Perhaps the most intimidating thing about being a parent is figuring out how to sift through endless amounts of book recommendations. And if you’ve got a 3rd or 4th grader who is totally ready for chapter books, you’re presented with another problem: the endless labyrinth of various series and shared fantasy worlds. What if your kid doesn’t want to commit to a series containing endless parts? What if they just want to dip their toe in a fantasy book and then move on to another book outside of that series?
Here are five fantasy books for kids, each of which is part of a series, but doesn’t have to be read as part of that series. Some of these are obviously first installments in the series, while others are smack dab in the middle of a series. In all cases, if your kid wants to read these installments without fear of being confused or left-hanging, these individual volumes are ideal.
A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet #1)
Like, The Golden Compass, you’ve probably heard there are a bunch of other books in the series concerning Meg Murry, her siblings, her friend Calvin, and the time-traveling creatures she meets. The big-screen Disney version of the film was met with mixed reviews, but one wonderful aspect to this film is that it didn’t try to force the idea of a giant film-franchise on the audience. And, that’s partly because the book is the same way. Yes, there are other books in the series, but the way in which the original book concludes doesn’t necessitate needing to read them to “find out” what happens. This little book has a nice compact structure and can be put down once your kid finishes it.
You may have heard Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is awesome, but you might be intimidated by the number of books in the series. The Unfortunate Events themselves are comprised of 13 official installments, which doesn’t include The Beatrice Letters and Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography. Plus, there are the five books in the prequel Lemony Snicket series called All the Wrong Questions. The point is, if that feels like a lot, these two installments are great places to start? Why? Well, if you start with The Ersatz Elevator, you get to bypass some of the repetition of the earlier books and start to really get into the meat of the larger plot about the secret VFD organization and the mystery of the Baudelaire fire. Plus, the fantasy element is more firmly in place in The Ersatz Elevator, complete with a scene in which baby Sunny climbs and elevator shaft using her sharp baby teeth to grip the walls.
But, the other option is to just watch the first two season of the great (and mostly faithful) Netflix show. The last episode aired adapted The Carnivorous Carnival, which is the 9th book. So, if your kid has watched all of that, starting with book 10, The Slippery Slope, will work just fine.
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)
You’ve probably been told the His Dark Material series by Philip Pullman is excellent. This is essentially true, but what’s also true is that nobody will have their lives ruined if they only read the first book. Because The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate reality, learning all the names and meanings of everything can be complicated for a budding reader. If your kid is captivated by Lyra and her talking polar bear friends, then, by all means, have them keep reading the other two books in the series. But, if they’re done after Golden Compass, no biggie.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter # 3)
For better or worse, the Harry Potter books aren’t nearly as well-written as they are compelling. In other words, the first two books are similar structurally, to the point of actually being a little tedious, particularly for older more sophisticated kids who might be confused as to what all the fuss is about. Which is why starting with the third book is actually perfect. In terms of plot structure, this one is J.K. Rowling’s best, and though it references the larger mythology of the Potter-verse, actually has the best self-contained plot of all seven books. From Hermione’s ability to be in two places at once, to the identity of the makers of the Marauder’s Map, everything set up in this book is (mostly) answered in the same book. Which, is certainly not true of literally all the other Potter books.
Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia #4 or #2 depending on how you look at it)
If you want to get your kid into the Narnia books, you might be faced with another overwhelming dilemma: which order should you read these things in? Most contemporary boxed sets put The Magician’s Nephew ahead of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and that’s because that book is a prequel that takes place before the events of the main series, even though it was published later. But, starting with either The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are both basic and boring choices. Instead, the easiest way to let your kid sample C.S. Lewis’s rich world of Narnia is to view the whole thing as a grab-bag, rather than a series. Yes, there’s a linear sequence here, but it hardly matters for enjoyment.
This is especially true of Prince Caspian, a book that Lewis wrote as a direct sequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Why is it a good and unconventional book to start within this, the most famous of all fantasy series? Well, Prince Caspian is great in one way its more famous counterpart isn’t: the stakes are way higher. Instead of introducing you to Aslan and all the talking animals, Prince Caspian just drops you right into the world. It’s a mature, exciting adventure that will remind you why fantasy is such a great genre, for any age.