Since 1997, the world of middle-grade children’s books has been enchanted. Without a doubt, the phenomenon of Harry Potter changed the world. Before Potter, people did not line up for books at midnight! If you don’t recall, in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, and 2007 the biggest lines for anything anywhere were all outside of a Barnes & Noble (or Borders), to grab a fresh copy of Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows. Potter helped revitalize the children’s book industry in America, giving the children’s publisher Scholastic a huge boost and arguably lifting other kids’ book series (fantasy especially) that may not have gotten off the ground in a more down market (see today).
Having said all that, the world of fantasy literature for middle-grade kids was not invented by Harry Potter. And, because recent events have caused many parents to back away from the series and its author with sadness and confusion, it’s understandable to be looking for that magical Potter-ish fix without the actual Harry Potter baggage.
Luckily, there are countless wonderful fantasy series for kids, either at the same reading level as Potter (middle-grade) or a bit above (YA). Here are five great fantasy kids series, some published as recently as this year, and some that stretch back to before Hogwarts was built. (And no, The Chronicles of Narnia isn’t on this list, because surely you’ve heard of that, and besides, these are a step above.)
The Silver Arrow Series
Lev Grossman rose to prominence with his wonderful trilogy of adult novels, The Magicians. Those books are, without a doubt not for kids, but do scan as a kind of hardcore version of Potter insofar as the titular Magicians go to a magical college rather than whatever kind of weird boarding school Hogwarts is. But, after the competition of The Magicians trilogy, Grossman turned his attention toward something a little closer to home. As he told Fatherly in 2020, Grossman realized he needed to get closer to his “dad voice,” than the voices of his 20-something faux-wizards in his other books.
The result is the delightful Silver Arrow series, which so far has two entries, The Silver Arrow (2020) and the brand-new installment, The Golden Swift. Without ruining anything, these books center on a fantasy world that can be reached by magic train (sound familiar?), but the rub is the trains themselves are pretty central to the stories. If you have a kid who loves trains and doesn’t want to get off the Hogwarts Express, you can do no better than these exciting and often, hilarious, books. Great for kids 6 and up.
The Hazel Wood Series
Before becoming a smash-hit author, Melissa Albert had a humble background in book publishing, which means she had a very good sense of what readers might devour in the form of fantasy novels. The Hazel Wood is decidedly a book for kids older than the target audience of Potter or other middle-grade fantasy, but if your tweens haven’t heard of these books, you’re doing them a disservice.
Focused on a girl named Alice charged with rescuing her mother from a creepy Hinterland, The Hazel Wood mixes horror and adventure in equal measure. It also has nice family dynamics, and positive, life-affirming messages of love in the face of adversity. The books are also extremely creative and oddly familiar at the same time. These are the kinds of fantasy novels you’ll wish you had growing up. Great for kids 12 and up.
Rick Riordan used to tell his kids bedtime stories based on ancient Greek myths, but when he ran out of stories, decided to make up his own. The premise of the Percy Jackson books is pretty simple: What if the Greek gods never went away? What if they had a bunch of orphaned kids, who, to this day, lived among us as pseudo-demigods? Like the Potterverse, the Percy Jackson books have a special magical school (Camp Half-Blood) and plenty of complicated magical plots.
Yes, there were a few Percy Jackson movies back in 2010 and 2013, but you don’t need to show those to your kid to get them interested in this series. In fact, now might be the best time to become a new Percy Jackson fan. Currently, a Disney+ series is in development, and each season will focus on adapting one of the books, starting with the page-turner that started it all: The Lightning Thief. Great for kids 7 and up.
A Wrinkle in Time Series
Madeleine L’Engle did not invent the opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” (h/t to Edward Bulwer-Lytton), but she did make it world-famous with her classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Although it’s tempting to classify the adventures of Meg Murray and her extended family as science fiction and not fantasy, the overall feeling of these books is more closely aligned to what kids might think of as fantasy.
While the first book is by far the most beloved and probably the best, the entire Wrinkle in Time series does allow for each sibling in Meg’s family to shine. So, if a young reader has a particular affinity for Charles Wallace or the twins, everyone gets their due in the later installments. A Wrinkle in Time is a kind and exciting series that doesn’t shy away from dark themes. L’Engle’s ability to portray little-kid angst is also staggeringly accurate and wonderfully affecting. Who among us hasn’t related to Meg? Great for kids 7 and up.
The Earthsea Series
If you believe fantasy is ruled by Tolkien, or that Narnia influenced all magical narratives, then reading Earthsea with your kids will be a revelation. While many fantasy epics — both on the page and on the screen — are credited with presenting a classic hero’s journey arc, Ursula K. Le Guin does it better. The world itself, a watery one dotted with islands and brimming with dragons, magic, and rich and distinct cultures, is worthy in itself. But it’s the characters — namely, Ged — who wear their flaws on their sleeves and truly grow that will really reach your kids. The first novel in the Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is a must-read, a spellbinding coming-of-age adventure that is peerless. But stay for the full original trilogy, written from 1968 to 1972, to get the full payoff of the tear-jerking adventure-filled blockbuster The Farthest Shore.
At the end of the day Le Guin, through Earthsea, is an entry point for your kids to see fantasy novels as works of literature. Come for the magic and adventure, stay for the deep intelligence and beautiful artistry. Thanks to lyrical, careful writing, these books are also wonderful to read out loud. Great for kids 8 and up.