Illustrated fiction for newly independent readers

Illustrated fiction is perfect for newly independent readers because there are still pictures that help to bring the characters alive and show what is happening in the story. There are so many wonderful illustrated stories out there that are perfect for young readers to read themselves or to read aloud. Friendship, magic and animals are all common themes for books for this age group (roughly ages 5-7).

The books below are all ones that I have read for my own enjoyment or read aloud to my 5 year old daughter so they come highly recommended.

From the bright, sparkly cover to the story of a magical colouring book transporting Maya to another world, The Magical Kingdom of Birds series (written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Rosie Butcher) is sure to be a winner with young readers. It’s perfect for fans of Zanna Davidson’s Fairy Ponies series or readers who have loved the Rainbow Magic books and want something meatier to read.

Maya receives a magic colouring book that once belonged to her mother and it transports her to the Magical Kingdom of the Birds. Here she meets a fairy named Willow and a Magpie named Patch, who tell her she is destined to save the kingdom. This first book in the series focuses on the hummingbirds and a spell that has been placed on them. It is up to Maya, Willow and Patch to find an antidote and stop the villainous Lord Astor.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way that the author adds extra special details at the end of the story. There is a Bird Fact File with lots of hummingbird facts, and instructions for making a bird feeder and bird biscuits.

The Pearl the Unicorn series by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Adele K Thomas is a series that I will gladly read over and over again. They are super fun stories with perfectly matched illustrations. I’ve read all the books in the series so far with my daughter and they’re all great. Essentially, Pearl is a unicorn whose magic always goes wrong. A ‘toss, toss, wiggle, flick’ can end with hilarious results like yogurt falling from the sky. Pearl spends the days with her friends Tweet the fire bird and Olive the troll, getting up to all sorts of adventures. The nasty gobble-uns are never far away but Pearl’s misfiring magic saves the day.

What isn’t to like about the Kitty series by Paula Harrison and illustrated by Jenny Lovlie? It’s about a girl called Kitty who turns into a cat superhero at night, with cat superpowers like super hearing. Kitty and her feline friends, Pumpkin and Pixie, go on daring missions at night, like saving a secret Sky Garden from being ruined by bad cats. This is the perfect series for kids who have loved watching PJ Masks and are interested in superheroes. Jenny Lovlie’s illustrations are super cute, especially Kitty’s feline friends.

The Evie and Pog series by Tania McCartney has been one of my favourites to read aloud with my daughter. They’re funny and silly with characters that kids will want to keep coming back to.

Evie is six years old. She likes reading and baking and rolling on the daisy-spot grass. Pog is a pug. He is two and likes to drink tea and read the newspaper.

There are three books in the series so far – Party Perfect, Take Off and Puppy Playtime. Each book has three stories, that take about ten minutes to read aloud, making them perfect for bedtime. Pog reminds me of Gromit (from Wallace and Gromit) because he doesn’t talk but has very human-like qualities, like reading the newspaper or entering an art competition.

I’m a huge fan of the Miniwings series by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Kirsten Richards. Every single book in the series is totally fabo, from the silly antics of the Clara, Sophia and the Miniwings to Kirsten Richards hilarious illustrations. The Miniwings are small horse toys that come alive when adults aren’t around. They are always getting sisters Clara and Sophia in to trouble and getting up to lots of mischief, including destroying a delicious high-tea that the sisters get invited to.

The latest book in the series, Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup is a finalist in the junior fiction category of 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It’s one of the best junior fiction series for young readers in New Zealand so it’s great to see it get that recognition.

Donovan Bixley’s Flying Furballs series is another brilliant junior fiction series from NZ that has just come to an end with the ninth book in the series. Flying Furballs is pussycats in planes in Paris. Donovan reimagines the First World War, with the CATS as the good guys and the DOGZ as the bad guys. There are daring missions, dramatic rescues, and action and laughs galore. They are such fun books to read and you can tell that Donovan had a lot of fun creating them. The Flying Furballs series is sure to hook young readers who are just starting on their reading journey.

Stripes Publishing

In my opinion Stripes Publishing are publishing the best illustrated fiction for newly independent readers. Their authors are some of the best children’s authors around, their illustrators are superb and they are gorgeous books to hold and enjoy. Here are some of the best from Stripes.

I love this adorable odd couple. Jasper is a cat who is neat and tidy and a snappy dresser and Scruff is a scruffy dog who’s a little messy. They’re complete opposites but the best of friends.

In the first book, Jasper is desperate to join the Sophisticats and he does all he can to gain their favour. They finally accept his dinner invitation when Scruff comes in to his life and throws it in to disarray. In The Treasure Hunt (the second book) they open a bookshop together and find a treasure map in one of the books which leads them on a treasure hunt.

Both of the stories in the series are perfect for reading aloud or for newly independent readers to read themselves. There are illustrations on every page that make the story come alive. Nicola Colton writes and illustrates the stories and she really knows her audience. I hope to read more adventures of Jasper and Scruff.

Midge & Mo by Lara Williamson and illustrated by Becky Cameron is the perfect book about friendship for newly independent readers. Midge is starting at a new school. His parents have split up so he has moved. He misses his old school and his friends. A girl in his new class, Mo, becomes his buddy and tries everything she can think of to cheer him up and become his friend, but it takes a special present to bring Midge out of his shell.

The story is engaging and attractive, with sparse text and colour illustrations on every page. As well as being perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves Midge and Mo would make a great read aloud for 6-8 year olds.

I picked up Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise by Swapna Haddow and illustrated by Alison Friend from the library to read to my daughter (who was 4 at the time). She loved this adorable story so much that we read it all in one go and read it 3 more times in the next few days. That, for me, is the sign of a great book! I’ve recommended it to lots of kids since and they’ve all enjoyed it.

Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise tells the story of a little rabbit who joins her grandfather on an outing one day and ends up helping out the animals that they meet. Alison Friend’s illustrations to Swapna Haddow’s story make this a super cute read. Like all of the Stripes junior fiction with colour illustrations there are no chapters so the story reads like a picture book in a chapter book format.

A Sea of Stories by Sylvia Bishop and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly is a story about Roo and her grandfather. Roo loves exploring the cove by her grandfather’s house but when he can’t get down the steep path any more Roo asks him about the treasures in his house. Each treasure has a story attached to it and through these stories Roo learns more about her grandfather. This is a lovely story about family and the stories our elders have to tell.

I hope you’ve found some new books to read or share in this post. If you’ve got favourite books for young readers I’d love to hear about them.

The Sunken Tower by Tait Howard

The Sunken Tower is a seriously funny fantasy adventure with plenty of punching and sword swinging thrown in. It seemed like a short story that is part of a bigger fantasy world so I’d like to see more of Dig, Iana and Crina on further adventures.

Dig’s day starts off pretty bad. His bag is broken, he’s super hungry and the local law enforcement is after him. Then his day gets a whole lot worse when he’s kidnapped and thrown in a dungeon far underground. It’s in this dungeon that he meets Iana and Crina, two other prisoners who are going to help Dig escape. They tell him of the great magical kingdom and the great tower that used to be above ground which sunk below ground thanks to a young wizard messing with blood magic. The wizard was warped into a monster which is now trapped in the sunken castle. The creatures who kidnapped Dig are The Brotherhood of Blood and they want to sacrifice Dig, Iana and Crina to the monster to get its blood magic. Not if the three of them can help it! They must find their way to the top of the sunken tower and smash through to their world up top.

Tait Howard’s world is one I want to know more about. The glimpses you see when Dig is walking through the market reminded me of Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl and Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet (if you’ve read those you’ll love this one). There are lots of different creatures, even within the Brotherhood of Blood. The main characters are all really cool, from Dig with his magic powers to Iana with her bristly legs and big muscles. Iana and Crina are in love and they have some really great banter.

I think my favourite thing about The Sunken Tower though is the humour and sarcasm. Tait’s comedic timing is spot on and the dialogue had me chuckling away. This is a kid’s graphic novel that will appeal to teens and adults as well. I’d love to hand it to some of my most reluctant readers as I’m certain the humour alone will grab them.

I really hope that Tait Howard has more adventures with Dig, Iana and Crina up his sleeves.

Storm by Nicola Skinner

This was such an unexpected marvel of a book! Just when I thought it was one kind of story it would morph in to something else and I was never sure where it would go next. It’s a really fresh, unique story that is hard to sum up and I loved every minute of it. The ending was perfect and made me want to start it again straight away.

The general gist of the story is Frankie (and the rest of her small English seaside village) dies in a tsunami, she wakes in her house as a ghost, takes a sleeping potion and wakes 100 years later and becomes a stranger in her own house (which becomes a tourist attraction). I don’t want to spoil what happens next though.

I completely loved this book (it would be in my top 5 of 2020 so far) and now need to read Nicola Skinner’s first book, Bloom. Storm would be perfect for fans of Ross Welford.

Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick

This is the book that so many of my students need. It’s totally creepy and Jennifer keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. It is sure to hook the most reluctant of readers and they won’t want to put the book down. It’s a spooky adventure story with a good dose of mystery.

A class goes on their school camp to a new camp ground called Crater Lake. It has been built in a huge crater from a meteor that crashed to earth many years ago. Things start off bad when their bus is stopped by a bloody, rambling member of the camp staff. He warns them to turn back but the kids and adults continue on foot to the camp. The place seems deserted until a weird camp leader turns up and shows them to their rooms. The situation starts to get really bizarre when the kids get locked in their rooms and some of them start acting really strange, with eyes like bugs. As things go from bad to worse it’s up to Lance and his friends to figure out what’s going on and stop the mysterious creatures from carrying out their plans. Oh and make sure you don’t fall asleep!

Crater Lake is a total page-turner and I was really excited to hear there is going to be a sequel. This is going to be constantly on loan because I just know that word is going to spread between the kids.

The January Stars by Kate Constable

When Clancy and Tash visit their pa in his resthome they have no idea about the journey they will take over the coming days. What starts out as freeing their pa from his resthome and visiting their old family home turns into a mission to give their pa a better life with his family that will take care of him. They will travel by taxi, car and train to visit their aunties in the hope that they will be able to take care of their pa.

I loved this road trip with Clancy, Tash and their Pa. I admit to not really liking the girls to start with but the more time I spent with them the more I liked them. I really admired their determination to give their grandfather a better life than the one he was living in his rest home. Their mission to take their grandfather to live with one of his daughters takes them far and wide, from the city to the country, from their grandparent’s old home to a yoga retreat in the bush. Their journey tests their relationship with each other but ultimately strengthens their bond. There is also a sense of magic about their journey too with unusual encounters and signs from their dead grandmother that help to point them to where they need to go.

Also, how cool is that cover! It certainly drew me in and made me want to know more about the story.

January Stars is a story that will stick with me.

The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate

Th One and Only Bob is the stunning sequel to Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. Like The One and Only Ivan this is a beautifully written story in verse that will always have a place in your heart. Katherine Applegate makes you fall in love with her characters from the first page and you care about everything that happens to them.

In The One and Only Bob we get a story from Bob’s point of view (the feisty little dog that became Ivan’s friend at the Exit 8 Mall). We hear about Bob’s life before meeting Ivan and what life is like now that Ivan and Ruby have been rehomed with others like them. A storm is brewing, a hurricane that will change life for Bob and his friends and test Bob’s strength and courage.

I read this book in a couple of sittings because I just wanted to stay with these characters. Bob made me laugh and made my heart ache but his story left me smiling all day long. Whether you have read The One and Only Ivan or not, you will fall in love with Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Bob.

Prince of Ponies by Stacy Gregg

2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Junior Fiction Finalist

Stacy Gregg is NZ’s answer to Michael Morpurgo. Stacy is a captivating storyteller who weaves the plight of animals and humans together with history, adventure and suspense. Prince of Ponies is one of her best.

Prince of Ponies has a duel storyline, one in the present and one in Poland during the Second World War. Mira is a Syrian refugee now living in Berlin. She is bullied at school and her mother appears to be busy working (she is not mentioned much). However, Mira’s life is changed when she meets a spirited pony while walking in the woods. The pony leads her to Zofia, an old woman with an astounding story to tell. Mira agrees to write down Zofia’s story in exchange for riding lessons. As we discover more about Mira and watch her bond with Zofia and her pony Emir grow, we also discover Zofia’s past and her childhood in a Poland ruled by the Nazis. Mira’s skill as a rider grows to which leads to her competing in her first competition.

There is something in this story for all readers – princely ponies, daring escapes, nail-biting competitions, history, and characters who you are routing for. Having read and loved The Princess and the Foal I really liked the cameo of Princess Jana. This was a nice connection between Stacy’s books. I also love the epilogue which connects the story to the history behind it. Stacy always makes this information accessible to her readers.

My only niggle about this book is the cover. Much like Stacy’s other books I really wish the covers were more neutral to encourage boys to read them.

#Tumeke! by Michael Petherick

2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Junior Fiction Finalist

Plans for the Newtoun community’s Waitangi Day celebrations are well under way: Monty and Pete `The Deadly Icedagger’ plan a wrestling demo. Dreadflock needs to upskill her braiding technique. Constable Rutene is planning the biggest kapa haka event in suburban memory. Sauerkraut Burgers are gearing up for fierce battle with Carnivores Rule. And that’s not the half of it.

Flicking through Tumeke originally I didn’t think I would like it but after reading it in one sitting I completely loved it! It’s totally unique and has a real Kiwi flavour to it. The story is pieced together from notices on the community noticeboard at the library, text messages, emails, diary entries, social media posts and more. The design is so clever and visually appealing. I loved all the different personalities, from the local constable and his relationship with the teacher to the local Lord of the Rings and Beatles Appreciation Society and the owner of the goat who keeps causing havoc (and communicates using emojis).

I think, because of Tumeke’s uniqueness this will be the winner of the Junior Fiction category of the 2020 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Donut the Destroyer by Sarah Graley and Stef Purenins

This graphic novel is so much fun! Who couldn’t like a story about a girl from a family of supervillains who just wants to be a hero.

Donut (middle name: The, last name: Destroyer) lives in a world where everyone is born with superpowers. You just have to decide how to use them – good or evil. Donut’s parents are two of the biggest supervillains ever but Donut has decided she doesn’t want to be a villain. Her best friend Ivy has been planning their supervillain careers for years so it comes as a shock that Donut wants to switch to the dark side. When Donut gets accepted to Lionheart Academy (the first step on her road to become a superhero) Ivy tries anything she can to get Donut kicked out. However, Donut’s new hero friends are by her side and will use their powers to fight evil.

I love Sarah Graley’s illustrations. One minute her characters look super cute, with their faces bursting with glee and the next they’re all angry, with scrunched up faces that are on the verge of exploding. Donut is a really cool character who stands up for herself and what she wants to do with her life, even in the face of her ex-best friend and her super-villain parents who want her to be super evil. My favourite characters are Donut’s parents. They made me laugh every time they popped up because they’re super supportive but committed to being supervillains.

Donut the Destroyer is going to fly off the shelves and be incredibly popular with kids.

Time Machine and Other Stories by Melinda Szymanik

2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Junior Fiction Finalist

Like a lolly mixture or a surprise toy you never know what exciting things you’ll discover in a short story collection and this one has something for everyone. In this collection from Melinda Szymanik there’s a magical soup to help with maths, a messy monster under the bed, an extraterrestrial mum, a mysterious crocodile tooth, and a boy who gets kidnapped by pirates. There is a really good range of stories that kids could read themselves or a teacher could read them aloud to a class.

I like how Crocodile Dreaming and Time Machine II are separate stories but also interconnected and they gave me a classic Paul Jennings vibe. They reminded me of watching Round the Twist growing up. My absolute favourite story (and the one I keep thinking about) is The Gift. It’s a haunting story about the lengths a sibling goes to for their sister. It’s one of those perfect short stories that I know I’ll remember and come back to again and again.