So this is how it goes: some little while after Beast Quest or Rainbow Magic Fairies, but before The Hunger Games and Twilight, your beloved child discovers Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and life is very peaceful and uncomplicated for maybe months on end. Seven volumes and three- and-a-half thousand pages later, said child emerges – hollow-eyed and pallid and sated, and yet somehow hungry all over again – asking, “What can I read now?” As a dutiful parent, you are desperate not to lose this newfound enthusiasm, only too aware that it can’t be summoned at will. How do you supply exactly the right book to maintain the momentum and fill the Potter-shaped hole?
Let it be said right away: there is no half-decent pretend Potter to tide you over. Publishers aren’t, generally, the intrepid and ground-breaking bunch they might wish to be – they simply can’t afford it. What booksellers and customers cry out for (and pay for) is something very like this title or that series that they already know and buy by the hundred-thousand; so believe me, most children’s and not a few adult publishers have been scanning the horizon for years for Harry Potter II, and if they haven’t brought it out already, it probably doesn’t exist – yet. What Harry Potter has done, brilliantly, is to bring fantasy writing for children firmly into the mainstream, and to make publishers, booksellers and readers consider and embrace the sort of ambitious, imaginative and richly-described parallel worlds that were once considered niche at best, if publishable at all. It won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly to hear that I consider this altogether a Good Thing.
So what’s the answer for your hollow-eyed child? Any child who really has read all seven Harry Potters back to back is not lacking in either commitment or stamina: perhaps it’s time to go back to the source of all modern fantasy writing, either in the gentle, avuncular style of The Hobbit or the more complex, demanding and complete form of The Lord of the Rings. J.K. Rowling’s own style, after all, becomes very much less cosy and more challenging (not least in the miseries and unfairness through which she tempers her teenaged hero) in the course of seven books, so it’s not such a stretch to traverse a largely hostile Middle Earth, with a few small and vulnerable hobbits on an impossible quest against implacable evil, especially in the terrible moment when your best wizard is lost in a crucial battle, well before the end of the story.
If your child finds (or you find) LOTR a little… solemn after seven Harry Potters (the best efforts of Merry and Pippin rarely have the mayhem potential of the Weasley family – Fred and George in particular – and Tolkien didn’t go in for the sort of social skewering that makes Harry’s Dursley relations such a guilty pleasure), you’re all the better placed to enjoy Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s Muddle Earth. Stewart and Riddell have built their own very solid mythology with the Edge Chronicles (of which more in a future post), and shorter series such as Fergus Crane and Barnaby Grimes, but Muddle Earth and its sequel stand as the definitive tribute-cum-parody. Ordinary schoolboy Joe Jefferson escapes his noisy family and a looming homework assignment, only to find himself and his dog Henry summoned to Muddle Earth by acting wizard Randalf the Wise (who, it soon transpires, is anything but), and required to act as hero by a permanently cash-strapped Randalf and hen-pecked Horned Baron against the ultimate villain… Doctor Cuddles of Giggle Glade, with his sidekick Quentin the Cake Decorator. I’m sure you get the picture… by the second or third time Randalf says “Trust me, I’m a wizard,” you’d be well advised not to, and to listen instead to his unlikely familiar, Veronica the sarcastic budgie (“Shut up, Veronica!”). Meanwhile, Joe has soon had enough of being a hero and is desperate to get home to his family, even if it means confronting Doctor Cuddles himself…
Muddle Earth Too finds Joe back in Muddle Earth by means of a self-assembly wardrobe named Tumnus (uh oh). This time, his moody, temperamental – that is to say, “artistic and sensitive” – elder sister Ella is there before him, and soon in thrall to the brooding Edward Gorgeous (is he really so fond of tomatoes?) at Stinkyhogs School of Wizardry (oh yes) under the tutelage of Randalfus Rumblebore, Headmaster, formerly Randalf the Wise. LOTR references (the Musty Mountains and Mount Boom) obligingly shuffle up to make room for Harry Potter, Narnia, Twilight and Christopher Paolini’s Alagaësia, as well as Philip Pullman – I didn’t spot any direct Terry Pratchett borrowings, but his spirit is certainly in the Enchanted Lake which rises like a mushroom from its river source. Fantasy readers of long standing will pick up more ticks than a terrier, which isn’t to say that younger ones will miss the point: the resident eight- to ten-year-olds devoured both original and sequel over the Easter holidays, enchanted by the mad inventiveness (stiltmice, lazybirds), all-ways-absurd characters, not to mention frequent caustic put-downs of the Veronica variety. Chris Riddell’s illustrations, as with anything the man does, add their own wizardry: honestly, the man could draw paint drying and give it elegance, subtlety, character and poignancy.
I’m not going to apologise for recycling – recalling, if you will – a few earlier recommendations: for readers in search of less knockabout and more warmth (and shorter volumes if Muddle Earth’s 400+ pages a time should prove intimidating), Eva Ibbotson combines the intrepid, the magical, the sinister and the reassuringly peculiar in magical stories such as Which Witch?, The Haunting of Hiram, Monster Mission, The Beasts of Clawstone Castle and The Secret of Platform 13.
Cornelia Funke, meanwhile, creates an absorbing world with exhilarating, frighteningly thin boundaries between reality and story in the Inkworld trilogy. Definitely one for the Harry Potter reader who misses the thrall, the absolute immersion of a brilliantly-evoked fantasy setting through several volumes; and, like Harry Potter, not a tale that sheers away from darkness and the death of well-loved characters.
With which, I have also done my homework (I always do my homework) to bring you two more absorbing and immersive series with magic at their heart. Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series even finds its boy hero summoned to a school for children of exceptional magical and other talent. Bloor’s Academy, however, is a much bleaker prospect than Hogwarts, a place of cold stone corridors, endless rules, horrible food and two bullying prefects whose secret weapons are hypnotic powers and shape-shifting. It transpires that Charlie, who thinks himself quite ordinary, is descended from an ancient magical family; although unlike Harry Potter’s idolised parents, Charlie’s disapproving grandmother and great-aunts prove to be deeply sinister. His gift becomes apparent through a mix-up at the photo shop: Charlie’s mother brings home someone else’s print of a man and a baby, and Charlie finds that he can hear their voices. The discovery not only finds him quickly transferred to Bloor’s Academy, but also gives him a quest as he discovers the fate of the baby in the picture – a quest that the Bloor family have no intention of allowing to succeed. It’s lucky that ordinary Charlie has an extraordinary knack of making friends: not only his longstanding and devoted best friend Benjamin, but new friends at Bloor’s: Fidelio the musician with his jolly, noisy family; purple-haired Olivia, a stranger to sensible shoes; and the other “endoweds” (magically gifted children), Gabriel and Billy. It’s Gabriel, with his uncanny knowledge of strangers from the clothes they have worn, who gives Charlie wild hope that his father, supposed killed in a car crash, might yet be alive… although only a few clues are scattered in the first of eight books, Midnight for Charlie Bone. A much-loved series, pacy and unpredictable to the end.
Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series is more in the classic fantasy tradition, teeming with wizards of various grades, mysterious orphans, garrulous landladies, petty functionaries, benign ghosts and trained assassins, not to mention a whole menagerie of predatory slimy creatures and a thoroughly unpreposessing master villain. Anyone who has loved J.K. Rowling’s bravura descriptions, inventive detail (a message service delivered by resourceful rats, with differing grades of clearance!) and intricate plotting will feel entirely at home in Septimus Heap’s world. Magyk opens with Silas, seventh son and not-terribly-successful wizard, finding a baby girl in the snow, and bound to silence by the bossy ExtraOrdinary wizard Marcia. Returning home, Silas is greeted with the horrible news that his own seventh child has not survived; shaken, Silas and his wife Sarah nonetheless raise baby Jenna, and soon come to love her as their own. When news leaks out that the city’s Queen has been assassinated and her baby is missing, Silas and Sarah realise who their foundling must be, but they are able to keep Jenna safe at least until her tenth birthday. Suddenly, betrayed by their spy neighbour, the Heaps are forced to flee and separate, in an unlikely alliance with Marcia and the wretched Boy 412, raised from birth into the brutal Young Army. They will be safe, for a while at least, with eccentric white witch Aunt Zelda in the Marram Marshes – if they can endure her cooking, that is – but for how long can they avoid confronting the Necromancer? And what really did happen to baby Septimus? The series has just reached its seventh and concluding volume, Fyre, and word is (sorry, I don’t have my own copy yet) that it maintains its momentum and invention right up to the end.
My last recommendation is another recycle/recall, but really I don’t think you can do better: Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, beginning with Charmed Life. There is even a school for witch orphans in Witch Week, although, again, it is rather less benign than Hogwarts: witchcraft is utterly forbidden in this world, where witch-burnings are still a daily reality. What are the staff to do when they receive the anonymous note: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH? The more they try to ignore it, the more magic keeps bursting out: larky and look-at-me to begin with, like the flock of tropical birds in the music lesson, then seriously dangerous (and incidentally hilarious) as rebellious Nan finds she really can ride a broomstick, and the insufferable Simon finds that everything Simon Says, intended or not, comes true. It will take nothing less than a Chrestomanci to sort this lot out… Wynne Jones combines matchless imagination with a real understanding of children: the cliques, the loners, the hierarchies, the sneering and sniping and casual thoughtlessness, but also the chips-are-down loyalty and resourcefulness. (Not to mention the web of power and hope and fear and resentment between the poor hapless teachers.) A serious, but never solemn, joy. (Don’t forget, either, the brilliant Howl series: no schools or boy wizards to speak of, but one amiable Apprentice, one extremely vain master wizard and one determined girl heroine, trapped in the body of an old lady, not forgetting a moving castle with four doors opening onto four different places. You couldn’t make it up… but Wynne Jones could.)
So there you are: seven authors, seven possible directions, thirty to forty books… I hope that at least one of the above will offer some post-Potter satisfaction, and a way into some more of the fabulous imaginative writing for children with which, these days, we’re so blessed.