children — except when I tried them out they didn’t seem, well, boy-ish enough. He just couldn’t get excited about them.
So then I scoured book lists for newer suggestions and once again I found a lot of early chapter books aimed at girls. We tried some of them and, as a woman, I loved them (especially Ivy & Bean and Clementine). But they seemed like a stretch for Big Son — he didn’t dislike them, but he needed something more… adventurous? Silly? I don’t know exactly what makes a book boy-ish, but he needed it.
When I searched again for good chapter books specifically for boys I wasn’t satisfied either. Some suggestions did work out well, but many of them were either not well written enough for me to enjoy them (an important part of sustaining bedtime reading!), or they used what I consider gimmicks to hook boys in that didn’t reflect our family values. Think boy protagonists being gross for the sake of grossness, hating sisters for the sake of hating all girls, contemplating how much they hate school and teachers, etc.
We eventually did find a bunch of great books that fit the bill. I have been keeping a running list of the books we’ve read, and Big Son and I picked his 25 absolute favorites for this list. Some work well for very young listeners, some for 6-7, and some for older. Many are classics, some are new. Some feature female protagonists, some male. They are all 6-year-old boy approved, and they have all been a pleasure for this mom to read as well!
Ages 4 – 6
First up, books that can work for very young listeners. Helping boys learn to love listening is a great way to prepare them for success at school. Our current school model really favors learning methods natural to females over males (think communication over physicality, talking about actions more than taking actions). One way to prep boys to “do well” (and therefore enjoy their experience) in female-oriented early years classrooms is to help them practice listening without the constant visual stimulation of picture books or screens. Of course, that is also a great skill for humans all around.
Toys Go Out features wonderfully rich characters (including a stuffed buffalo named Lumphy and an insecure but lovable red plastic ball) that explore their own fears and have adventures in spaces that young children inhabit: the bedroom, the bathtub, the laundry room, the beach. There is also a fantastic audiobook. It is read so well I actually listened ahead of my son when he was at preschool and finished it on my own before letting him continue. There are two sequels now as well: Toy Dance Party and Toys Come Home.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Hilarious, outrageous, and captivating for kids age 4 through teen. I often take out this book when we have a mixed age group of foster kids who aren’t sure if they want to be read to. So far it’s been a success.
Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, has continued to be just as hilarious and delightful for nearly a century. I think we associate Pooh with babies so we read it to kids too young. But 5’s and 6’s are really the ideal audience in my opinion.
Forget Judy Garland — The Wizard of Oz book is a surprisingly gripping adventure book for boys, that can easily captivate young minds that aren’t so sure about chapter books. Less well known are the series of Oz books that come next: Oz, the Complete Paperback Collection
Again, a super popular choice — but for a good reason. The Magic Tree House books are all about loving the magic of stories, so they are a pleasure to read as a parent if you are a book lover yourself.
All the Roald Dahl books work great for boys — but we suggest starting with The BFG. In Big Son’s mind, nothing compares.
So engaging, so funny, so reflective of a child’s own imagination. Flat Stanley and his other adventures are guaranteed winners.
Ages 6 – 10
Once kids are a bit more experienced with chapter books and are able to listen to more complex stories (or classic stories that use dated language) try these:
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda One of my personal favorites. I also listened to the full set of these books on audiobook without my child! I enjoyed them so much that I eagerly waited for Big Son to get old enough to enjoy them too. I introduced the first book on audiobook on a road trip, knowing that everyone in the car would love it; and my 6 year old son, my husband, our 22 year old cousin, and I all did! I think these books are actually aimed at pre-teens but they are really fun for all ages, starting at (a mature) 6, 7, or 8. Also of note, they feature wonderful themes about social exclusion and inclusivity to explore with your child. Here is the whole series: The Origami Yoda Files: Collectible 8-book Boxed set.
In my opinion, the first Boxcar Children book is by far the best, and what child doesn’t want to fantasize about how they would live happily in the woods without grown-ups butting in?
Like Origami Yoda, Unusual Chickens For the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is meant for pre-teens but is a delightful read for everyone including 6 year olds. Some of the references to being a racial/cultural outsider might fly over the heads of some younger kids (or they might stick and wouldn’t that be great!) and some parents might hesitate to read about the protagonist’s struggle with missing her dead grandmother (or other themes about communication from beyond the grave) but for our family it was a perfect book. The hilarious antics of the magical chickens had Big Son laughing so loudly he could hardly breathe. It would be a shame for young boys to miss out on such hilarious nonsense just because it was meant for a slightly older audience.
<3 Do I even need any words here? Just <3 Ok – two things I do want to say. 1) I think we read this treasure to kids too early. In our experience, it is better loved by 6’s and 7’s and up rather than by 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. 2) If you have a boy that balks at female protagonists and is turned off by the cover or the title, remember that the protagonist of this book is neither Charlotte nor Fern, but Wilbur the Pig. Another classic I think we read too early. 6 and up is the key to finding it side-splittingly hilarious.
Interestingly, even though Big Son wasn’t crazy about other great books of the same genre because they are too girl-centric (I am still upset about him not liking Ivy & Bean and Clementine), he does love Ramona. I suggest starting Beverly Cleary with the Henry Huggins books and only moving onto Ramona if your boy wants, but if you do, try Ramona and Her Father. Want more Henry? Here is The Henry and Ribsy Box Set and did you know that Neil Patrick Harris reads The Henry Huggins Audio Collection?!
The rest of the Harry Potter series is too scary for young kids in my opinion, and I let Big Son know that we would be waiting a while on those. But the first book is so wonderful — and reading it lets your younger boy in on all the Harry Potter magic everyone’s always referencing.
Want to get your child interested in stories from other cultures? I wanted Big Son to enjoy the Indian Epics, and Aru Shah was the perfect gateway. It was an intense adventure, great for kids 7 and up through pre-teen, and a great introduction to the Mahabharat.
After Aru Shah and a children’s re-telling of the Mahabharat, we moved on to the Ramayana. Much thanks to The Land I Once Lived In for recommending such a great children’s Ramayana: Rama of the Golden Age: An Epic of India.
There’s older language in this one and you might have to skim the first chapter to get right to the story for younger kids, but what a wonderful story it is, and how worth it! The other books in The Borrowers series are better for older kids as there is some slow pacing as well as more antiquated language.
Speaking of antiquated-language-but-it’s-worth-it: next up is Tom’s Midnight Garden. The old fashioned language might be tricky for some kids, but luckily there’s a graphic novel now too! What boy would want to miss out on a classic and beloved time-travel ghost-story mystery?! A Canadian classic. The true (ish) story of a boy growing up on the Prairie and adopting two owls who get him into plenty of trouble, but are also menacing enough to keep the neighborhood bullies away all summer.
Similarly, Mutt the Dog, a supporting character in Owls in the Family gets his own book in The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.
Big Son doesn’t seem old enough yet to gobble up the other books in the Narnia series, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of his favorite stories of all time. We were talking once about people turning into statues and I said, “Oh, it’s like that evil witch in Narnia that turns people into stone statues.” And his jaw dropped and his eyes looked terrified and thrilled.
That’s also when I learned that if a child is having a hard time getting into a story, or doesn’t want to start a classic book they think will be boring — just tell them a bit of the story at another time. Or better yet, let them overhear you talking about the story to someone else. They’ll be hooked.