Joanne Rowling’s genius for popular writing often outshines her educational background. A student of French and Classics, Rowling’s books embed much of the legacy of British and French creative thought.
Kids who love her Harry Potter series may wish to deepen their understanding of the traditions and stories of Western civilization that inform them. Here are a few suggestions for additional authors and works you may want to introduce your children to.
1. The most obvious followup, or prerequisite, read for the Potter series is J. R. R. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles are an admitted influence on her works, but the “Lord of the Rings” series has certainly thoroughly informed British imagination and set the stage for nearly all fantastic fiction that came after it. The basic template of evil magic resisted through good magic and its nonmagical allies, of epic scale with human story, was set by Tolkien and well followed by Rowling. Tolkien himself can be seen as following in the path of Dante’s “Inferno” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and young people with great interest and a strong reading ability can follow back to those masters. Parents should use caution, themes in those older books can be very strong.
2. A contemporary of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and a sometimes companion with them in their Inklings gatherings, was George MacDonald. Less well known outside of Britain, MacDonald wrote extensively for adults and children. His book, “The Princess and the Goblin”, follows a young miner who saves a princess and her kingdom from a goblin swarm. The tone of this book, and it’s sequel, “The Princess and Curdie”, is closer to Rowling’s than the Tolkien books are, and the sweet, simple, provincial nature of the magic echoes a bit her world, in which magic is commonplace.
3. Another author to explore across many books is Padraic Colum. Colum rewrote many classics for kids, including a one-volume compilation of the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ travels home. Unlike many modern retellings, Colum’s capture the whole story while preserving the joy of reading later the full classics — his are almost oral narratives, retelling like you might retell your child the stories at bedtime, and then find him recalling those moments happily as he reads the full, true texts later.
Colum’s book, “The King of Ireland’s Son”, is an excellent book to read while reading the Potter series — you might even read it between volumes. “The King of Ireland’s Son” knits together folktale after folktale in a nesting doll fashion, bringing all sorts of stories of enchantment and quest together. This book played a part in his work to bring the old Irish heritage to a modern Irish audience. The work is out of copywrite and available free online in text and audio format.
4. The idea of the quest, of the job to be done, of the group of young and brave fighters who do it — this is, of course, the idea that has appealed for hundreds of years in the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table. One good retelling for young people was written by John Steinbeck, in his “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”. Steinbeck writes the tales more mildly and more readably than the straight old compilations do, making them more appealing to young people. However, the Arthur legends are contained within a very old and very different perspective than our own, and Steinbeck retains that weirdness, that other-worldliness, in his book.
One hazard, though — the old Welsh tales, like the German tales collected by the Grimm Brothers, were meant for adults and can have some very disturbing themes. Just as Grimms’ fairy tales have been sanitized in modern children’s books, so have the Arthur tales been reworked and refashioned. Steinbeck’s version, closer to the original tellings, should probably be read together with an adult or after an adult preview.
5. Potter fans or not, all kids should be familiar with the stories of “Beowulf” and “Gilgamesh”. The kings, the journeys, the battles, and the monsters could almost be part of a cultural memory; Homer’s stories and the mythology of the Norse and the Greeks carry on that thread. Colum’s versions can be good to read, or for kids more able to endure dry writing, Bullfinch is a very thorough compilation. For those without a religious objection, Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” (illustrated can be good), although not fiction, can inspire with stories of sacrifice, determination, love, and mystery.
6. For those who like a more romantic, sentimental version of the knightly ideal, the works of Sir Walter Scott might be interesting. Books like “Ivanhoe” are fairly dense, but give decent historical detail. The battle scenes in the castles compare well to the scenes of students and teachers fighting at Hogwarts; the hand to hand fighting from room to room, the siege and storm, are all in Ivanhoe’s story. Scot also writes characters of perfidy, characters of unknown allegiance, and characters constrained by their place in society. The character of the young Jewish woman, always an outsider despite her great abilities and goodness, compares well with Hermione, the bright girl whose family is unfairly despised by some. As with all adult romance, even from the nineteenth century, some scenes may not be appropriate for younger readers to tackle unsupervised.
7. Jorge Luis Borges, a fiction writer for adults, in 1957 wrote a book of brief descriptions of fictional creatures from sources all over the globe and throughout time. “The Book of Imaginary Beings” is a simple encyclopedia of creatures from mythology, folklore, and fiction. The old standards are there — griffins and unicorns — but you will run across numbers of whimsical or ominous beings you have never heard of before. Kids who were fascinated by the sections in the book with Hagrid’s monsters and creatures will love this book.
8. “Cautionary Tales for Children”, subtitled “Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years”, isn’t strictly in the fantasy realm, but it’s speculative and outlandish nature fits well with the Potter humor, particularly that of the Weasley twins. The children being eaten by lions or refused help by firemen in these verses could easily be seen suffering under the heavy hand of Dolores Umbridge, and many of the drawings that accompany the original book (out of copyright and available on Gutenberg) remind us just as well of scornful authorities in our own lives. Hilaire Belloc’s lines are not for the sensitive, and some may object to his humor, so preview well before sharing.
9. Fans of Rowling often are readers who start reading young, so many may have already run into the standards of British imaginative thinking. If they have not, however — or if a refresher is in order — don’t forget to visit or revisit A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Kenneth Grahame. The Potter world doesn’t so much anthropomorphize animals, but the inventions of place are not unlike Rowling’s. The great hall at Hogwarts, the train station, the Weasley homestead, the cabinet under the stairs — setting is not taken lightly in the Rowling books. Compare them to Toad Hall, Mr. McGregor’s Garden, the Hundred Acre Wood. In fact, it’s easy to imagine the Whomping Willow illustrated by Potter or by E. H. Shepard.
10. The Potter books have good characters, plot lines, settings, humor, suspense, themes — but they also have really great gadgets. Travel through a chimney or under an invisible cloak is just plain fun. Kids who like gadgets and games will enjoy the many books by Jules Verne. His characters fiddle and scratch with submarines and balloons, walk the bottom of the ocean in underwater apparatus, haul themselves across continents on elephants and locomotives, and climb down and back out of the center of the Earth using gizmos they’ve practically duct taped together. Verne is a little difficult to read on first blush, but once you’ve moved past the first few chapters the flow begins to work better and young kids are able to see past the dating of the language to the exciting meat of the story.
Give a try with some of these authors and stories when your kids have passed their fifth reading of the Potter series — you can only re-read all seven books a few times a month. If one of these recommendations catches their attention, follow the trail of that author to more books like it. One of the impressive characteristics of Ms. Rowling’s writing is how well it can be pulled out of our time, comparing well with the imagination of peoples of the past and enduring well into a future where imagination will be needed. Enjoy authors who have this in common with her.