Our middle reader is aged seven and caught the Harry Potter bug from his older sister. We thought that the first three books (Philosopher/Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban) were suitable based on his age, ability to understand context, etc. But what to do to fill the gap until he’s a bit older and can continue? Fortunately there are plenty of great alternatives that provide just as much scope for imagination, challenging reading, and could suit your younger reader.
I generally agree that young readers can read above their age and problematic topics are not understood, and therefore shouldn’t be a reason to avoid older material. The Harry Potter books are a good example, though, of when the context is integral to the story and the inability to really grasp it. As the characters get older and their interaction and relationships explain why characters act a particular way, it gets harder for younger readers to grasp the important elements of the story. And, really, what’s the rush?
I’ve commented on the Spiderwick books (too easy, poorly written) and some other excellent ones: Angie Sage’s Magyk series about Septimus Heap, Emily Rodda’s Fairy Realm, etc. Those were from a generic angle, but now push has come to shove and we have a reading gap, where ability is harder to match with context. Here are two sets, in addition to the Rodda books, that have grabbed our reader’s attention:
The Edge Chronicles: Twig’s Adventures & Librarian Knights!
The Edge Chronicles are a set of 14 (and growing?) books that deal with the stories of Twig, a boy who is abandoned in the Deepwoods and experiences adventures as he comes of age (11) and has to find his own way. Author Paul Stewart has dreamt up a remarkable world of sky pirates, fantastic creatures, and lots of fun adventure. It’s grittier than a lot of the fantasy books at this age, with some beloved characters dying and success balanced with adversity. Wikipedia has an excellent entry about the books, but the series also has a great home page, with a maze and other activities. The books are beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell (Pirate Diary), who does an amazing job of imagining creatures – Prowlgrins, Hammerhead Goblins, etc. – and people, and his illustrations are generously spread through the volumes, in addition to the maps inside the front covers.
And really, how could you not love books that eventually tell the stories of the great Librarian Knights, gliding through the air and providing research to add to the Great Library!! (See the Rook Saga)
If you’re not sure your reader is ready for the Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell have collaborated on other books, including Fergus Crane, which is a slightly easier reading level and straight adventure, without the gruesome creatures!!
The Dark is Rising
This is more challenging than the Edge Chronicles, and may need a bit of reading TO your reader but our eldest is whipping through them on her own and our middle reader is re-reading the chapter read at bedtime. Susan Cooper writes a gripping set of stories about good and evil, with a magical quality about them that is not as overt as wizards with wands. The use of Welsh mythology, Arthurian legend, and very tight writing all make these fun books to read. The best known is probably the second book, also called The Dark is Rising, was a Newbery Honor book, and which was made into a film which is complete rubbish and could almost be mistaken for some other book. The fourth book in the series, The Grey King, won the Newberry Award.
I found the first book in the series a bit difficult to get into when I read it as a child, and found that it still is not as gripping as the second and later books. You may want to get your reader into book 2 (The Dark is Rising) and then read book one as a prequel if they are hooked. That was my own approach, and it has remained one of my most favorite childrens’ books since. We are reading the first book at bedtime and I fully expect that I won’t be needed by book 2!! Books 4 (The Grey King) and 5 (Silver on the Tree) have the most frightening bits, I expect, but fall into the category of context that will probably be missed by a younger reader.
We’ll reassess the Harry Potter books in a year and, most likely, will go ahead and read the next 2 if not all 4. The Potter books are so enjoyable at any age, there’s no need to ruin them by rushing!!