It’s what every book-lover dreams about: finding a book with wonderful characters and a gripping plot, only to discover that the story doesn’t end with the book. You do get to find out what happens next, and if the characters you’ve grown to care about get their happy ever afters. Young readers coming of age in the last decade have discovered the delight of reading books in a series with Harry Potter. But before Harry and Hogwarts there was Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Narnia, Taran in Prydain… and so many more wonderful friends just waiting to meet you!
Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Like many classic fantasy series, right down to the recent Harry Potter, Lewis’ Narnia references many classical mythologies and histories. Unlike many other series, the central theme is Christianity, but other references abound to Aesop, Nazism, Norse mythology, and a wide range of topics. The story is wonderful, the world is complete, and many children- especially those without deep familiarity with Christianity, will not make the connection, but will still love the books. Chronologically, The Magician’s Nephew comes first, so most series start with that book. However, most people (count us among them) consider The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be the strongest book (it was Lewis’ first), and it’s a great place to start reading this series. Engage in a conversation with your child about how they feel about each of the characters – it’s interesting to see how much more compassion children have for the horrid Edgar!
With all deference to C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, this may be the best series ever. Good vs evil? Check. (Taran and his companions battle to save mankind from Arawn.) Romance? Check. (The Princess Eilonwy enters the series as a young girl and friend for Taran, and they become much more.) Talking animals? Check. (From Gurgi to the Oracular Pig Hen Wen, you’ll find that all animals can communicate with people in their own ways.) Wise wizards? Check. (Dallben is a cross between Yoda and Dumbledore.) Allusions to a real and fascinating mythology? Check. (Welsh.) Seriously, just check this series out (starting with Book 1- The Book of Three. And when you’re done, your kids will be a little older, and ready for the Westmark Trilogy. And if they’re girls, start in on the Vesper Holly books. Oh, just read all of Alexander’s books!
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
When we first meet young Percy in The Lightning Thief, he’s about to be kicked out of the latest school–his sixth in six years. We quickly learn he’s always in trouble, but is a good-natured kid whose odd characteristics (he is mis-diagnosed as both dyslexic and hyperactive, for example) may actually be gifts. Turns out he is a “half-blood,” son of one of the Greek Gods. Mythology fans will love this series, and meeting the modern-day version of a slew of Greek Gods in their 21st-century incarnations. Aries is a kind of Hell’s Angels motorcycle thug; Dionyses, trying to be on the wagon, drinks endless Diet Cokes and supervises the summer camp (Camp Half-Blood) where Percy and the other demigods get their instruction, learning to use their powers as they come of age. Readers who don’t have a background in mythology will be at no disadvantage; in fact, they’ll soon want to know about more of the Gods and Goddesses. Percy is a cool, urban hero that you root for from the start. Once you read the first book in the series, you won’t want to stop until you’ve finished all five.
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver
Twelve-year-old Torak lives in a world very different from ours, one that has its basis in the the forests of northern Finland and Lapland 6,000 years ago. In this land, magic and mystery, spirits and ritual, are as real as the natural elements that shape the tribes’ lives. The first book in the series, Wolf Brother, is a fast-faced adventure where Torak meets his wolf-cub companion and together they embark on a dangerous journey to fight the Evil that is stalking the land. The characters are intriguing, the wilderness lore is fascinating, and the spiritual world of the inhabitants rings true. Though Torak is the main character, his best friend Renn is a tough, courageous and resourceful girl. Their relationship deepens as the chronicles unfold, with lots of ups and downs. Both boys and girls get hooked on the series. (And we’re all eagerly awaiting the 6th and final installment!)
The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
Susan Cooper is one of those authors that writes for kids, but her audiences includes lots of adults who are captivating by the myth, folklore, and enchanting language that fills her books. Over Sea, Under Stone is the first in this series that features four children who find an ancient treasure map hidden in an attic–one that leads to a hidden Grail. As they attempt to decipher the symbols, three sinister characters–forces of the evil Dark –pursue them. This is a wonderful fantasy series that combines myth and legend (including the Arthurian tales of ancient Wales) in a believable and intricately described world.
Half Magic by Edgar Eager
Mark, Jane, Katherine and Martha desperately need for something interesting to happen. And being children, they are not at all surprised when magically, something does. That something is a magic coin that grants exactly half of any wish. So goes Half Magic, the first in Edgar Eager’s series of books about different kinds of magic- though it seems all magic is equally rule picky and rule driven! The books are funny and the tone delightful. One of the most fun things in this series is that some of the books are about another set of four children, and discovering what their relation is to these four…
The Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher
In Will’s pre-technological world, children’s coming of age arrives on schedule at age 13 with an important ritual: the Capping Ceremony. Children look forward to this passage into adulthood, but in reality, it is a very special cap indeed–one that implants mind-control devices directly into the brain and with it, humans’ loss of freedom is complete. John Christopher creates a believable and scary world in this science fiction series about the Tripods domination of the Earth. There are hints of a mystery about the Earth’s past–whispered stories about “Men Before the Tripods.” Ultimately, Will embarks on a quest to freedom in the White Mountains, gathering clues and setting the stage for the adventures that follow. Start with The White Mountains, the first book in the trilogy rather than the pre-quel When the Tripods Came which was written several years after the original trilogy. It’s a great read, but not necessarily the best place to start.
Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket and Brett Helquist
The Bad Beginning,the first in this Lemony Snicket Series, is very bad indeed, in terms of the unfortunate children who are the unlikely heroes of the books. The series chronicles the simply disastrous adventures of the three Baudelaire orphans whose luck just couldn’t get worse–and then it does. Sounds like a dramatic tragedy, but actually these books are delightful and funny. Think Roald Dahl or maybe Edward Gorey. The language is particularly playful, and the narrative lines are strong and surprising–never formulaic. Adventure and mystery abound–and there are 13 books in the series to date.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton
Everyone knows that there’s a reason that buttons and odd gloves seem to disappear. But until kids read this book, they may not have realized it’s due to the Borrowers- tiny people who live in our houses, “borrowing” the things we seem to be done with and making them over for their own purposes. The Borrower family in Norton’s classic story consists of Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock, and the adventures begin when inquisitive Arrietty commits the number one borrower no-no of “being seen” by the new boy at the house. Their tale begins in The Borrowers and continues in The Borrowers Afield, and then with two other books. If in your house or classroom you haven’t yet had a big discussion about all the ways of recycling (beyond putting glass and plastic in the big blue bins), this book, and the ways the Borrowers’ lives are built around reusing objects, is a great jumping off point.
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
If perhaps you’ve been living in a cave (and not the one where Sirius hid from the Ministry of Magic in The Goblet of Fire) and you haven’t heard of Harry Potter, it’s only the biggest selling book in forever, and has been single-handedly responsible for getting millions of kids interested in reading. That alone is reason to love and respect these books. Add in the fact that Rowling’s boy wizard is a very real and complex (and likable) boy who defeats evil incarnate with more confidence than he can face his first crush, and that the books are staggeringly well-written, and these modern classics have earned their place of honor on every home and classrooms shelf. (Needless to say, these books really need to be read in order, so begin with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.)