Jim Forrest and Dead Mans Peak - John and Nancy Rambeau, illustrations by Viola French

Tapping Old Books for New Readers

We are a book family, and both my wife and I had lots of books when we were growing up, both in the house and from the school and public libraries that we used.  Our children are regular readers (in part because TV is not an option for them) and our youngest is just moving into chapter books.  There are some good chapter books for a 5 year old but we reached back into the 60s and 70s for our middle reader and these books are coming in useful with our youngest.

Dan Frontier

As is so often the case, I selected one set that I had myself read in elementary school in the United States.  These books by William Hurley are about a frontiersman in Kentucky.  The early books are simple, repetitive readers and deal with simple issues.  The texts become more complicated and, as the words become more dense, the subject matter becomes more challenging.  Dan goes from helping to build and defend western-moving frontier families to scouting with the army, serving as sheriff, and going to Congress.

Dan Frontier Scouts with the Army - William Hurley, illustrations by Jack BoydOne of the things I like about this set is that you follow a character as the reading becomes more challenging.  At the end of each book, parents can get a sense of what words are being incorporated, and what grade level (in the 60s) these were thought to be appropriate for.  If your child is reading, you often have to be flexible as their reading draws ahead of their grade level to be able to find books that are challenging and fun and not overwhelming.

Modern books don’t seem to have the same sort of detail in them.  Our kindergartner is reading the money-spinning Magic Treehouse books.  A teacher who happened to be shopping in one of the remaining big box bookstores showed me how some of the books have a notation on the back as to their grade reading level.  I have used the Renaissance Learning book quiz store as a more thorough listing, as they indicate for each book quiz what the reading level is for the book as well as what the context level is, to find similar information.  Each book is handled individually, so different books within the same series may have higher or lower levels.  Mummies in the Morning, for example, has a 2.7 grade reading level but Lower Grade interest level.

Jim Forest

A set my son read at his elementary school library was the Jim Forest series.  Written by John and Nancy Rambeau, they follow the same sort of format.  It is a shorter series but grows more complicated with each book.  While Dan Frontier is a fun adventure book, you get a little more substance in Jim Forest and the reader gets detailed explanations about, for example, fighting forest fires with backburns (controlled burns) and helicopter smoke jumpers.  Jim doesn’t do those things, although he has plenty of adventures.  They have a more moden feel, although they are from the 60s as well.

Anyone who does Scouting will probably connect to the outdoorsy stories and adventures.  It may be more of a stretch for an urbanite but they are fun and, so far, lead to easily re-enacted imaginative play  using Playmobil, toy cars, you name it!  I have been spending a lot of time as one of the cast of characters in this book (including Amy Lee!).

Using Older Readers

Why bother, you might ask?  I like these two sets in particular because they seem a bit more challenging and are much less likely to have slangy or other words that may be inappropriate, even though they may be in common use in our current culture.  The helpful information at the back of each volume helps us to know when it is appropriate to bring out the particular book.  For example, we tried Jim Forest about 6 months ago and our reader wasn’t interested.  But I started reading one at bedtime last week and he is already telling me what will happen in the next chapter, as he reads ahead on his own after I finish that night’s chapter.

Series like Dan Frontier and Jim Forest enable us to avoid the Captain Underpants and other series that seem to get published without too much regard for the challenge that the books provide or the thought behind the content.  I am sure there are topics that are not handled as sensitively as now – few females in Jim Forest and Amy Lee in particular misses fighting the fire in order to stay in a kitchen, and some people may be offended by Dan’s interactions with some Indian tribes (his relationships are good and bad, just as in the real world) – but, from my perspective, many books written for younger readers still tend to be very much either pink/fairy/princess books for girls or vehicle/vehicle/dinosaur/dragon books for boys.  I like that both Dan and Jim have adventures with a wide variety of people and do it in what is a relatively normal – non-magic – environment.

I don’t have anything against magic and fantasy, but you can’t seem to be able to swing a cat (or a cat-like object) without having a book that only makes things happen with magic.  These series remind me a bit of Arthur Ransome or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or Secret Seven.  They happen entirely in our world, even if it does mean that some children seem to have more than their fair share of adventure!

If you can’t find them in your local public or school library, check out Abebooks, Alibris, or BetterWorldBooks and, especially in the US, you can usually pick up a set for about $20, and perhaps even get free shipping.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.


  1. Do you have any recommendations on books like this for girls?

    1. I don’t know of this type of graduated reader for girls; both of these could appeal, although only Jim Forest has a strong-ish girl character. I have a feeling they were a bit of a 1960s experiment! The modern ones don’t look as interesting. Most series now seem to be aimed at a single age or reading level (although I think the Harry Potter series actually stretches across a broader range, based on content). These aren’t graduated readers, but depending on the girl’s age, here are some series you might try:
      – Little House chapter books, which break out the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories into easier to consume chunks (and could complement the regular book being read aloud)
      Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series are brilliant and appropriate for a 7-8 year old and up. Cimorene is an incredibly strong and funny heroine.
      – If you think the context works, Enid Blyton did a bunch of mystery series and starting with the Secret Seven and graduating to the Famous Five might work. Downsides: they’re all based in England in the 50s/60s so it can be unfamiliar, they’ve been rewritten or modernized like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, but they’re great mysteries for young readers
      Good luck!

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