10 Chapter Books Featuring Diverse Characters, Magic, and Mystery

Too often, books published for children learning to read independently miss the design details and engaging content that keep early readers encouraged. This list of titles offers updates on series featuring diverse characters, talking pets, unicorns, magic, mystery, and everyday dilemmas.



There’s nothing easy about learning to read independently. Yet too often, books published for children at this important stage miss the design details and engaging content that keep early readers encouraged. This list of titles offers updates on series featuring diverse characters, talking pets, unicorns, magic, mystery, and everyday dilemmas. Read on for examples of how it’s done—or not done—when crafting a quality early reader.

Brown, Laura & Elly Kramer. Fashionable ­Disaster. illus. by Sarah Mensinga. 144p. (Trillium Sisters: Bk. 3). Pixel+Ink. Feb. 2022. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781645950646.
Gr 2-4 –Triplets Giselle, Clare, and Emmy discover a natural hot spring while exploring Trillium Mountain. They decide to hold a fashion show to fund turning the spring into a spa offering manicures and cucumber eye treatments. But when Clare starts acting bossy and a rockslide closes the spring, the sisters must use their magic mini-animals, cooperation, and some “fashiontastic” ideas to save the day. Seventeen lines of text per page, an exclamatory-dialogue driven narrative, and a large cast of indistinguishable characters increase the reading challenge. The story elements of finding your strength while working ­together—as well as having pets with ­magical powers—will keep readers engaged. VERDICT For those who can’t get enough “girl power” fiction, or where the first two books in the series are popular.

Butler, Dori Hillstead. King and Kayla and the Case of the Lost Library Book. illus. by Nancy Meyers. 48p. (King and Kayla: Bk. 8). Peachtree. Feb. 2022. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781682632154.
Gr 2-4 –Butler and Meyers continue to set the standard for the ideal early reader in this eighth entry in the series that won two Geisel Honor Awards. It’s a testament to their skills that they can turn a routine search for a book into an engaging ­mystery even the youngest readers can solve. Over the brief story arc, setting and time line are clearly delineated and characters develop. King the dog gets all the funny lines (“I forgot I’m not supposed to be on the sofa.”) and Kayla is his straight-faced owner. ­Meyers’s plentiful, expressive illustrations add humor and clarity. VERDICT Diverse characters, repetition, generous white space, along with short sentences and short chapters, make this series an essential purchase for all collections.

Chapman, Linda. The Midnight Realm. illus. by Mirelle Ortega. 160p. (Mermaids Rock: Bk. 4). Tiger Tales. Mar. 2022. pap. $9.50. ISBN 9781664300026.
Gr 2-4 –The five merfriends of Mermaids Rock, along with their animal sidekicks, find adventure in the perilous Midnight Zone while researching a school project. Increased lines per page and an abundance of characters make this series a bit more challenging than ones like the “­Trillium Sisters.” Ortega’s abundant illustrations suggest racial and gender diversity among the five protagonists. Character development takes a back seat to a narrative packed with elements including STEM, teamwork, school frenemies, conservation, and ocean facts. The writing relies on exclamatory phrases (“clam-tastic”) and liberal use of exclamation points. Helpful front matter art depicts the five ­protagonists and their undersea animal familiars. VERDICT Fourth in the series, this high-interest topic—­mermaids—never wanes in popularity.

Deen, Natasha. Lark Has the Shivers. illus. by Marcus Cutler. 96p. (Lark Ba ­Detective: Bk. 5). Orca. Mar. 2022. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781459826052.
Gr 2-4 –Junior detectives Lark Ba and her twin brother Connor have an ambitious goal: solve two cases in one day. The pair must find animals missing from a pet show and determine if friend Sophie’s house is truly haunted. The strong points: Deen continues to frankly depict Lark’s struggles with dyslexia, and the twins’ ­Korean-Kenyan heritage shines throughout the story. Cutler’s grayscale ­illustrations reflect diversity in the supporting characters. The mix of long and short sentences, brief chapters, and plentiful white space balance the introduction of challenging vocabulary (appreciation, ­discouraged). The book’s ­fatal flaw is the depiction of mocking other people’s names, which goes unchallenged in this title ­because the three main characters think it’s funny, despite Connor’s initial ­objections. Sophie, illustrated as white and blond haired, calls the twins “Lark Sheep” and “Connor Wool”; Connor calls her “Sophie Sofa.” VERDICT A solid premise undone by allowing verbal bullying to go unaddressed and uncorrected throughout the book. Not recommended.

Edwards, Laurie J. Unicorns to the Rescue. illus. by Jomike Tejido. 72p. (Unicorns of the Secret Stable: Bk. 9). North Star Editions. Jan. 2022. pap. $4.99. ISBN 9781631636004.
Gr 1-3 –Ruby wants a special item to bring to show and tell. But when her sister Iris is too busy with homework to help, Ruby ­enters the unicorns’ Enchanted Realm alone and ends up in need of rescuing. Ninth in the series, front matter that includes a map of the girls’ town and a brief introduction to the Unicorn Guardians’ history helps this title stand alone. Abundant white space, supportive illustrations, large font, short sentences, and limited lines of text per page make this ideal for readers transitioning to chapter books. Back matter includes “Think About It” questions encouraging readers to express how they relate to the characters and situations. VERDICT Adding unicorns, sister power, and a generous dose of magic to the thoughtful design makes this series ideal for all collections.

Faruqi, Saadia. Yasmin the Scientist. illus. by Hatem Aly. 32p. (Yasmin). Capstone/Picture Window Bks. Jan. 2021. pap. $5.95. ISBN 9781515883739.
Gr 1-3 –Second grader Yasmin needs an idea for the school science fair. Baba offers to help her make a volcano, but in ­inimitable Y­asmin style, she creates an experiment that’s uniquely her own. Supported by ­caring adults at school and a loving, multigenerational home, Yasmin is relatable, inspirational, and charming. Aly’s vibrant full-color art has a hip, retro 1960s feel and perfectly captures Yasmin’s wide-eyed curiosity. It’s a perfectly designed early reader with plenty of white space, no more than six words per line, and a balance of long and short sentences. Back matter encourages readers to learn simple Urdu words like salaam (hello) and shukriya (thank you). Fun facts about Pakistan, such as the country’s flag, popular foods, and spoken languages, are included. Bringing the book to a fizzy, delightful end is the recipe for Yasmin’s drinkable science project. ­VERDICT Highly recommended for all early reader collections.

Jacboson, Jennifer Richard. No Hard Feelings. illus. by Paula Franco. 112p. (Twig and Turtle: Bk. 6). Pixel+Ink. Mar. 2022. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781645950806.
Gr 2-4 –It’s been four months since Twig’s family downsized to a tiny house in Happy Trails, CO. Twig, who is eight, and sister Turtle, who’s six, have happily settled into their new home and school—so Twig is unprepared to deal with feelings of being left out when two friends don’t include her in their plans. Her loving parents devise an amusing game involving the entire family to help the sisters learn to cope with rejection and disappointment. Twig’s first-person narrative rings true, and ­occasionally formatting her thoughts as bullet points helps young readers grasp their importance. Jacobson’s repeated ­references to pro-environmental themes lack subtlety. Franco’s greyscale spot art represents Twig’s family as white, with diversity among friends and classmates. The format is ideally designed to encourage independent readers, with 17 lines of text per page and chapters that average 10 pages. Vocabulary doesn’t get more challenging than bureau and commotion. VERDICT An appealing series for fans of other young duos like Ivy + Bean, and Bink & Gollie.

Kelly, David A. The Atlanta Alibi. illus. by Mark Meyers. 112p. (Ballpark ­Mysteries: Bk. 18). Random. Feb. 2022. lib. ed. $12.99. ISBN 9780593126288; pap. $5.99. ISBN 9780593126271.
Gr 3-4 –Junior sleuths and baseball fans Mike and Kate return in the 18th installment in the series. The cousins attend a Braves home game with Kate’s sports reporter Mom when they stumble onto a crime: Hank Aaron’s bat and ball from his record-setting 715th home run are missing! There are plenty of suspects and false leads to keep readers engaged in this solvable case, along with a wealth of baseball facts. Meyers’s illustrations add depth, but the text carries the narrative. Kelly is able to ­introduce challenging vocabulary (­evidence, ­editions) thanks to the novel’s reader-friendly ­design featuring short sentences and wide margins. “Dugout Notes” back matter includes fun facts about the city of Atlanta, the Braves, and the legendary Hank Aaron. VERDICT Another winning entry in a solid, sporty transitional reader series.

Rae, Elspeth & Rowena Rae. The Bake Sale. illus. by Elisa Guitiérrez. 160p. (Meg and Greg: Bk. 3). Orca. Aug. 2021. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781459824966.
Gr 1-4 –In four short phonics stories, friends Meg and Greg hold a bake sale, ride bikes, rope climb in a cove, and help June, a cute cat. What makes this series unique is its combination of a themed phonics reader narrative and a dual-reader level format. Each book focuses on one phonogram. This third entry introduces the “long vowel and silent e” concept using vocabulary (sale, ride, rope, cute) which demonstrates that phonogram and builds on skills introduced in previous titles. The left page is for the accomplished reader; the right is for the child learning to read and tells the story through comic-style illustrations providing textual clues and a simple narrative. Meg and Greg’s high-interest adventures will engage older readers struggling with decoding or dyslexia. Practical tips, reading strategies, games, and exercises accompanying each story add a valuable instructional component. VERDICT Fills a void in resources for emerging readers; an essential purchase for school and public libraries.

Webb, Holly. The Shelter Puppy. illus. by Sophy Williams. 128p. (Pet Rescue ­Adventures). Tiger Tales. Mar. 2022. pap. $5.99. ISBN 9781664340039.
Gr 1-3 –Caitlin nominates a local animal rescue center to be the beneficiary of her school’s fundraising, and volunteers there to spend time with favorite pup Winston. Heartache looms when Winston may leave the center for a fur-ever home with a new family. Some vocabulary (sanctuary, ­ vaguely) may challenge younger readers; the use of paw-print spot art to visually indicate shifts in time or setting is not always successful. Rescue pets are an enduringly popular topic, and Williams’s delicately shaded greyscale illustrations effectively convey heartfelt moments. Third-person narration shifts occasionally from the human protagonist to the pet’s perspective, a gentle introduction to more complex reading in the years ahead. VERDICT This latest entry maintains the long-running series’ reputation as a ­well-designed, appealing choice for ­pet-loving, newly independent readers.

Marybeth Kozikowski, Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY

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