Fun with First Chapter Books

Three books propped upright by the bubble wall in the Elkridge Branch children's area: The Yeti Files, Aven Green, and J.D. and the Great Barber Battle

by Eliana H.

At least once a week, typically more often, I walk a library guest over to my favorite children’s collection: First Chapter Books. Since you’re not at the Elkridge Branch visiting me in person, welcome to my virtual tour of this great option for young readers. 

A few things might lead us over to First Chapter Books. Maybe someone is asking about their second grader who has progressed past early readers but is still intimidated by the longer texts in Children’s Fiction. Perhaps a grown-up wants their child to read more than only graphic novels. Possibly a young reader is looking for some funny books, and they read quickly, so they want to know there are more book in the series waiting for them. Any of those requests are likely to prompt me to invite you to follow me as we head toward our First Chapter Book collection. 

You may be asking, so what is a First Chapter Book? First Chapter Books are chapter books, as you might have guessed, but they still have illustrations. The collection has a range of levels, but they all contain a bit less dense text than Children’s Fiction, where the rest of our chapter books live. Some have pictures on every page and maybe only a few sentences per page, while others may have a few pages of text before another illustration appears. First Chapter Books are not for a specific age. I’ve suggested the collection for readers throughout elementary grades. While all the books fit within a certain range of reading levels, they are not arranged by difficulty. As with most of our other collections, titles are shelved alphabetically by author name. Most of our First Chapter Books are part of series, so enthusiastic readers can continue to follow the adventures of favorite characters. Many of the books engage your sense of humor, and fantasy and magic are common themes as well. Plenty of options are available for children who want to read stories about kids just like them. 

So the next time you are looking for a fun book that won’t be too taxing for a fairly fluent reader, ask your friendly library staff member where you can find the First Chapter Book collection. If you have a reader between the ages of six and nine in your house who wants to talk about First Chapter Books with others, join me for Paragraph Pals, which meets monthly at the Elkridge Branch. You can register for our next meeting here starting March 2. 

Eliana is a Children’s Research Specialist and Instructor at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

She’s Got a Reputation. It Would Be a Shame to Waste It.

A black cover with multi-colored type in yellow, orange, purple, and teal. Illustrated women's eyes look to left and right, one sporting a nose ring and the other a bindi.

Meet the Author
Wednesday, Mar 8
7 – 8 pm
online – you will receive a link after registration.

“[A] wild ride. Very funny—like, laugh out loud funny.” —NPR

Enter Parini Shroff with her debut novel, The Bandit Queens. I loved this novel because it offers a rare perspective into Indian women – their entrepreneurship and business acumen as well as their spunk and solidarity, and it does so without minimizing their traditionally burdensome role in society. A very difficult balancing act that Parini pulls off with aplomb. Filled with clever criminals, second chances, and wry and witty women, it’s a razor-sharp debut of humor and heart.

A young Indian woman finds the false rumors that she killed her husband surprisingly useful — until other women in the village start asking for her help getting rid of their own husbands. Five years ago, Geeta lost her no-good husband. As in, she actually lost him — he walked out on her and she has no idea where he is. But in her remote village in India, rumor has it that Geeta killed him. And it’s a rumor that just won’t die.

Freedom must look good on Geeta, because now other women are asking for her “expertise,” making her an unwitting consultant for husband disposal.

Join us on Wednesday, March 8 from 7-8 pm as Parini discusses her book with Faye McCray.

“This funny, feel-good read is a rollicking ride rife with memorable characters involved in ill-fated hijinks. It also serves up commentary on class, power dynamics and the role of women in society, with a feminist history lesson to boot.”—Good Housekeeping

Parini Shroff received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a practicing attorney and currently lives in the Bay Area.

Faye McCray is an author, playwright, and journalist whose work has been featured in the HuffPost, Parade Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, AARP Magazine, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, and other popular publications. Faye is a proud board member of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society and Hopeworks.

The Bandit Queens is available in print and as an e-book.

Light But Not Fluffy – New Book Club

The cover shows a woman with long red hair and turquoise blue glasses frames with matching striped top reading an open book with a yellow cover that she holds in her hands.

by Piyali C.

While Covid ravaged the world, I went into a reading slump. I love to read literary fiction, historical fiction, and other thought-provoking books that are deep, engrossing and have messages for me to decipher. But Covid took up so much of my mental bandwidth. There was not much left in me to devote to complicated plots and complex characters in a novel or to focus on nonfiction. I craved happy stories – stories that gave me hope.

I shared that thought with a like-minded friend and colleague. She could relate. We both started reading books that were lighter in content than our usual fare but had issues to discuss and ponder. We read books that ended with “happily-ever-after” or with the hope of “happily ever after.” We suggested titles to each other and then began a list, jotting those titles down. We wondered if there were others out there who felt like us – who needed page turners with a purpose and were willing to discuss them. But starting a book club, at that time, was just a dream.

The book cover shows a yellow A-frame house in the background, against a turquoise sky with four fluffy white cumulus clouds. The house has green deciduous trees behind it. The eye descends from the house on top of the hill across a green expanse to the bottom, where a red lobster floats in blue water against a shoreline of grey rocks and pebbles in varying shades, shapes, and sizes.

However, the dream became a reality recently. I am starting a book club called Light But Not Fluffy on March 16, 2023. We will meet on the Third Thursday of every month at Miller Branch from 2 – 3 pm. The selected titles will be available for pickup 4 weeks prior to the discussion date from the Customer Service Desk at Miller Branch.

We will read books that talk about love, grace and, most importantly, hope. The books will include humor and perhaps some snark as well, to spice things up. If the thought of reading lighter books and joining in a discussion that will, hopefully, leave us feeling happier appeals to you, join us. 

The book shows a woman, facing the camera, from her nose to her hips. She holds a bound brown leather book against her chest with both hands. She is wearing a red shirt or dress with a white apron trimmed in a paler red over top. Her dark red lipstick matches her fingernails.

Below are the dates and titles for Spring:

March 16 – The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (also available in e-book and e-audiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) – previously reviewed on Chapter Chats.

April 20 – Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (also available in e-book and e-audiobook format from Libby/OverDrive)

May 18 – The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (also available in e-book and e-audiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) – previously reviewed on Chapter Chats.

Registration is preferred, not required. Click here to register.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she facilitates Light But Not Fluffy and co-facilitates Global Reads. She keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Dolly Parton stands with her guitar. She's wearing blue jeans, a tied red plaid shirt, and a black wide brimmed hat. Run Rose Run appears to her left, with a flower in the center of the word rose.

by Cherise T.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest country singers of all time, Dolly Parton is now a novelist as well. Her coauthor is none other than James Patterson, one of the best-selling authors of all time. How could I not take a chance on their thriller, Run, Rose, Run, the story of a bound-for-stardom young country singer with a dark past? 

I’ll let you in on a not-so secret. Despite my snobbish reading tendencies, I’m a sucker for books by my favorite authors, even if their newest book is not well received. I don’t read reviews or book cover blurbs. With my eyes unfocused, I scan a book’s description or skim the closing sentence of a book review, but beyond that, I don’t want to know. I prefer to judge for myself whether a book is a “family saga” or an “exploration of self-discovery,” or a “dystopian post-apocalyptic journey.” I’ll judge for myself whether the protagonist is “unforgettable,” the writing “electric,” and the plot “timeless.” Another secret: if the writer is someone I admire or whose work intrigues me, I’ll read the book even while I know I may be critical of potentially weak prose or stereotyped characters. 

Biases intact, I started reading Run, Rose, Run. Three chapters later, I considered all the other books in my pile and moved on. Recently, a customer asked for the book, and I happened to notice that the audiobook included Dolly Parton and a full cast of readers. Being a sucker for an over-produced audiobook and a Dolly devotee, I gave the book a second chance. Fellow readers, the audiobook is great and not over-the-top at all, and the plot is a page turner, even as I toggled back and forth to the print version. Parton has a significant role in the audiobook as she performs the part of the seasoned world-famous country singer, Ruthanna Ryder, who has taken fledgling AnnieLee Keyes under her tutelage. 

For those wondering if they should read this book, please consider the engaging aspects of the story. There are attractive love interests. The thugs are brawny and scary. The protagonists have mysterious backstories. The descriptions of the music business feel like the reader is gossiping with their close friend, Dolly. The pages are packed with country music references and lyrics penned by Parton just for this book. And for Dolly Parton fans? Parton has explained that there are autobiographical elements in the aspects of the plot related to breaking into the entertainment industry. Beyond that, however, I enjoyed imagining how many of the descriptions of makeup, shoes, performances, grievances, cooking, martinis, songwriting, and home décor were glimpses into Dolly Parton’s life.  

Run, Rose, Run. It’s a suspenseful book. It’s a compelling audio performance. It’s an entertaining 12-track bluegrass album (don’t miss “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans” and “Snakes in the Grass”). Reese Witherspoon’s production company has plans to create a film based on the novel. Need I say more?

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

Here She Comes Again 

What If It’s Us by Becky Abertalli and Adam Silvera

Two complementary covers, featuring young men wearing jeans and short sleeve shirts. They are passing by each other in the first and sitting at a cafe table in the second. There's a city skyline in the background of both.

By Monae R.

Coming back from the holidays is always hard. Getting back into the routine of waking up, getting your morning coffee, heading to work, and dragging through the day. This is fairly universal. I have to say, though, this routine becomes a lot easier if you have just read a good book you cannot wait to tell everyone about.

Becky Albertali and Adam Silvera work together well on What If It’s Us. I am extremely passionate about this particular series. With only two books, I was on the edge of my seat deep into the romance and relatable topics. The characters are lovable, and the writing is fantastic. To make it all just that much sweeter, the icing on the cake, the Libby audiobook readers are absolutely fantastic and exactly how I imagined the characters sounding like. They do the story a huge justice and bring the characters to life in a way that took me even deeper into the story.

What If It’s Us is a romantic comedy for young adult readers told from the perspective of both main characters, who are fully experiencing the age when teenagers are angsty and looking for companionship. The characters come from different worlds and their chance encounter has them floating on the idea of fate and love at first sight. The story follows Ben and Arthur through the life trials of dates, long distance, and college in the heart of New York City.

It’s not everyday that a chance encounter leads to more, and sometimes fighting for it is the best decision. Follow these two teens and their friends and family through the trials of life. Their story continues in Here’s to Us where Arthur and Ben have gone through a lot of changes in the past two or so years. The 16 year olds are now 19 and have new perspectives on life, work, relationships, and where they want their lives to go. Follow them as they navigate adulthood and the struggles that come with being in New York together again.

Both authors have several other books. Becky Albertali is a previous psychologist famously known for her 2015 debut novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which was adapted into the 2018 film Love, Simon and inspired the spin-off television series Love, Victor. Adam Silvera is known for his bestselling novels They Both Die at the End, More Happy Than Not, and History Is All You Left Me.

Monae is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS East Columbia Branch.

Flying Solo by Linda Holmes

The cover of the book shows a stylized, cartoonish wood duck flying above a lake, with several wood ducks floating beneath along with a canoe tied up to a dock on a rocky shore.  In the background are steps leading up to a small cottage with a streetlight and a railing behind it.  The sun is reflected in the water and hovers in a purplish sky with two fluffy blue clouds.

by Piyali C.

I have discovered many beautiful reads while shelving carts at our branch. Sometimes, I check out more books from the cart than I put on the shelf (that is somewhat of an exaggeration, but not by much). Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes was one such discovery. I loved that book so much that I was excited when I found out the author was publishing her next novel, Flying Solo. This time I was prepared, and I requested a copy right away. After I finished Flying Solo in two sittings, I was in a dilemma. Which one did I love more? Bottom line – I like this author’s stories. I like how she does not tie everything in a neat bow at the end, because life is messy and our problems do not resolve beautifully all the time. However, she leaves us with hope, and what better resolution is there than to remain hopeful?

In the new title, whenever Laurie needed a break from her obnoxiously noisy brothers during her childhood, she went to her great Aunt Dot’s big, quiet house for refuge. Dot’s house was only a short bike ride away from her loving but loud family in a small, seaside town in Maine. Young Laurie was Dot’s favorite niece and best friend. When Dot dies at 93, Laurie is the one who takes up the responsibility of going through Dot’s possessions and readying her house for sale, since the rest of her family does not have time to deal with it. Laurie is now on the cusp of 40, she has broken her engagement, and she is going through a midlife crisis as she tries to figure out what she wants. The huge responsibility of sorting through Dot’s photos and belongings is somewhat of a distraction when her own life is falling apart.

Laurie discovers a beautifully carved wooden duck decoy lovingly stored in a chest under some blankets. Puzzled about the significance of the duck, so fondly hidden, Laurie sets out to learn more. In her quest to uncover the mystery of the duck, she falls victim to a con artist and rekindles a romance with her high school sweetheart, who is (and this was important to me) the beloved town librarian with terrific research skills (what could be more attractive than that?). Laurie also comes in contact with some genuine and unforgettable characters who become important parts of her life as she tries to uncover the mystery of the decoy and, in the process, learns more about the hidden aspects of her great aunt’s life. This journey not only reveals the colorful life of charismatic Dot, who flouted societal norms set for women and lived her life on her own terms, but it also helps Laurie discover what she actually wants in life and perhaps reconciles her to the idea of flying solo.

Told in a lucid voice, the story is a relatively light read, yet it makes the readers think about their own relationships and what they want out of them.

Flying Solo is available at Howard County Library System in print, large print, e-book, and e-audiobook formats.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates Global Reads and facilitates Light But Not Fluffy (starting in Spring 2023!) and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Wrapping Up 2022

Kristen B. and Julie F., Chapter Chats editors

Thank you! We appreciate our readers and subscribers who have followed Chapter Chats through another year. We share a wide variety of posts with you, from Winter Reading selections to upcoming author events to a tremendous selection of reviews – fiction and nonfiction, for adults, teens, and children.

A fairly plain cover with a red edge and the title in script and the author's name hand lettered. A small wolf stands between author and title lines.

Here are some of the most-viewed posts of the year:

These posts garnered fewer views, but are definitely worth a look if you missed them:

A black cover with gold text and a mysterious illustration of the phases of the moon, a mystical eyes, and spiral all centered above a book.

And, by far, the most viewed post since Chapter Chats began in 2020: How to Bypass the News Paywall with Your Library Card.

For more great book recommendations: HiJinx, the HCLS podcast, wrapped up its year with folks talking about their favorite reads of 2022: listen here.

We hope you’ll stick with us as we head into 2023! Happy New Year!

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

The darkish cover shows the back of young woman where the pale skin of her shoulder and neck show against a green cloak

by Kristen B.

Princess Marra is kind of a princess in waiting, or maybe it’s more like cold storage. Her sisters, one after the other, have married the Prince of the Northern Kingdom, bringing as their dowry the control of the best deep water harbor and removing the threat of war. If the middle sister also dies in childbed, Marra appears next in line to be married. In the meantime, she’s content living at the convent of Our Lady of the Grackles, where she apprentices to Sister Apothecary and helps with midwifery.

It turns out that the prince, now king, is not so charming. Marra learns how he likes to hurt his wives when attending her sister’s premature labor. Upon digesting some hard realities, this third sister decides to save her older sibling and herself. Although, all she really has is a vague plan to remove some rotten royalty from the face of the earth. Quite honestly, I’d want to kill him, too.

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher is the best kind of fairy tale. It has all the right characters and doesn’t feel the need to over-explain the deep and weird places inside the story. The novel begins with Marra performing her second impossible task – building a dog from bone and silver wire. Her first involved spinning yarn filled with nettles to make a cloak of owl-cloth, but the story opens as she is desperately trying to complete a canine skeleton in the mandated time. Our sheltered nun proves to be a wonderfully obstinate, straightforward young woman. She accomplishes two impossible tasks before the dust-wife (a witch who tends the dead) takes pity on her and gives her a jar filled with moonlight that Marra can immediately re-gift. The two women, young and old but both fiercely independent, set off on their journey.

What follows is a story that I will surely reread and put on my “keeper” shelf. The adventure begins in earnest at a creepily fantastical Goblin Market and continues, despite all odds or even common sense, to its exciting conclusion at the royal palace. At the hidden market and on the road, Marra makes trades that lead to the completion of her merry band: her now real-seeming Bonedog, a handsome and honorable woodcutter, a (mostly) good fairy godmother, and the dust-wife with her demon-possessed hen. Clearly, the author keeps chickens, because it’s a character in its own right!

Each has a role to play as the quest becomes ever more complicated. Not only does Kingfisher excel at the magical aspects, she also manages to insert enough mundane practicalities to keep the book grounded. The absurdity of every day matters, like eating and sleeping, informs the subversive humor that laces through the story. The slightly snarky observations serve to illustrate the misogyny present in so many classic stories. Here, at least, the youngest princess works to save her royal sister from dying young of the curse of having an abusive husband who holds all the advantages. I laughed, I cheered, and I wanted more.

This short novel manages to fit a lot of story into a surprisingly few pages. You can read it as a book or e-book.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball in season (but not all at the same time).

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

The book cover depicts the two main characters, Luc and Oliver, leaning in opposite corners against frames of iconic London scenes in line drawings: a teapot and teacup, London Bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye Millenium Wheel, an umbrella, a double-decker bus, and a British flag. All are drawn in white against a background of the red and blue hues of the British flag.

By Peter N.

In all honesty, I had been in quite a reading slump. Until this.

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall was exactly what I needed. A light read, a little bit of fluff, and a satisfying turn of events for two hapless chaps in London, England. Luc is a rudderless ship in the sea of life, just coasting from one man to another and stuck in a job that he won’t admit he doesn’t totally hate, raising funds for the preservation and defense of dung beetles. The kicker? The charity is aptly named CRAPP, or The Coleoptera Research and Protection Project. Did you laugh? Because I did, and that’s not the last laugh-out-loud moment you’ll have when reading this book. I found many a moment where I loudly cracked up and others had to ask me what I was laughing about.

Now, Luc is in a pickle, not only because he’s the child of two current and former rock stars from the eighties, but also because his talent for landing himself in the tabloids for unscrupulous moments has his job in jeopardy; no one wants to donate to a charity that employs someone like him. In comes Oliver Blackwood, a stiff and proper barrister whom he met once before but made the worst impression on due to copious amounts of alcohol. Oliver is his chance to sort out his issues, and so Luc hatches a plan where they pretend to be in a relationship to clean up Luc’s image, as well as provide a plus-one for Oliver for his parents’ ruby anniversary party. But what happens when a classic romantic trope leads to more? You can’t just be fake boyfriends and not expect some real feelings to develop. Right?

Well, from the first few glimpses of how real a relationship between these two men could be, I was HOOKED. Throw in a kooky friends group, complicated parental relationships, and French Toast, and you’ve got quite an enjoyable read about two chaps who were aimless as individuals, but found their way together. I found myself wanting to slap Luc upside his head and hug him at the same time. Oliver was so proper that it hurt, but the momentary glimpses of his real self and his humanity felt special, and I felt privileged to see them. Alexis Hall crafted a great book that I felt such a connection to, and I cannot wait to delve further into their story in the next book in the London Calling series, Husband Material

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and has a humongous sweet tooth, so the numerous mentions of French Toast in this book DID NOT HELP.

Giving Henry James a Second Chance

An Impressionist sort of painting of a public park featuring a woman dressed in black and white who is holding an orange parasol.

by Angie E.

A friend recently told me she recently checked out and watched the 1949 film The Heiress and that she was oddly enthralled and affected by it.

“That’s based on a Henry James novel called Washington Square.” I said excitedly. “You should read it sometime! It’s absolutely heartbreaking.” Her face grew a bit stricken as she said, “Oh, Lord, no! I can’t do that.” She sounded like I had just suggested an unexpected root canal, and I had to wonder if maybe she had had a bad experience with Henry James at some point in her reading life. Maybe I should say a particularly bad experience, as she would not be alone in her feelings on him. Biographer Susan L. Mizruchi writes that a law professor she knew once confided in her, “I never read a James novel that I did not want to hurl across
the room when I finished.”

It is kind of true: Henry James can be off-putting to a lot of readers, especially in his writing style. He appears stuffy and unapproachable in nearly all known pictures of him. You might even wonder: what could he possibly have to say to today’s readers? Despite all this, I unapologetically love Henry James. I named my tuxedo cat after him and have read almost everything he ever wrote. I buy all my favorite titles of his in every imaginable edition, just to see the different ways covers treat his novels and to read yet another introduction (or afterword).

I’m determined to sell someone besides me on Henry James. It’s not that he doesn’t already have his fans (though probably not in the same number as Dickens or Austen), or that I’m the first person to ever hear of or love him. Joseph Conrad, a contemporary of James, once said: “His books stand on my shelves in a place whose accessibility proclaims the habit of frequent communion.” Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is also a fan of Henry James and well-deserving of a read with her terrific Girl In A Band (reviewed here).

Washington Square remains my favorite of his and is the book I would give to anyone who believes that Henry James is as dry as day-old toast. In her slim biography on Henry James, literary critic Rebecca West writes, “The book so beautifully expresses the woe of all those people to whom nothing ever happens, who are aware of the gay challenge of life but are prevented by something
leaden in their substance from responding. It’s a work of genius and a story of how a plain and stupid girl was jilted by a fortune hunter when he discovered that she would be disinherited by her contemptuous father on her marriage. It has in it a wealth of feeling.” Even critics of James often say that Washington Square is his most accessible title.

I remember when I discovered him back in college, Washington Square touched me profoundly. James could see right through the veneer of proper society and heavy clothing to the heart that beats in anyone who has ever been manipulated or spurned in the name of love…or lack of it. And he had a feel for emotions and social observations that were ahead of their time. Whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st, the power of emotions can bring down even the most staid of persons and are something all people from all times can understand.

But if I can’t sell you on Henry James with any of the above, consider, for a moment, this passage, both lovely and far from uptight, that I have held on to many times in my life: “Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously,”

Washington Square is available as a book, an audiobook on CD, and as an e-book via Libby.

You can download the selection here, in the public domain and completely free of charge.

Angie is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Her ideal day is reading in her cozy armchair, with her cat Henry next to her.