New for New Readers: Beginning Reader Roundup Fall 2023

The most important things we can do as teachers, librarians, caregivers, and book creators are to understand how children acquire ­reading skills and ensure they’re getting access to high-quality books. These books should engage new readers while also systematically providing the opportunity to practice the skills they need to become fluent readers of English — a process that for most children will take years. Our language is full of oddities: multiple letters and letter blends that make the same sound; words that sound the same but have radically different meanings; letters that when combined make an entirely different sound than each letter does on its own. The way to learn this is through exposure, repetition, and patience, both on the part of children and of the adults who work with them.

This roundup moves from recent books that teach the most basic reading skills to the most advanced, along with recommended read-alikes (and you can find more at ­ In addition to the value of developmentally appropriate practice, these books will delight children with relatable stories and thoughtful art that make the hard work of learning how to read rewarding.

I Help [I Like to Read]
by Joe Cepeda; illus. by the author

A child fills a canteen and then walks around the neighborhood sharing water and making friends. The book is ideal for children who have a grasp of sight words (e.g., I, a, see, go) and are moving into sounding out other words. There are one to four words per page in clear, large type. Most words are repeated, and all but one (water) are one syllable. Cepeda uses bright, textured mixed-media images on white backgrounds to tell much of the story visually and thus avoids using longer words with difficult sound blends and digraphs (canteen, neighbors, lemonade). This strategy is a hallmark of the best beginning readers: the illustrations carry a heavy load to make the story more interesting while keeping the text manageable. A bonus with this book is that it’s being simultaneously published in Spanish (Ayudo), useful for the many children who speak and are learning to read both English and Spanish. Pair this with other books by Cepeda (I See, I Hop, etc.); Go, Sled! Go! by James Yang; and Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long.

Dot the Ladybug: Dot Day [I Can Read!]
by Kallie George; illus. by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

It’s Dot the ladybug’s birthday, and she has no idea where all her friends are. George uses dot and words that rhyme with dot (lot, spot, jot) repeatedly on each page, giving readers ample practice with this sound and also creating a pleasing sense of rhythm. She plays with how these words can be used, building vocabulary and comprehension. Dot can be a name, but dots can also be “Ice cream dots. Polka dots. ­Dot-to-dots.­” Dot spends her day spotting dots all over ­Coleman’s cheerful illustrations in subdued shades and pastel green that serve as an excellent­ backdrop for the red pop of Dot’s wings. Ultimately, she follows the dots to find her friends, who have planned a surprise birthday party. Pair this with the Owl and Penguin series by Vikram Madan and the Fox series by Corey R. Tabor, lighthearted stories that provide practice with first-step reading skills.

Try a Bite, Trilobite! [Ready-to-Read]
by Jonathan Fenske; illus. by the author
(Simon Spotlight)

This beginning-reader comic finds its strength in a common developmental challenge and literary trope: trying to convince someone to try an unfamiliar food. In this story a pair of trilobites stand on facing pages, one with a cupcake to share and the second insisting they only like noodles. (A graphic on the CIP page gives readers help with the one word many adults may even have trouble with, trilobite.) This includes some higher-level reading skills — dialogue bubbles, multiple short sentences (two to six per spread), more words per page, and some sound blends (gl in glad) and digraphs (ck in snack). Most of the story is built around sight words and straightforward one-syllable words, though, so the challenges are nested in what should be familiar. Fenske uses minimal backgrounds and props in the illustrations, keeping the focus on the characters, whose faces are delightfully expressive as one prehistoric arthropod wheedles the other. Pair this with the Jack Book series by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, and the Ty’s Travels series by Kelly Starling Lyons with illustrations by Niña Mata, books that include a similar balance of linguistic simplicity and difficulty.

Hot Cat, Cool Cat [I Like to Read]
by Laura Manaresi; illus. by Roberta Angaramo

Another classic beginning-reader trope: a pair of friends who are opposites — in this case, cats Kip and Kit — learn how their differences can help them work together as a team. This book includes two to four sentences per page, most simple (“Kip likes to run. Kit likes to sit”), though some compound (“One sunny day, Kip ran to the lake. Kip said hello to many mice and ate a lot of cake”). As with other books for children just beginning to sound out words, there are many sight words and a lot of repetition, though this book introduces more words that may be unfamiliar or tricky. There’s a lot of use of the letter k making a couple of different sounds — the hard k of Kip and Kit, and the softer k of lake and cake. Practicing the same letter in different contexts builds mastery. While the text is simplified, Angaramo’s rich, full-bleed illustrations in jewel tones of green and blue fill out Kip and Kit’s world with detail and charm, giving the story a rich, lived-in feeling. Pair this with Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox + Chick series and Candy James’s Archie & Reddie series, books with similar visual depth and growing phonetic complexity.

Gigi and Ojiji: Food for Thought [I Can Read!]
by Melissa Iwai; illus. by the author

The latest installment in Iwai’s Geisel Honor–winning Gigi and Ojiji series provides a nuanced, fresh take on the trying-new-foods trope. Here, Gigi and her grandfather, Ojiji, who has recently immigrated from Japan, are both flummoxed when confronted with new foods. When Gigi makes Ojiji peanut-butter toast for breakfast, Ojiji pretends to like it, but when Gigi realizes that he hardly ate any of it, she’s disappointed. Her mother explains that peanut butter isn’t a common food in Japan, and so Gigi decides they should make Ojiji a Japanese breakfast. When Gigi tries the natto (made from fermented soybeans), she hates it, but not wanting to hurt Ojiji’s feelings, she echoes her grandfather’s response and pretends to like it. Confusion abounds. The book has multiple sentences and twenty or so words per page, some of which include dialogue, so this is good for readers who have grown confident sounding out words and navigating basic punctuation. The book includes a sprinkling of Japanese words, something familiar for bilingual children and an additional element of interest for children who don’t know Japanese. (A glossary in the back highlights the Japanese words and their meanings.) This loving multiracial, bilingual, and multigenerational family reflects many children’s lived experience, and Iwai’s illustrations in curved lines and gentle shades of blue reinforce the story’s sense of empathy and acceptance. Pair with Raúl the Third’s El Toro & Friends series for kids who enjoy exposure to multiple languages.

Trim Sets Sail [Adventures of Trim]
by Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Kristy Caldwell

This is the first entry in a new series about Trim, a cat who joins the crew of an expedition to circumnavigate Australia in the early 1800s. It is historical fiction based on the true story of ship’s captain ­Matthew Flinders and his cat, Trim, who sailed on the HMS Investigator. Trim learns about life at sea in five short chapters with upwards of ten sentences on each spread. Many of the sentences are complex and use dialogue, and there is a large variety of words and sounds. This is for readers who are growing confident and are getting ready to launch into transitional chapter books. While the story is about a cat in the distant past, Trim has small adventures any child will recognize: he works at making friends, he has trouble figuring out where he fits in, and he climbs so high he’s too scared to climb down. Caldwell’s digitally rendered illustrations in soft, watery pastels alternate between full-spread and spot images that stay tightly focused on the characters and action, panning out and zooming in to give a sense both of the ship’s structure and of movement and drama. Pair with Matthew Cordell’s Cornbread & Poppy series and Corey R. Tabor’s Sir Ladybug series.

From the November/December 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Adrienne L. Pettinelli

Adrienne L. Pettinelli is the director of the Henrietta (NY) Public Library. She has served on several book award committees, including the 2015 Caldecott Committee, and is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (2008).

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