$20 Bookshelf Challenge: Best Books for Beginners


Everybody seems to be pinching pennies these days.  I am admittedly pretty miserly when it comes to buying books.  As much as I value reading, I also like having money to buy food, clothes, and a roof overhead.  So, what is it that you really, really need to start your kids’ library?

In order to answer that, I thought, why not create a $20 Bookshelf Challenge.  Take one level of my kids’ reading, and see where my money would go the farthest.  And believe it or not, with a little help from my library and a free website, I think it actually worked.  (If it makes you feel any better, my PreK daughter is reading on roughly a second grade level.)

I decided to begin with the Early Reader category for one reason: I found it one of the most challenging.  I expected a lot less from my picture books.  With my early readers, I wanted to help my kids make the jump to books they could read for themselves.  First of all, I needed books that were at the right reading level and reinforced phonics basics.  Second, I needed books that didn’t undermine what I’d been teaching them about a Christian worldview.  And finally, they had to be good stories.  They had to make my kids want to read.  I spend enough time in a battle-of-wills with them already; couldn’t reading be fun?

So, here’s how I tried to meet that $20 Bookshelf Challenge:

  • Bob Books: Don’t be deceived.  There are knock-offs of these out there, but the Bob Books are heads and tails above the imitations I’ve seen.  These are small, short and simple books.  A child who is right on the verge of learning to read can often manage to read the first few books alone and he’ll be able to brag, “I did the WHOLE thing by myself.”  It’s a confidence builder, as the books progress one phonics concept at a time.   Once you make it past set one or two, your kid will be able to read a lot of the other early readers.  Some parents may also be interested in the iphone apps and the Spanish versions.  Amazon price: $9.93.
  • Starfall.com: My second recommendation is actually not a set of books.  Rather, it’s a website that contains books on-line.  These books are similar to the Bob books, but at least on-line they are free and interactive.  I think the stories are more interesting, as well.  This is pretty much the only “video game” I let my preschoolers play. Both my kids learned much of their phonics from this site, and while I wouldn’t recommend it as replacing a book, it is a valuable tool for teaching kids to read.  A parent who has difficulty with phonics may find this especially helpful; my friend who speaks Spanish as her native language found it great for teaching her kids the sounds of English vowels.  And if you really prefer books in hand, you can reinforce the on-line books with actual books, though the first set will cost you a little over $20.  Price on-line: Free.
  • Amish and Mennonite Readers: One of the reasons I forked over for these books is that I can’t get them anywhere else.  My library doesn’t carry them, so if I want my kids to read something like this, I will have to pony up.  I bought Busy Times which is a second grade reader, because I wanted to have something for my daughter to work up to as she finished her Bob Books and earlier readers from the library.  I also bought it because although it isn’t about the religion of the characters or their relationship with God, it does present an example of kids, albeit imperfectly, striving to live by many Christian moral principles.  Both my kids have enjoyed reading about the children’s play and responsibilities on a farm, and I appreciate the respectful way the kids are taught to interact with their siblings and parents.  A hardback book at the Rainbow Resource Center is cheaper than you might think: Rainbow Resource Center Price: $6.50.
  • Early Readers about God’s Word: The other books I knew I wouldn’t be able to get from my library were early readers of Bible Stories.  I am not sure that I’ve found the best of these.  (Maybe some publishers would like to send me theirs to review?)  But I love the idea of my kids cutting their teeth not just with Dick and Jane stories, but the stories of God’s work in history.  My oldest especially has found them to be not only instructive in learning to read, but also in providing her hope and encouragement in her difficulties.  I often let her take them to bed—along with her story bible–when she’s feeling worried or unsettled.  I can’t make her drink the water—that is, trust in God—but I can do my best to keep it before her eyes in a way that she can access herself.  And these books have helped me do just that.  The ones we chose were Alpha Omega Publications’ Bible Stories for Early Readers.  I should add that I’m not too happy with the illustrations—the historical characters from different times and cultures all look European.  But they connect my kids to the illustrations my grandparents grew up with, and I can supplement them with other better pictures of the same stories.  (You can find them cheaper and sold individually from used sources.) Price per book: $4.40
  • At Your Library:  We’ve used our $20 already, but if you’re like me, that means you’d better head on over to the library. Here are three early reader series that I particularly love:
  1. Henry and Mudge by Cynthia Rylant: I found that even my girls loved to read about the silly and sometimes muddy exploits of Henry and his big dog Mudge.  They were particularly fond of Cousin Annie and her bunny snowball, as well.  I’ve only come across one place where Henry and Mudge act in a way that is questionable morally.  But overall, they are classics not to be missed.  Some of the original books won’t be suitable for the earliest readers, so take care to grab the stories on your child’s level.  It won’t be long until they can read them alone, and until they do, if they are like my kids they will love thumbing through the colorful and sweet illustrations.
  2. The Happy and Honey books by Laura Godwin are some of the simplest stories you’ll come across on the library shelf. Most series, even the level one readers, begin somewhere above a true beginner’s head.  But Happy and Honey were just right for us.  And if I were to rate them on illustrations alone, they are my favorite series.  Simple and sweet—that says it all.
  3. I imagine that the Biscuit books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli will annoy some parents.  They may feel a little too sweet, and Biscuit is incorrigible.  He isn’t an especially good role model, but then again he is a dog, and the text is simple enough and enjoyable enough that you and your kid can have a good laugh over silly Biscuit together.   My youngest enjoyed reading the refrain “woof, woof” while my oldest could read the rest of the text with us.

And when you’re ready for something new, try this more expansive list called A General Guide for Beginning Readers from the publishers of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World and The Well-Trained Mind.  Or browse this list of mostly free online books.

So, that’s my best list for $20.  How about you?  Care to take the $20 Bookshelf Challenge and see if you can do better?  The best response will get a copy of How God Used a Thunderstorm by Joel R. Beeke and Diana Kleyn.  I’ll announce the winner next Monday.

P.S. Find out who won and learn about the fantastic devotional book we gave away in Emily’s post Contest Winners and More.

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  1. Kimberly on March 14, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for the recommendation of the Starfall website!! I homeschool my kids, and my son is going to start learning to read this week. (He’s been learning letter sounds for awhile now, but we’re going to move on to sounding out words.) I’ve been apprehensive about it, because he’s very excited to learn, but gets frustrated pretty easily. I love the Starfall website and think it will be very useful in reinforcing the things I’ll be teaching him.

  2. emily on March 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm


    Thanks! I’m so glad you found the post useful. I hope all goes well with your son this week!

    I found that my second had much less tolerance for “school”. She would always get that deer-in-the-headlights look. But Starfall kind of disarmed that, so maybe it will help you guys too!

  3. Alane on March 15, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    The reading “text” I’m presently using for my pre-K son is Scamp and Tramp (K-2nd bk, consonant clusters. I inherited this American Language Series (see http://www.exodusbooks.com), “Horizon’s” phonics from my mother-in-law. I use it as a daily reader in addition to Bob and Biscuit books. It is Christian-based in content, but most of the stories are not overtly religious. They are just sweet childhood stories, more substantial in length and illustrations than Bob/Biscuit. They often require more from my son than the others in terms of practicing a new phonics skill. The books aren’t cheap (unless you inherit them!), and I haven’t yet found them used. But each book contains nearly 100 1-2 pg. stories, varying in length and difficulty. That might be overkill on consonant blends (?), but it certainly can’t hurt!

    They can be purchased from

    http://www.homeschooldiscountproducts.com for $10.45, new. Rainbow Resources sells them for about the same price.

    Finally, I’m curious about the basic phonics book or series you use with your children. First Phonics Lessons? Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons?

    Many thanks for your sharing your loving work!

    Alane Holm

  4. Tiffany on March 16, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    This is great information! I’ve heard great things about the BOB books but have yet to get my hands on some! It so true how you really have to pay attention to the content even in the pre readers! It takes me over 10 minutes every time I go to the library just to pick out a couple of level 1 readers! Thanks for doing the bookshelf challenge! This is so very helpful!

  5. Cathy on March 17, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for the great post!
    I have a homeschooled K’er reading around 2nd grade level and these are some of here current faves (all from the library):

    Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series – funny, very short chapters.

    Billy and Blaze series by C.W. Anderson – simple classics.

    Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cynthia Rylant.

    We have also found a good list of books for readers who are “Not quite ready for The Boxcar Children, but beyond Frog and Toad” in the Veritas Press catalog listed as First Grade advanced readers. We began with The Canada Geese Quilt and it is definitely a hit. All are readily available at our library.

    We also love Starfall.com! Fun phonics reinforcement.

  6. emily on March 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks again Alane and Cathy for listing a few of your favorite books for us! I am definitely going to go check a few of them out. I will have to find a copy of the Horizons stories; I need a good thick book of easy stories.

    And oh my goodness, I don’t know how I missed Kate DiCamillo’s early readers! I hope to review some of DiCamillo’s books eventually, since she is one of my favorite modern writers for kids. (I’m not saying she’s Shakespeare, but she has many very good qualities.)

    So thanks again guys for playing! And thanks also to Tiffany and Kimberly for chiming in. It really helps us to know what people find valuable!

    Oh, and Alane, to answer your question, I have used The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise and Sarah Buffington. It worked great for my oldest, but I’m not sure it will be suited to my youngest. (Then again, not sure ANYTHING will be suited to her…. but that’s another story. ha)

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