Life After Potter:  
Ten Adventure Novels to Keep Youngsters Reading

by Ted Gioia

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.


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
, 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.


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

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

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.


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,
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

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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