J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been an unstoppable cultural juggernaut for over twenty years. Against the backdrop of a well-documented decline in reading, the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione have compelled millions of readers to journey through a seven-part series with a word count exceeding one million. Part of the series’ appeal is its knack for maturing along with its readers. While the story begins as a simple fantasy about escaping the doldrums of suburban life, it quickly becomes a spoof of boarding-school culture before growing into a riveting anti-fascist saga with Tolkeinesque Christian overtones. The story’s social and political themes are not lost on young readers: Amongst a growing body of research demonstrating that engagement with fiction increases a child’s capacity for empathy, the Harry Potter books have been found to reduce prejudice in their readers.
But what is a reader to do after turning the final page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Luckily, the literary world is filled with plenty of other fantasy epics that will appeal to readers who were thrilled by Harry’s adventures.
One of the many antecedents to Rowling’s saga is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-part series about British children who come of age after discovering friends, mentors, and nemeses in a magical setting. (Sound familiar?) That series began publication in the 1950s, which is also when Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkein published what is possibly the most enduring fantasy epic in all of literature, The Lord of the Rings. (If you thought Dumbledore was great, just wait until you meet Gandalf!)
If you crave more magic, try Ursula K. Le Guin’s five-book Earthsea Cycle, which begins with 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin’s story telling is thematically rich; the Earthsea Cycle tackles gender politics, power, and the nature of belief.
If it’s escapism you’re looking for, follow the Yellow Brick Road! With a magical setting that might remind you of Hogwarts, (albeit with a very different perspective on the title “Wizard”), Frank L. Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz whisks young readers away to a fantastical land populated by outlandish characters and menacing dark corners. After the success of this novel, Baum wrote thirteen sequels.
The wake of Potter‘s success saw the publication of numerous young-adult fantasy epics bearing Rowling’s influence, such as Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (which begins with 2001’s Artemis Fowl), Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle (which begins with 2003’s Eragon), and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (which begins with 2005’s The Lightning Thief). While none of these attained Potter‘s success and cultural impact, each has its own legion of devotees.
For a science-fiction equivalent to Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts, try Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game, which follows a young protagonist who has been recruited into an interplanetary war. Ender’s Game spawned a series of sequels, a big-studio movie adaptation, and a too-big-to-be-a-cult cult following.
Harry Potter fans who crave something a little more cerebral will find food for thought in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Older readers who grew up with Harry Potter but are now interested in a more complex take on Potter’s themes of power and corruption will find themselves deeply immersed in Frank Herbert’s cycle of sci-fi/fantasy novels that began with the 1965 publication of Dune, or in Lev Grossman’s portal fantasy trilogy beginning with The Magicians.
Of course, this is just a starting point. If your appetite for magical coming-of-age stories still isn’t satiated, have a talk with your local library staff!
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