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Life After Potter: Ten Adventure Novels That Will Keep Youngsters Reading

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The kids have been wild about Harry, but what happens now? Adults watch in wonder as youngsters put a halt to video games and text messaging to curl up with a 759 page novel. Did some scheming librarian place them under an Imperius spell? But now that J.K. Rowling’s series has come to an end, parents are wondering how they will keep the love of literature alive in their children. Below are ten suggestions, battle tested in my own home, where I have maintained a regular tradition of evening story-telling for the last ten years.

There is no more demanding literary critic than a youngster. If a tale is long-winded or boring, the child tunes out, and story-telling time, which should be as magical as a cauldron of polyjuice potion, turns into a drudgery. Michiko Kakutani is a pushover compared with my finicky sons, who only accept well-paced stories with plenty of action and suspense. The following books are sure to pass the test.

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA by Ursula K. Le Guin:

Imagine a story about young boy with magical powers who leaves his troubled home to attend a school for wizards, and battles with mysterious forces from the dark side. Yes, Ursula K. Le Guin came up with this plot for A Wizard of Earthsea 30 years before the first Harry Potter book. But her Earthsea is a more somber world than Rowling’s imaginative universe, rich with gothic overtones. And her prose is denser, even if the books are shorter. This novel would be a good choice to stretch the vocabulary and reading skills of children who have completed the Potter series.

A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs

You won’t find this book in the children’s literature section of the bookstore. It may be hidden away in general fiction or science fiction, or perhaps not even in stock. Yet the Burroughs' Mars series is the perfect antidote for any youngster going through Potter withdrawal. I am amazed that some publisher has not reissued these works in editions suitable for younger readers. Perhaps the fact that this novel is in the public domain has discouraged publishing houses from promoting a work that is not exclusively their own. But parents shouldn’t let this stop them from introducing their children to this fanciful, well-paced adventure story, which continues to enchant readers almost a century after its first release.

THE CHILDREN'S HOMER by Padraic Colum

The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer remain the two greatest adventure stories in Western literature, but they are not easily approached by youngsters in the standard translations by Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Lattimore. Padraic Colum has skillfully adapted these two tales into a single narrative suitable for elementary and middle school students. I read this version aloud to my oldest son when he was ten years old, and it served as a valuable springboard for discussions on the protagonists and their qualities — the anger of Achilles, the cunning of Odysseus — as well as on the influence of the Greek tradition on our modern institutions and values. But this is a painless dose of high culture, since youngsters will be caught up by the sweep and excitement of the story.

THE BAD BEGINNING by Lemony Snicket

I kept my sons engaged through all 13 volumes of Lemony’s Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the books were as much a delight to the grown-up as to the youngsters. Mr. Snicket (in real life, Daniel Handler – assuming that this quirky author has a life that can be described as ‘real’) breaks almost every rule of children’s literature. He borrows devices from experimental fiction, rambles on like a parody of Tristam Shandy, peppers his books with arcane cultural references, and steadfastly refuses to offer the expected happy endings and plot resolutions. Yet the whole crazy-quilt of a story keeps even young readers hooked. And no one (except perhaps the renowned Ms. Rowling) is better than Snicket at balancing humor and adventure. A Series of Unfortunate Events does lose steam in the later volumes, but the opening book in the series, A Bad Beginning, is a masterpiece of children’s literature.

TREASURE ISLAND by Robert Louis Stevenson

The tremendous success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies series — responsible for some three billion dollars in box office receipts — has made buccaneers with poor personal hygiene as popular as Britney and Paris. But landlubbers beware: most of the pirate tales at your local bookstore are as worthless as a dimestore doubloon. Parents should seize the opportunity to introduce youngsters instead to this literary classic, which will challenge their reading comprehension, but still keep them entertained.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis

We tackled all seven of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books during our evening reading sessions, and though I found the characters a little wooden compared to the rich and vivid personages of Hogwarts, my sons were charmed by the entire series. This volume (the second of the Narnia books, although the first to be written) stands out as the best of the group, and can be enjoyed by those who have not read the initial volume, The Magician’s Nephew. The Christian symbolism is there for those who seek it out, but the story stands on its own merits as a spirited adventure story. No writer for youngsters has done a better job of infusing a storyline with the larger-than-life ambiance of mythology – although many later writers have emulated Lewis in this regard. Above all, the pointed themes of betrayal and redemption give this novel a depth of psychological intensity unusual in children’s books.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the anti-Narnia. Pullman has attacked the Narnia books as religious propaganda, yet he relies on allegory that is even more transparent and agenda-driven than Lewis’s. I found this book, the first in the series, artfully written, imaginatively conceived and well plotted, but parents who object to Harry Potter as part of a Wiccan conspiracy will be even more disturbed by the “war against heaven” that serves as a cornerstone to Pullman’s tale. My sons followed the first two books in the series with great interest, and I was ready to move on to volume three — but they begged off, and I think the murky post-modern ethics of author’s vision may have been disturbing to them. But Pullman is a skilled storyteller, and the film version, scheduled for release in December, will no doubt further cement this book's reputation as a contemporary classic. 

THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien

One evening in the late 1920s, J.R.R. Tolkien took a break from grading papers and wrote out on a stray sheet of paper a single sentence: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." He wrote no more at the time, but that modest beginning resulted, almost a decade later, in the publication of The Hobbit, an endearing and enduring classic of fantasy literature. Despite my admiration for Tolkien, I hesitated before reading this book to my youngest son (then seven years old), fearing that the language might be too difficult for him to follow. Yet, despite a few challenging passages, we made it through, and my boy is a Tolkien lover for life.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Arthur Conan Doyle

One hundred years before the first Harry Potter novel, Sherlock Holmes inspired readers almost with the same fervor and devotion. When the author tried to kill off his celebrated detective, readers protested so vociferously that Holmes was brought back to life for additional tales. But don’t tackle the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet — few youngsters will have patience for the long digressions in that work — but go directly to The Hound of the Baskervilles, serialized in the Strand magazine to great acclaim in 1901 and 1902. Here Conan Doyle mixes in elements of suspense and adventure tales with his standard detective story devices. The result is a classic of genre literature that will still delight readers today.

ERAGON by Christopher Paolini

Why can’t a dragon be a cozy pet? Eragon turns the scaly nemesis of so many children’s tales into a warm-and-fuzzy advocate of righteousness and proper behavior. It is hard to believe that Christopher Paolini wrote this book while still a teenager. The prose at times is merely workmanlike, but the tale is vivid and communicated with passion. My youngest son had just turned seven when we read this book, yet he showed tremendous enthusiasm for all 544 pages, and was ready to tackle the sequel, Eldest, when we were finished.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Well-written (as usual) round-up. Also selected as Book Editor Pick (see Book Page), but sorry: no fabulous prizes.

  • http://bcgoodiebag.com/ Anna Creech

    I have to disagree with you on Eragon, or at least ask that all of the sources for Eragon be included in the list. I’m glad to see The Hobbit on there, but any of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series should be included, as well. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed how much Paolini borrowed from her dragonlore. Oh, and George Lucas should get his props, too. I mean, who didn’t see the parallels with that? Orphan farm boy discovers mystical powers and heads out on an adventure to save the world aided by his mentor with a dark past — it’s Star Wars with dragons.

  • http://silverstarhawk.livejournal.com Jared Wright

    Yeah, great list, although I’ll check Paolini at the door also. The rest all have their special place for sure.

  • Dalton

    It’s ‘Tolkien’, not ‘Tolkein’

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://lazyhabits.wordpress.com/ Fleiger

    That’s a good article, and since I have read almost all (except 3, 4 and 7), I am pretty sure I am talking from experience. I didn’t like “Series of Unfortunate Events” as the books are a bit too dark for my taste (considering childrens’ books of course), and I am looking forward to getting to the Pullman Trilogy soon.

    And I agree, despite the (mostly true) allegations of “inspirations” against Inheritance trilogy, I loved it… The Earthsea series is a superb one too.

    Would you mind heading over to my post on My Top 5 Fantasy series?

  • http://lazyhabits.wordpress.com/ Fleiger

    @Anna Creech:
    Orphan farm boy discovers mystical powers and heads out on an adventure to save the world aided by his mentor with a dark past
    Remove the “dark past” of mentor, and you get The Belgariad from David Eddings…
    But I am assuming that you meant mysterious past, given as you are refer to Star Wars. So, the similarities are perfect.