On the mystery of chapter books

Last week, I read Esther Averill’s The School for Cats. Written in 1944, its popularity led to the author writing a string of other books starring Jenny the little black cat and her friends. It is very short (only 32 pages, with illustrations) and took me merely minutes to read. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t realise until I picked it up from the library that it was ‘first novel’ or ‘chapter book’ type story – that is, a book for children who are just starting to read ‘novels’ by themselves.

These books are designed for children to feel like they are reading a ‘grown up book’, with chapters and everything, while not being overwhelmed with the amount of text or pages and therefore feel dismayed at trying or failing to read a whole book. I’ve found when working at the bookshop that these type of books are very vogue-esque – one series or another will be in vogue, and every child from four to seven has read the book, and then it falls out of favour when the next trendy series of chapter books comes about. However, The School For Cats has been around since 1944, and, apparently, the series (called Jenny’s Cat Club) has always been popular.

This surprises me a bit. Not that I didn’t like the book – it was cute, and sweet, and discusses children’s scary first experiences with school (except the school is for cats) – I can see why it is liked. But I don’t know if it is good enough to stand the test of time of almost sixty years. It has been a long time since I read chapter books to learn to read, so I don’t know what it is that brings a special spark to chapter books.

I don’t think I really know what makes a child sit down and read a chapter book and enjoy it. I get picture books, and fiction from about 8 to young adult, but I feel like chapter books is an area that I don’t really get. I’ve been pondering on it all week – what is it about The School for Cats that has made it so successful? Until I understand the workings of a five year old child, maybe I’ll never know.

Did anyone read the series by Ester Averill when they were young? Can anyone give me a clue as to why some chapter books survive, and others are popular for three or four years and then get replaced in popularity by something else?

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6 comments

  1. I haven’t read it, but I have no doubt it would beat that interminable and seemingly infinite So-and-so the such-and-such fairy series….honestly, that one just keeps on spawning.

  2. I’m not familiar with the School for Cats, but I do know what is popular over the years at our school library. The kids like animal books, so the school for cats would fit that category. Our kids read Fly Guy and Henry and Mudge and Hank the Cowdog. They also like mysteries and the boys like sports. The girls always love Junie b. Jones. I don’t know the answer to your question about longevity. But I do know that if one kid picks up a particular book then everybody wants the same book. And if they have some success reading a particular book then they want more of the same.

    • I think chapter books are a really great example of how important word of mouth is to a book’s success – one child telling another child about a chapter book series is one of the ways that the series gets another addict! And I remember reading animal ark chapter books when I was young – I loved all the animals in them.

  3. Keryl

    As a teacher of this junior primary age group I’ve witnessed many early chapter books whether individual or in series become popular amongst a class. It seems that many kids listen to the recommendations of their peers and will start to read a particular series to be like their friends. I’ve also read some very recently published titles in series where the main characters are the exact age of my students and there’s no doubt that the adventures and mis adventures within the stories, reflect the experiences and feelings of this age group. A number of the class went out and bought ( persuaded parents) to buy their own copies. I’ve witnessed students who were reluctant readers turn into avid readers when they can use these chapter books to succesfully practise and develop their reading skills. They certaily seem to fill a gap between easy picture fiction and novels and they are undoubtedly a marketing success.

    • That’s great! Chapter Books are undoubtably crucial in keeping children reading, and turning children onto reading. I think you saying that they are ‘undoubtably a marketing success’ is interesting as well – marketing does seem like a significant part of chapter books’ success. Not many children’s books get as big a promotions as chapter books, I found when I was working in a bookshop. But word of mouth is certainly really important too!

  4. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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