I grew up right on the cusp of the Harry Potter craze, which was an absolutely incredible experience. I know first-hand just what an impact the success of the Harry Potter books had on the Young Adult market, and I am a huge fan of the current YA genre even today. However, in the post-HP, post-Hunger Games world it can be hard to find great books for younger readers. Much of what’s published in the YA genre today is well-written but may not be appropriate for all younger readers. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best books for young readers that date from before Harry Potter and the YA craze.
Leave a comment below if you, too, loved these books and please comment below to let me know what books you think I missed!
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
An epic trilogy of fantasy novels follows two youngsters as they grow from children to young adults and discover a rich world of beauty, magic, and astounding danger, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books were first published from 1995-2000 and have won numerous awards. These have always been some of my favorites. They have excellent re-readability, and are known the world-over, giving new readers access not only to Pullman’s complex fictional universe but a global community of fans.
These books may appeal specifically to young adults with an interest in science and technology, as the stories touch on physics and philosophy as well as magic. In addition,. these books are notable for having both a female and a male protagonist who are equally strong, capable, and deeply integral to the story.
The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce (1983-1988)
Tamora Pierce’s first series of books to take place in her now world-famous fictional nation of Tortall, the Song of the Lioness quartet is a powerful coming-of-age story that features a young girl on her path to becoming the first female knight of the realm of Tortall. These books each feature a thrilling tale, each with a rich cast of characters and an inspiring story. Together, they present a story that proves just how important one person can be when they follow their dreams in the face of any adversity.
These books particularly inspired me when I was young for their portrayal of young people from all backgrounds each finding what makes them unique and understanding how that was powerful and important. They are also notable for their moving and inspiring representations of various mentor-child relationships, and the importance of forging true friendships. Importantly, these are all stories of overcoming gender stereotypes, and present healthy allegories particularly relevant for young girls. However, these books are all relevant and appealing to both boys and girls.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)
The Thief is an engaging adventurous tale that follows a young thief, Gen, as he’s enlisted to help the King’s mage on a perilous search for treasure. Published in 1996, the Thief has won multiple awards and has since been followed by 4 more books, completing the Queen’s Thief series of books. I’m only including the first on this list because I’ve only read the first book. By the time the second had been published I was deep in Harry Potter. Given how much I enjoyed this book, I do plan to read the rest of the series.
This book may appeal particularly to more mischievous young readers, as the protagonist is unapologetically spirited. Through this book, he learns to channel his yen for mischief and turn it into a strength, instead of just learning to be quiet and to follow the rules. Turner’s book is also notable for its unique worldbuilding, as Turner worked hard to create a multicultural setting that feels vaguely middle Eastern but stays far away from risks of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. The setting Turner creates manages to feel exotic and energetic, and also magically like home.
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper (1965-1977)
This bigger-than-life fantasy quintet tells the story of Will Stanton, an ordinary boy who learns he has an important role to play in an ancient fight against the evil of the rising Dark. Spanning five books, Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising sequence has inspired generations of young readers and won numerous awards.
Fans of traditional fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings will certainly find this a fascinating tale, and it will be particularly appropriate for readers for whom the Lord of the Rings is a little long (or otherwise advanced). It’s undeniable that this series has left its mark on this particular brand of fantasy epic, and readers will instantly recognize imagery and traditions from this series which now permeate more modern fantasy stories.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)
If the last entry was notable for inspiring generations of fantasy readers, understand that this entry takes that one step farther. The Borrowers was a breakout hit when it was published in 1952, and has been republished and adapted countless times in the intervening decades. On a personal note, this book was one of my mother’s favorites when she was a child, as well as being one of mine.
The tiny protagonists of this story are sure to entertain very young readers, and this is perhaps the entry most suited for reading aloud to children, but behind those very small characters is one giant story. Today’s young readers will be charmed and entertained by the antics of the Borrowers, and they will surely recognize all of the adaptations of this book they have encountered throughout books, movies, television, and more. Because of Norton’s prose, it is also an excellent introduction to older books for readers used to contemporary styles.
The Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey (1976-1979)
Anne McCaffrey is perhaps the most well-known of the authors featured on this list, and with good reason. Her imaginative storytelling, inspiring characters, and poetic language are all firmly present in her Harper Hall trilogy – my favorite of all her publications. In this series, readers will follow Menolly as a tragic accident robs her of her destiny as a musician and leads her to discover seven miraculous tiny dragons. Rearing them, she finds a new place within her community and grows beyond her wildest dreams.
This story appears on so many “formative fiction” lists, but is probably more geared toward female readers than male. It will also appeal particularly to readers with an interest in dragons, and features a beautiful seaside setting. It is perhaps most notable, however, for its protagonist, who achieves greatness not out of some great magic or power but through passion and heart.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi (1990)
Perhaps the least known of my suggestions here, the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle follows a teen runaway on a ship sailing from Europe to America in the 1890s. Written as a first-hand account of 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle’s own wild attempt to escape [in]justice after being falsely accused of murder, this book won several awards upon publication but seems to have fallen into relative obscurity since.
This book will appeal to young readers, male and female, who have an unyeilding yearning for adventure and independence. If they weren’t already interested in the sea and sailing before reading this, Avi’s writing will leave them forever fascinated. Lauded for its strong and self-empowered titular character, this is a worthy addition to any young reader’s shelf.
Honorable mention goes to:
The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones (1977-2006)
I’ll confess right off the bat – I have not read this book. I have included this entry purely at the behest of my sister, who was as devoted to Harry Potter as I but was four years younger. I thought no list would be truly complete without her participation and enlisted her help. This, then, is her entry.
This seven-book series is set in a magical parallel-universe, the office of Chrestomanci oversees and enforces the use of magic throughout England. In these books, readers follow 12-year-old “Cat” Chant as he discovers a unique magical gift which destines him for magical greatness, and a special role to play within the Chrestomanci.