I’ve been searching for chapter books with diverse characters and humor, books that kids love and that I’ve enjoyed, too. Here are some of my favorites. These heavily illustrated chapter books are perfect for elementary school-aged children who are reading well on their own but may not yet want novels without illustrations. I’ve arranged these in order of reading difficulty: easiest first, most challenging last.
This post is old. See my improved and expanded list here!
The Story of Diva and Flea, Mo Willems and Tony DiTerlizzi [Amazon | Bookshop] — Although this adorable, heavily illustrated chapter book is short and sweet, it must be one of the few children’s books to introduce the concept of the flâneur. It’s all the better for it. Flea the cat is the book’s flâneur, who explores Paris and has adventures, and Diva is a small dog who loves Flea’s stories but isn’t quite confident enough to venture outside her safe courtyard. Friends can help you be brave and try new things, though, and in this book the two animals each learn bravery from the other. Diva tries what Flea finds easy, and Flea tries what Diva finds easy. It’s wholly lovely and heartwarming, and Mo Willems himself even makes an appearance at the end.
Mia Mayhem (series), Kara West and Leeza Hernandez [Amazon | Bookshop] — This zippy chapter book follows Mia as she discovers that not only are her parents superheroes (with superhero powers, of course), but she’s going to be one, too. She’s soon packed off to a superhero school, where she begins lessons in skills like flying and animal communication. There isn’t a lot of emotional development here or anything particularly touching, but for kids who like to imagine having a secret identity and superhero powers, it might just do the trick. And it’s a fast-paced and quick read, with lots of cute black and white illustrations.
Toys Go Out (series), Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky [Amazon | Bookshop] — This series of six stories explores the adventures of three toys, a sting ray, a buffalo, and a ball, all with distinct and endearing personalities and faults. They belong to the same 6-year-old girl and, like siblings, they squabble over which of them she loves most. There are more serious conflicts here, too, involving questions of shame, authenticity, and identity (Plastic the ball wonders, Am I really plastic? And if I am, is that a bad thing?). The toys sometimes say truly unkind things to each other, but the tender way they work toward resolution, thinking through shame and disappointment and hurt feelings, is extremely sweet. And on top of all that, the book is very funny — perhaps even funnier for adults? — with clever dialogue and an entertaining range of background characters, like Frank the washing machine. Children who believe that all inanimate objects have lives and feelings might love this book especially. (It’s a fairly easy read, but be aware that it has fewer illustrations than many chapter books for this age range.)
Anna Hibiscus (series), Atinuke [Amazon] — Anna Hibiscus lives in a big house in Amazing Africa with her Canadian mother, African father, twin brothers Double and Trouble, uncles, aunties, and grandparents. Each chapter is a fully illustrated, self-contained adventure, though some stories build upon each other from book to book (at the end of the first book, Anna has just gotten permission to visit her grandmother in Canada at Christmastime, to see snow — a journey she’ll take in a later book). Some of the stories are quite funny: her family plans a solo vacation, but everyone is so miserable doing all the chores and childcare themselves that slowly, slowly, aunties and uncles and grandparents join them, until everyone is on vacation together (and happier!). Others have a more serious tone, as when Anna must correct a serious misjudgment that left the girls who sell oranges without any income. But these are joyous, heartwarming books, filled with great personalities. And any reader with younger brothers or sisters might especially appreciate the hilarious twins Double and Trouble.
Hotel Flamingo (series), Alex Milway [Amazon] — Anna Dupont arrives at the dusty and nearly abandoned Hotel Flamingo determined to bring it back to its former glory. But it’s not the only hotel on Animal Boulevard. Down the road, the Glitz offers luxurious accommodations that Hotel Flamingo can never match. Anna and her animal staff, however, have some big ideas. Milway’s lovely and pure-hearted book explores empathy and equality through one girl’s quest to offer exemplary service to all animals, no matter their needs, no matter what preconceptions others might have about them. Even when Madame Le Pig is throwing another fit in the kitchen, Hotel Flamingo is an idyllic place to be.
Bad Panda (series), Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey [Amazon | Bookshop] — In Bad Panda, a super-duper cute and fluffy panda named Lin isn’t too happy about being separated from her brother and sent to a zoo. So she whips up a plan: be so very bad that the zoo has to send her back. But there’s a problem. Every time Lin does something bad, people think it’s adorable! Things escalate to a truly absurd conclusion. This book’s sense of humor has some overlap with the 13-Story Treehouse books: zany, joke-a-minute, and plenty of gross-out gags. I found it truly funny at times and laughed out loud, even as I was reading on my own. It’s loaded with goofy color illustrations and is also, unusually, part chapter book and part graphic novel. A fun read for kids who like the wacky and ridiculous.
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (series), Erin Entrada Kelly [Amazon | Bookshop] — I love a lot of things about this book: its many puns, its trivia about silent movies, its Louisiana setting, the way Socrates pops up every now and then, and a magnolia tree adversary named Peppina. But it’s also a touching book about worry and sensitivity. Marisol is sensitive (she treats objects as though they have feelings, as many of us sensitive children do or did!) and she worries a lot. Will she know what to say when someone at school is mean to her? What will it be like to meet her relatives in the Philippines? But her central worry in this book is whether she’ll ever feel comfortable climbing Peppina the magnolia tree, as her best friend Jada does. This is such a funny and wise book about anxiety, vulnerability, and trust — a real joy to read.
Sam Wu Is Not Afraid of Ghosts (series), Katie and Kevin Tsang [Amazon | Bookshop] — Sam Wu is very imaginative, creative, and also quite worried about being labeled “scared.” He’s determined not to be (even if he really, really is). In this very funny first book, Sam and his best friends believe a ghost is haunting his house and come up with all sorts of wild plans to catch it (most of which go terrifically wrong, of course). The book is reminiscent of a classic children’s mystery story, but with lots of illustrations, zany, engaging text design that practically leaps off the page, and a cunning cat named Butterbutt.
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