11 best early reader books
Inspire a love of reading from an early age and boost their development with these engaging, educational stories
Learning to read should be a voyage of discovery; a route to mastery of the code that grants young children access to a world of stories and adventures.
Unfortunately, much of the reading material they are presented with at school – often for genuine educational or budgetary reasons – can be tedious and uninspiring, not to mention held together with sticky tape and stickier fingerprints.
Below is a selection of books that should encourage infant-school age children to want to read and progress. This list is made up of new titles, so books published in the last year or two, rather than a round up of classics. We have also taken into account that children learn at different paces, so we have tried not to be too prescriptive about age ranges, but our picks should cover readers from, roughly, age four, when they start school and first begin phonics, to the move to junior school at seven years old.
‘Billy and the Mini Monsters: Monsters in the Dark’ by Zanna Davidson with Melanie Williamson (illustrator): £6, Amazon
Usborne Young Reading is a reading programme taking in a range of levels. They offer stories that are strong, not just tools for imparting reading skills – their look and feel suggests that too. My daughter likes little details such as the ribbon attached to each for keeping your place. Billy and the Mini Monsters is a new series designed for reluctant readers, and this one – level two, which is aimed at readers who are “growing in confidence” – tells the story of a young boy’s battle with scary night-time creatures bearing names such as Captain Snott and Fang Face. There are loads of humorous illustrations and it is divided into manageable chapters.
Marvel ‘Ultimate Villains’: £5, Amazon
Marvel early readers are, if you will excuse the pun, a marvel. Step aside, banal schoolbooks about trips to the shop; here you get short paragraphs about super-baddies with awesome powers. Who doesn’t want to read sentences like: “Doctor Octopus is a brilliant scientist, but he is also a crook”? It comes complete with comic-book-style illustrations and a quiz to help comprehension. There are a range of these books at different levels beginning with basic sounds and sentences at level one. Ultimate Villains, at level two, is about right for children who can tackle simple stories on their own.
‘The Grunts on the Run’ by Philip Ardagh with Axel Scheffler (illustrator): £5, Amazon
This is the fourth in a hugely popular series about the gruesome Grunt family by Philip Ardagh, a winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and prolific author, but it is Axel Scheffler’s now-iconic illustrating style that will be most immediately familiar to most. The slightly bonkers sense of humour is perfect for readers towards the top end of infant school – though younger children will enjoy having these books read to them too.
‘Ape’s Great Escape’ by Russell Punter with David Semple (illustrator): £6, Amazon
Part of a series called Usborne Phonics Readers, Ape’s Great Escape is perfect for children aged four or five who are still very new to reading but are at the point where they need an entertaining story to keep them motivated. This is a simple, illustrated rhyming tale of a grape-stealing ape’s ill-fated jailbreak, with some basic notes on phonics for parents at the back.
‘Magical Stories for Five Year Olds’ chosen by Helen Paiba with Anthony Lewis (illustrator): £5, Hive
This isn’t a beautiful, multi-colour tome but a collection of stories, by authors such as Joan Aiken and Margaret Mahy, of a few pages. Children of about five (at least those in year one rather than reception) should be able to read themselves, perhaps with help. It’s a useful book for keeping the reading going if you’re off on holidays as it combines multiple tales in one lightweight volume. Part of a series with books for other ages too.
‘Meet the Ancient Romans’ by James Davies: £10, Amazon
Inquisitive children will sometimes be coaxed into reading better by a bit of non-fiction (particularly if there’s violence or gore involved) than by stories. This new potted history of the Romans is aimed at readers of six and above, and offers bite-sized chunks of info along with plenty of pictures.
‘Superworm’ by Julia Donaldson with Axel Scheffler (illustrator): £4, Amazon
Julia Donaldson’s world-conquering series of books produced in partnership with illustrator Axel Scheffler will be well known to most pupils by the time they reach infant school. These small and lightweight early-reader versions break the text into small chunks and use a very clear font to make them easier for young children to tackle on their own. The fact that they might know the stories by memory means that they’ll be able to cheat a bit on the reading, but that’s compensated for by the motivational benefits of being able to read a much-loved story all by themselves.
‘The Frog Prince and Other Tales’ by various authors and illustrators: £9.90, Amazon
Part of the recently revamped Read with Oxford series, this collection of four traditional tales, by a number of children’s authors and illustrators, makes for good bedtime reading practice and would represent a manageable challenge for many children towards the end of reception or in year one. “Yoshi the Stonecutter”, with its stylish illustrations, was a hit in our house.
‘The Cat and the King’ by Nick Sharratt: £7, Amazon
Many young children will recognise Nick Sharratt’s distinctive illustrations from his smash-hit picture books such as You Choose, and will be pleased to see them translate into his debut novel about a king who moves into an ordinary street with his pet feline. It’s about right for six- and seven-year-olds, who will enjoy the level of humour (“When is a piece of wood like a king? When it’s a ruler”) as well as the level of reading.
‘Winnie Dresses Up’ by Laura Owen with Korky Paul (illustrator): £5, Amazon
Winnie the Witch and her cat Wilbur are the stars of a well-established series of more complicated stories, and so these new tales aimed at novice readers aged roughly five or seven have the distinct advantage of featuring a recognisable character from “proper books”. This tome features two stories plus some advice for parents and activities to engage children in the text, including a quiz.
‘The Man Who Wore All His Clothes’ by Allan Ahlberg with Katharine McEwen: £6, Amazon
The recently reissued Gaskitt stories by the multi-award winning Allan Ahlberg, of which this is the first , are illustrated chapter books aimed squarely at infant-school age children. Short lines of text are presented in clear font and interspersed with illustrations, making this comedy of errors a good way to transition into reading longer stories.
We love the look and feel of Usborne Young Reading’s Monsters in the Dark. It’s a fun tale, although the series takes in a huge range of other subjects too. For anyone interested in comic books or superheroes, the Marvel series is a wonderful motivator.
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