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Growing Reader

20 Excellent Early Chapter Books With Diverse Protagonists

by Laurie Espino

diverse protagonists
Photography by Seana Williamson

Graduating from picture books is a great accomplishment but can be a little intimidating for developing readers. To make the transition easier and a lot more fun, here are 20 early chapter books growing readers will enjoy from cover to cover.

Best of all, these books feature diverse protagonists. Readers need to identify with the characters in their stories at such a crucial point in their reading development. From fun and hilarious to profound and inspirational, your kids will have a blast reading these titles.

  • The Magnificent Makers Series

    by Theanne Griffith, illustrated by Reggie Brown

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    Written by neurologist Theanne Griffith, The Magnificent Makers series blends adventure with science. Follow best friends Violet and Pablo as they open magic portals to learn everything from robots and 3D printers to how the brain works. Kids will enjoy the problem-solving stories, and parents will love that their little ones are working on their STEM skills.

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  • EllRay Jakes Series

    by Sally Warner, illustrated by Jamie Harper

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    Just because EllRay Jakes is the smartest kid in his class doesn’t mean he's not a troublemaker. It seems like all he ever does is get into trouble. EllRay Jakes's fun and humorous stories will keep even reluctant readers entertained as he navigates through everything from school bullies to helping his little sister fight dragons.

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  • Jada Jones Series

    by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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    Young readers everywhere adore Jada Jones! She’s an energetic little girl who loves trying new things and experimenting. Whether learning new dance moves or running for student council, Jada’s enthusiasm and love for STEM shines through.

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  • Miles Lewis Series

    by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Wayne Spencer

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    Kids who fell in love with the Jada Jones series will enjoy this high-energy spin-off series about Miles Lewis. Like Jada, he loves science and sports and is always interested in learning something new. This slice-of-life series delivers STEM themes wrapped in an engaging story.

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  • The Unicorn Rescue Society Series

    by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly

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    Welcome to Pine Barrens, where unicorns are real, and there’s a secret society to protect them! Elliot and Uchenna are the two newest members, and they’re ready to defend the mythical creatures no matter what. Written by New York Times bestselling and Newbery Honor-winning author Adam Gidwitz, The Unicorn Rescue Society series is the type of fantasy adventure young readers crave. Exciting stories and an abundance of illustrations make this series the perfect choice for developing readers.

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  • The Secret Explorers Series

    by DK and SJ King

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    Calling all adventure seekers! From stopping tomb robbers in Ancient Egypt to time-traveling back to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, The Secret Explorers series has a story for everyone. Best of all, each book bursts with fun facts, illustrations, and activities that will keep even the most reluctant readers entertained and educated.

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  • Dragon Storm #4: Mira and Flameteller

    by Alastair Chisholm, illustrated by Eric Deschamps

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    Fantasy lovers will enjoy this action-packed installment in the Dragon Storm series that combines STEM with magic. A unique machine keeps the dragons and their humans safe. When that machine breaks, Mira and Flameteller must fix it before anyone breaks into their sanctuary.

    (On sale: 1/24/2023)

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  • She Persisted: Harriet Tubman

    by Andrea Davis Pickney and Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint

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    In this chapter book biography, Harriet Tubman's heroic story gets told by New York Times best-selling author Andrea Davis Pinkney and features an introduction by Chelsea Clinton. Even though she was born into slavery, Harriet’s courage carried her to freedom. She then dedicated her life to helping others do the same. Check out other books in the She Persisted early chapter book series to learn about other fierce females in history.

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  • How to Promenade with a Python (and Not Get Eaten)

    by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Kathryn Durst

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    Curious kids will love this hilarious nonfiction chapter book. With a wacky cockroach as their guide, readers will learn how to take a peaceful walk with a python without becoming a meal. This book is jam-packed with fascinating facts, humor, and full-color illustrations.

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  • Planet Omar Series

    by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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    An NPR Best Book of the Year winner, the Planet Omar series tells the tales of a young Muslim boy named Omar. Follow along as Omar navigates through the ups and downs of life, from making friends to saving his family’s beloved mosque. Jam-packed with artwork by Indonesia-based illustrator Nasaya Mafaridik, these books are the perfect way to diversify your middle grader’s library.

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  • King & Kayla Series

    by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

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    A little girl named Kayla and her dog King solve mysteries in this award-winning chapter book series. Whether searching for missing dog treats or figuring out who destroyed the neighbor’s yard, this duo tackles every mystery with humor and heart.

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  • Juana and Lucas

    by Juana Medina

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    Juana lives in Bogotá, Colombia, and has started to learn English in school. But Juana would much rather be drawing than learning a new language. When her Abuelo promises to take her on a trip to Spaceland in Florida on the condition that she become proficient in English, she’s ready to take on the challenge. Sweet and lighthearted, this book’s unique format illustrates how the main character is learning English while readers are simultaneously learning Spanish words weaved into the text!

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  • Every Day with April & Mae Series

    by Megan Dowd Lambert, illustrated by Briana Dengoue

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    Growing readers who enjoy friendship stories will love this humorous and charming series. April and Mae are best friends and spend time together daily. Whether watching a scary movie or playing a soccer game, these girls tackle each new challenge together.

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  • Dragons in a Bag

    by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B

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    Do you have what it takes to babysit a dragon? That’s what Jaxon finds himself doing one day with his best friends. But these are just baby dragons, so it’s not that bad—until the kids break the two most important rules of caring for the mythical creatures. Now Jaxon and his friends have to get the dragons back where they belong before they’re lost for good! Full of imagination, joy, and humor, Dragons in a Bag is the perfect illustrated chapter book for growing readers. And for more dragon adventures, check out book 2 in the series, The Dragon Thief.

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  • She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

    by Christine Day and Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint

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    Dance enthusiasts will find Maria Tallchief’s biography inspiring. Even though people told Maria to change her name, she stayed true to her Osage heritage. Through hard work and perseverance, she became America’s first prima ballerina.

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  • Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel

    by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

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    Between her parents’ divorce and moving to a new school, Dyamonde Daniel has had it rough lately. But her positive attitude helps her look on the bright side and see a neighborhood full of possibilities. Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel introduces a brilliant and lovable new character for transitioning readers while tackling everything from race and income to divorce and finding new friends in just over a hundred pages!

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  • Absolutely Alfie Series

    by Sally Warner, illustrated by Shearry Malone

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    This series has strong Judy Moody vibes, featuring slice-of-life stories about friendship, pets, and school. Alfie is a spirited second grader who loves spending time with her friends and trying new things. Growing readers will adore this charming character and her adventures.

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  • J.D. and the Great Barber Battle

    by J. Dillard, illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts

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    Third-grader J.D. has managed to turn his unfortunate bad haircut into a thriving business! But not everyone is a fan of his new at-home barbershop, especially the local barber. J.D. may be good at cutting hair, but is he good enough to keep his new business open? Hilarious and fun, J.D.’s story will not only keep growing readers entertained, but it’ll also spark an entrepreneurial bug inside of them!

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  • Most Valuable Players Series

    by David A. Kelly, illustrated by Scott Brundage

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    Sports fans will love this diverse and action-packed series from the author of the Ballpark Mysteries Series. These short, easy-to-read books feature high-interest stories about sports with black and white illustrations throughout. They’re an excellent choice for growing readers transitioning to independent reading.

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  • Bea Garcia Series

    by Deborah Zemke

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    When Bea’s best friend moves away, a family with a boy (or is he a monster?) moves in next door. Bea uses her creativity and love of drawing to help get her through the challenging transition of losing a friend and making a new one. Growing readers will fall in love with this Hispanic main character’s whimsical stories and feel inspired to try their hand at doodling.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2021 and updated in 2022.