This list of gentle chapter books to read aloud to kids has been a long time in coming. Several of you have requested such a book list, but to be honest it was harder than I thought. It is likely impossible to make a list of gentle chapter books that will be universally approved as "not scary in any way." I have done my best to curate a wide variety of books that I think are generally "safe" for kids who don't like to be frightened during story time.
My recommendation is that if you have a child who is particularly sensitive, you preview the books first. I do believe you will be able to find something suitable on this list, but every child is different. In general, choosing classic books is a safe bet and I included a list of classic gentle titles at the bottom of this post. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
NOTE: If you have a 3-6 year old, you can find many other appropriate selections on my list of chapter books for preschoolers.
Teddy and Co. by Cynthia Voight, illustrated by Paola Zakimi. An absolutely adorable story about a group of toys who love to explore the world. I loved how Teddy was always lost in his philosophical thoughts, and Umpah the elephant was a grand baker. When several new toys join the group, Mr. B the rabbit with a frilly collar, and a doll who wants to be a queen, the others find they take a bit of getting used to. This is one of those books that I actually think works better as a read aloud than an independent read and it struck me as a sort of modern Winnie-the-Pooh.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa, Illustrated by Jun Takabatake. This quirky Japanese import will charm both child and parent. One day, bored Giraffe decides to send a letter via Pelican Mail to the first animal Pelican meets beyond the horizon. He ends up with Penguin as his pen pal and the two exchange charming letters full of questions. The two become friends and decide to meet, but first Giraffe wants to make a costume so he will look just like Penguin. There is nothing remotely frighting in this charming, sweet and immensely playful short novel.
The Year of Billy Miller. by Keven Henkes I bet you didn't know the author of Lily and the Purple Plastic Purse also wrote chapter books. The Year of Billy Miller is a pitch-perfect account of the year in the life of a second grader. Billy has a stay-at-home dad, school projects that present problems, sibling rivalry -- in short all the typical family and social situations that children must learn to navigate as they grow up. Henkes (and Billy) handle it all with aplomb and good humor. There's something very gentle and "old-fashioned" but timeless about this book and I think your kids will enjoy it.
Ruby Lu. (series) There aren’t a lot of children’s books featuring Asian-American heroines, so the ebullient Ruby Lu is a welcome addition to the field. Ruby Lu’s Chinese heritage is an important part of the stories, especially when her cousin, Flying Duck comes to stay. I love the fun little flip book built into the first book as well as Ruby’s unique way of describing the world around her.
Letters to Anyone and Everyone. (1996) I first encountered Dutch author, Toon Tellegen, when I picked up a copy of The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Parties (1995). In Letters to Anyone and Everyone, various animals write letters to each other (and to the sun!) which the wind delivers. Delicately charming illustrations accompany the letters in which the animals discuss their dreams and plans. Simply lovely and perfect to read aloud to younger children.
Lulu and the Duck in the Park (series) by Hilary McKay. I really loved this sweet and funny story about Lulu, an animal lover who, unable to leave an abandoned duck egg in the park, hides it under her sweater and brings it to school. Each book in the series has Lulu taking care of a new animal. (Note: see the comments below. One mom relates that the scene in which the dogs chase the ducks in the park was too much for her child. A good reminder that you know best what your child will like.)
Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke. This is an absolutely wonderful series about a girl living with her extended family in Africa. It’s gotten loads of praise by all the critics, and deservedly so. It’s a lovely way to introduce your children to family life in another culture.
Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant. My son’s teachers read this to the class and my then-6 year old loved it so much he wanted me to read it at home. So of course I did! This charming story follows the adventures of a bat with a taste for junk food, a kind dog and a wise hermit crab as they try to save their friend Stumpy the Squirrel and her new babies. Recently we also read the sequel, Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan, and enjoyed it just as much.
The World According to Humphrey (series) by Betty G. Birney. My 7 year old adores this series and it makes him laugh over and over. Humphrey narrates his experience as a classroom pet. His funny and insightful observations of the children in his class are highly entertaining and Humphrey even learns to read himself! Lots of "un-squeakably good fun" as Humphrey would say.
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. (A classic, to be sure, but since I haven't written about it before, I'm mentioning it here.) Louis the trumpeter swan is mute, which is a problem when he wants to attract the attention of Serena, a lovely female swan. With the help of a trumpet he finds a voice, but also a quest for honesty and redemption. Along the way he develops a friendship with Sam Beaver, a boy who helps him to learn how to read and write.
The Adventures of Miss Pettifour by Anne Michaels is a delightful collection of stories about the winsome Miss Pettifour and her sixteen cats, "Minky, Misty, Taffy, Purrsia, Pirate, Mustard, Moutarde, Hemdela, Earring, Grigorovitch, Clasby, Captain Captain, Captain Catkin, Captain Clothespin, Your Shyness and Sizzles." (My son loved reciting the names during their frequent appearances.) Miss Pettifour travels from place to place with the help of a large tablecloth and a burst of wind. Her cats go with her, hanging on in line formation. Each of the quirky stories, such as the search for a missing postage stamp, or a trip to the jumble sale stand alone, for a satisfying read aloud session. The content is appropriate for all ages and lovely little drawings will charm everyone.
A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith. It's been a while since I read this book and I don't remember Mrs. Honeybee's accident as being scary, but overall it is a sweet book about a mouse who learns to sing alongside the piano accompaniment of an elderly lady. the Dick King-Smith is also a reliable author for books that sensitive children will enjoy (except perhaps for Babe, The Gallant Pig.)
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary. Henry often plays second fiddle to the wildly popular Ramona; I imagine because his scrapes are not quite as precarious as those of his more famous neighbor. Nevertheless, his tales are worth reading. In fact, any books by Beverly Cleary could be on this list of gentle chapter books to read aloud.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy. A family of 2 dads and 4 adopted sons (all together they span several ethnicities and religions) lead a rather disordered and hilarious lifestyle. There is a lot of brotherly rivalry, which may not be considered "gentle" by some audiences but no great scariness factor. The boys all have different personalities, which could lend themselves to stereotypes, but thankfully do not. After finishing this book I wanted to move right in to the Fletcher household, if only to try out their DIY hockey rink. NOTE: I've rethought this book a little and decided to suggest it for kids ages 7 and up - there is a small scene of bullying near the end of the book, which some kids might object to.
Classics you can count on (but sadly not a very diverse selection):
- Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
- Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones
- The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
- The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
- Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
- All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
- The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth
- Paddington Bear by Michael Bond
- Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
- Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
Other helpful book lists with gentle chapter books:
- 50 chapter books for preschoolers
- Chapter books with old-fashioned flair
- Classics from the 1900s
- Classics from the 1910s
- Classics from the 1920s
- Books for 7 year olds
- Multicultural early chapter books for kids