Better than Potter

Anything that makes people read more makes me happy. Therefore, the Harry Potter phenomenon makes me happy. People are really, really excited! About a book! How fucking cool is that?

But man, I wish people would go nuts over a better book.

Oh yes, that’s right. I think Harry Potter is vastly overrated. The premise is all right, but based on what I read (all of the first book, half of the second) the writing was pedestrian at best, boring at worst, and rife with cliches.  Someone I knew wrote this very interesting post about the magic system and pinpointed something else that was bothering me:

Anyway, maybe I’m being picky, but [Candy] is certainly right, the writing is nothing to write home about. But most of all the MAGIC is rather silly.

I’m not even quite sure what I mean by that – but the magic seems kind of spoofy and farcical in nature like – oh, I’m going to go take Magic Charms 101. And then Hagrid is going to move the plot along by doing something stupid. And then I’m going to fly around on a magic broom. And wear an invisibility cloak. Forgive me if I didn’t get past the first book.

And then there’s the division of the kids into 4 types of people: the heroes, the villains, the clumsy idiots, and the smartypants. That irks to no end.

I feel like you can tell a lot about a book or author by the way they use magic. The magic in worlds like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea (she should be added to the list by the way) or Tolkien’s Middle Earth is much more part of the fabric of the world, much more natural. C.S. Lewis’ magic is based in Christianity – I think. Diane Duane’s books are much more comparable to Rowling’s world, because they are also set in the “real” world, and the magic there is based on the idea that wizards are fighting against the forces of entropy. And Rowling’s magic is…like I said… silly.

Here are some magical children’s books that I’ve read and loved—books that, in my opinion, are Better than Potter:

  • The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (I made my husband read this a couple of years ago and he e-mailed me at work, essentially saying “Holy shit! Best. Book. Evar.”)
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Any of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  • The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton
  • Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit (really, ANYTHING by E. Nesbit is brilliant)
  • The Darkangel trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce (The Darkangel, A Gathering of Gargoyles and The Pearl of the Soul of the World
  • Redwall by Brian Jacques (the first book is astonishingly good, but the rest of the series is crrrrrap)
  • Anything from the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a series that I think is somewhat overrated—a lot of the dialogue and ALL of the poetry/songs have literally made me gag, they’re so stilted and awful, though I admit nobody can beat Tolkien when it comes to world-building, and I acknowledge that Tolkien is largely responsible for creating the modern fantasy genre as we know it)
  • Anything by Philip Pullman—I have the His Dark Materials trilogy in my TBR stacks, and I’ve heard many, many good things about them, and unlike Harry Potter, I have no doubt that these books will live up to their hype

Feel free to fire away in the comments and tell me what a shitful freak I am. Or if, like me, you’re a fellow children’s book/YA novel reader who just is not impressed with Harry Potter, feel free to speak up in solidarity. Feel free to recommend your favorite children’s books, too—yes, even if they’re Harry Potter novels.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Wendy says:

    I listen to Potter on audio – and frankly I think it’s a richer experience.  Jim Dale does such a fantastic job with the narration, that it’s like being transported into a whole other world.

    After Harry #1 I thought, “Oh I get it – it’s like Cinderella for boys!” and frankly wasn’t that impressed.  But by the end of book #2 I was hooked.  Although I’m not quite as obsessed as other Muggles.  Heck, my audio copy of Harry #6 is still on order.

    I can see your points though, but frankly the librarian in me is so frickin’ geeked that people get this hung up over a book that I don’t quibble.  Finally, something that excites children and adults that isn’t a video game, movie or TV show.

  2. 2
    fiveandfour says:

    My family knows this little rant by heart: “That woman needs an editor!” which is spoken without fail whenever anything Potter enters the discussion.  I read one of the books (forget which) and it was so damned frustrating to be thinking as I read “well, this could go and that could go and it would make it a much better story”.  It’s one of my pet peeves that when an author gets some success that suddenly it’s as though every. single. word. is sacred and no one dares to touch them.

    Ahem.  Rant over.

    I would add to your list a couple of things I adored as a child: A Wrinkle in Time and The Watcher in the Woods.  I look forward to re-reading these in a few years in advance of sharing them with my daughter. 

    It seems to me that the best YA fiction makes certain assumptions about the reading audience (i.e. it’s as though the tone is that they are only for the smart and special kids, the ones in the know, that it’s a secret pact between the author and the reader that the reader is dying to share with their friends, but only if they’re the right kind of person) that the Potter books don’t. I don’t know how else to put it except that there’s no *spark* to the Potter books like there is for my favorite so-called children’s books.

  3. 3
    fiveandfour says:

    Oh, and as for newer stuff, my daughter and I finished Neil Gaiman’s Coraline recently and we both loved that one.

  4. 4
    Jonquil says:

    Diana Wynne Jones, *Fire and Hemlock* or *Dogsbody* or *Charmed Life* or *The Magicians of Caprona*…. you get the idea.

    Excellent British author of children’s fantasy who is undeservedly obscure in this country; she shows up on “If you liked Harry Potter, you’ll like…” book dumps. 

    Anybody who likes E. Nesbit will probably also like Edward Eager, who wrote books about American children having magical adventures in the 1950s.  Dry sense of humor, lovely line illustrations, wonderful magic.

  5. 5
    Kate R says:

    KIDS’ BOOKS CONTAINING MAGIC OR ODD EVENTS. I am an expert on these. Yessir, stand back, you librarians. The local children’s librarian asks me for recommendations when it comes to boys. 

    Oh Lordy! Diane Wynne Jones ROCKS. So does Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy (only two books so far) OOOOo I love them.

    Artemis Fowl’s okay and the dopey Series of Unfortunate Events has grown on me. The boys love them. The Thief Lord didn’t grip them, but I liked it fine.

    We all loved The Thief by Megan W Turner. And Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer (set in Africa in the future) was very cool.

    Those books are good, but DWJ? She’s the business. The best.

    We also have read and re-read and re-re-read Prachett’s Bromeliad series. They’re great and more accessible than the disc world stuff. No footnotes.

    And I was just getting all nostalgic about it online somewhere: for younger kids (say eight?) The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell is wonderful.

    Maybe I should go look at the bookshelves and post again.

  6. 6
    Candy says:

    Ah, dammit, I left Roald Dahl of my list. How could I forget Roald Dahl? The BFG is one of my all-time favorite books.

    I will definitely have to check out Diana Wynne Jones.

    Oh, and I don’t really get the Lemony Snicket books. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the premise is AWESOME. When I heard the description, I got so excited. Wacky, dark, gothic kiddy novels? Hell yeah. But the execution? Meh. I consistently felt as if the author was watering down the story because it was meant for kids, and that irritates me (hell, it irritated me as a child, too). I read the first book and didn’t bother picking up any others.

    Edit to add: I was expecting something Edward Gorey-esque, and instead found Joan Aiken lite.

    And Joan Aiken is another brilliant children’s author. Midnight is a Place was sooooooo good.

    Oooh, also, Lynne Reid Banks, especially The Indian in the Cupboard. *happy sigh*

  7. 7
    Lisa says:

    Wanted to recommend Tamora Pierce – her Alanna books were favorites of mine as a girl and it seems she’s only gotten more popular as time goes on.

    And for a surreal-world present-day kind of magic, Francesca Lia Block’s books are a delightful LA-based kind of magical realism…

  8. 8
    Lisa says:

    Oh! and the Darkangel trilogy! I loved those books, could find them nowhere, and had to wait ages through interlibrary loan so that I could complete them, but I still remember some of the verse that foretold the story of the books..

  9. 9
    Arethusa says:

    I don’t know, I’m reading Chronicles of Narnia and they all—with the glorious exception of Horse and His Boy—seem to be nothing more than thinly veiled Christian parables, overtly preachy and labouring under heavy symbolism that my former Sunday School teacher could have probably churned out on a good day.

    And I never liked The Hobbit much either, mostly for it’s annoying “children’s author” tone: In a hole they lived a hobbit. It was such a big hole, with a shiny red door which the sun gleamed on brightly! Yadda yadda yadda. Tolkien commented on it in one of his letters, saying that he regretted it but hey it’s still pretty popular. On the other hand I adore LOTR and The Silmarillion most of all. :)

    Phillip Pullman is the awesome. Other recs I’d sugges are

    The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix – It’s darker than the usual children’s/YA fantasy lit. I think and he has excellent female protagonists. Great pacing

    The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper – Another Brit doing her take on the Arthurian fantasies. It shares superficial similarities to Chronicles of Narnia but does it better IMO

    The Wind Fire trilogy by William Nicholson – The first depicts a world where everyone in the city is ranked by exam grades and it’s all terribly uniform and conformists. Of course the family at the centre of this story don’t really fit in and the twins get involved in a mission that disrupts the entire city. Great, great books, can’t recommend them enough. :)

    I’ve heard a lot about Holly Black, but haven’t read her books yet.

  10. 10
    Jorie says:

    As a reader, I don’t feel strongly about Harry Potter, either way.  I enjoyed the first four but set aside the fifth out of boredom.  I am reading the sixth now and may finish it.

    But I have to say there is no other series in the world that my mother, my husband and my children all read with enthusiasm.  Obviously, Rowling is doing something right for an awful lot of people.

    And, yeah, the excitement about a book release is cool.

  11. 11
    Erica says:

    Hello.  I’ve been reading this site for a while, but this is my first post.

    I couldn’t get past the first chapter of any of the Potter books (I tried all of them to see if starting in the middle might help.  It didn’t.)  Don’t like Pullman much either.  I read “The Golden Compass” but I really did not like it.  I liked “The Darkangel” but not the other two books so much.  I read “The Hobbit” for school, but haven’t read the LoTRs and I have a feeling I probably won’t be reading them anytime soon, same with the Narnia books.

    OTOH, I love Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Cynthia Voight, SE Hinton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth George Speare (Witch of Blackbird Pond), Marguerite Henry, Kate Seredy, “Phantom Tollbooth,” “The Perilous Gard,” “Tam Lin,” “Bridge to Terabithia”…

  12. 12
    t-beth says:

    Shoot, someone already mentioned Edward Eager.  Oh, well.  To the list I’ll add Ruth Chew, then.

  13. 13

    Holy spankings, Batman! I’m a ‘magic’ reader, not a romance reader. I’ve read just about every book you listed. I never know what the hell you’re talking about when you discuss romance books, cause I HAVEN’t read them.


  14. 14
    Sharon says:

    My fav childhood book which is based on Christian tenets and offers magic and miracles, is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels.

  15. 15
    Lynn M says:

    I struggled to get through the first two or three chapters of The Sorcerer’s Stone, but after that I became a fan, hook, stone and sinker. I’m not saying that the HP books are literary gems by any means, but the story told within the covers keeps me completely captivated.

    As for the magic being a bit silly, I guess IMO all magic is a bit silly if you think about it. Once you’ve agreed to accept the general premise, it’s a lot easier to just go along on the ride and not question the magic.

    But mostly what I like about the HP books is that JKR does not pander to children. She doesn’t white-wash her world to make everything pristine and happy happy because her audience is young (or rather, was supposed to be young). Bad crap happens to Harry and you can’t help but like the guy because of it.

  16. 16
    bookseller chick says:

    I had a math teacher who looked like the BFG.  Whenever I would walk into class and catch sight of him in profile (one huge ear, thinning hair, schnoz of epic proportions), I would get the biggest grin on my face, which was something he didn’t see very often in his class (since it was multivariable calculus).  No surprise that The BFG was my favorite book as a child.

    And Yay! for someone else reading the Bartimaeus Trilogy.  It’s a favorite in my store, and infinitely better than Harry in my opinion.  How can anyone resist a character who feels the need to footnote his own thoughts?

    My favorite series at the moment is The Tales of the Otori.  Although written for adults, the books won Best Adult books for Teens from the library journal in 2003 (I believe).  Set in a world based on feudal Japan, the books have it all, great fight scenes, high saga, and the characters evolve right before your eyes.  If nothing else, go check out Across the Nightingale Floor (the first book).  I started reading it because my customers couldn’t seem to stay away from it, and now I’m addicted.  All three books in the trilogy are out in trade paperback.  Go.  Buy.  Now!

    I could go off on a rant on Harry, and the “right time, right place” luck that made him America’s real sweetheart, but I’m still winding down from having to do one of those damn parties (basically too exhausted for every other word not to be the F word).  Glad to hear that others feel the same way,


  17. 17
    Elaine says:

    Dianne Wynn Jones – another yes!  She comes in several flavors, some darker than others.  I like that she doesn’t over explain her worlds.

    A College of Magic and a Scholar of Magic might work for older YA readers.  These books by Caroline Stevermer are set in a pseudo-Victoran, early industrial period in which magic (fairly obscure and suble magic mostly) works.  Stevermer’s work always amazes me after my second read of it:  I think I just read it too damn fast the first time.

  18. 18
    Sarah says:

    Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl. LOVE him. I think my faves were the Witches, and Matilda.

    As far as chapter books for kids, stepping outside of magic for a moment, I also liked the simplicity and the comforting familiarity of Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary as a little girl, and the Judy Blumes that were about little kids, not teenagers, and weren’t all about puberty and masturbating – especially the Superfudge series. And, I think I read The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo about sixty times.

    I’m not saying Blume is high art to the degree of honor to which I hold Dahl, but when I was a little girl, they were like cocoa and flannel in literary form.

  19. 19
    Robyn says:

    My kids couldn’t care less about HP, but loved A Wrinkle in Time, The Hobbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Narnia series.

    (BTW, if you haven’t read Narnia, someone made the point that they read like Christian parables. THEY ARE. They were meant to be. C.S. wasn’t trying to fly under the radar.)

    They also loved Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. They’ll be thrilled to check out some of those other titles at the library tomorrow. Thanks!

  20. 20
    Arethusa says:

    Bookseller chick I forgot about the Otori series! Oh they’re all absolutely wonderful, I overwhelmingly second that recommendation.

  21. 21
    Kel says:

    See now I had this long typed up response but lost it because it didn’t like what I typed I suppose! Grrrrrr

    Sigh.  Anyway, first time poster here too, but I’ve been lurking and I couldn’t resist the thread.

    I see some of the ones I was gonna mention before the post flew off into cyber-ether, Blume and Cleary were already brought up, and they were ones I loved too. (I just read “Runaway Ralph” to my nephew).

    I also liked Lois Duncan as a young adult, and a book by some author I can’t remember called “Don’t Hurt Laura”.  Cried and Cried and for some reason it still sticks with me. 

    As a kid I loved Anne of Green Gables and the Little house books, and musta checkd out the original “Boxcar Children” a hundred times from my elememtary school library.

    All time faves were my Trixie Bleden mysteries.  Still collect those…well, the first editions at least.

    I LOVED “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”, though not so much the rest of the series.  (Btw, they’re bringing that out as a live action movie by Christmas, looks fabo too!)

    I read and liked Lewis’s three book Sci Fi series, but that was when I was older.

    Didn’t like the Hobbit much, thought it was Booor-ring, but I liked the trilogy, when I got older.

    By sixth grade I was reading Romance, not long after that literature too, “Ivanhoe” “Of Mice and Men, “Where the Red Fern Grows”, “Flowers for algernon”, though those were homework mostly, however “Pride and Prejudice” is still my all time favorite re-read,

    ….and now I’m back to Fantasy and Sci Fi, oh and still reading romance too of course.

    As far as Potter goes, I haven’t read any of them yet mostly because of the hype, but then I thought, well look at the way I act with Star Wars, Star Trek, and BTVS!  If Star Wars isn’t pure hype, I don’t know what is!  (The young adult books in these series are just as fun to read too, btw). So I might give it a shot. 

    Plus I like the movies, AND as someone else said anything that gets kids excited about reading is fine by me too.

    Crap.  I’ve rambled.  How rude of me on my first post.  All righty then, move along, nothing to see here, as you were….

  22. 22
    Arethusa says:

    Oh Robyn I just read your comment. I’m well-aware that Lewis meant it to be based on Christian principles, but there are lots of other books (like the Wrinkle in Time series, or LOTR for that matter) where the messages serve the story rather than vice versa because then you get the benefits of both. To me Lewis went the other way around and handled it very clumsily, in an incredibly simplified manner and tedious manner (even though each book is so short!). Heck, the Bible featured better stories.

  23. 23
    Candy says:

    I don’t know, I’m reading Chronicles of Narnia and they all—with the glorious exception of Horse and His Boy—seem to be nothing more than thinly veiled Christian parables, overtly preachy and labouring under heavy symbolism that my former Sunday School teacher could have probably churned out on a good day.

    I read them when I was a young ‘un, and the Christian symbolism flew right over my head. I re-read them when I was a teenager and caught some of the references but deliberately chose to ignore them.

    When I re-read the books for the third or fourth time, I’m going to deliberately ignore the symbolism again :lol: . Because honestly, I think the ripping good yarns make up for any uncomfortable preachy bits.

    As for the magic being a bit silly, I guess IMO all magic is a bit silly if you think about it.

    Yeah, in a way. But some magical systems are COOL, y’know? Like how T.H. White explained why Merlin was prescient in The Sword in the Stone: Merlin was born in the future and lived backwards. How cool is that? And all the spells were old Latin phrases, and funny things happened when Merlin invoked Castor and Pollux while cussing….

  24. 24
    Shannon says:

    I love Harry Potter, even though I was a bit disappointed by the last two.  They’re campy and fun, and the cheezy verbs and juvenile magic pranks are part of that fun.  And if a book entertains me and I have a blast reading it, I don’t care if it’s a prime example of writing how-not-tos.

    But I’m one of those freaky people who would rather go on Fear Factor and scarf down raw buffalo balls than read Tolkien.  Boooooring and OMG at the style. The last time I tried to read his writing my left eye twitched for two days.

  25. 25
    Nat says:

    His Dark Materials is a wonderful trilogy. I read the first two and were blown away by the depth and wonder of Pullman’s writing. I plan to skim through them again so I can finally read book 3.

    I agree also on Tamora Pierce. I flew through each book in the Alanna series in one sitting. I plan to read as much of her as I can!!

    For a great science fiction book, try the Giver by Lois Lowry. It won the Newbery Award and is simply one of the most amazing books ever.

    For a fairy tale spin, try The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo. Another Newbery winner, my husband, who is not a reader, enjoyed this book!

    I could think of many many more as I am a children’s/YA librarian, but those are the standouts for me.

    PS: I am not a big HP fan either. As a fantasy genre reader, I kept thinking “Dahl did this better” and other things like that.

  26. 26
    Robin says:

    I’ve read White’s The Once and Future King, but nothing else by him.  Is this a prequel or a sequel??  TOAFK is one of my all time favorite books, and I got a great cheapo hardback copy recently from Costco for under 7 bucks.  I was so happy to see it’s still in print that I actually whined and clutched it to my chest in the middle of the store—sad but true.

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    TOAFK is basically a compendium of four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. But the version of The Sword in the Stone that’s in TOAFK is an abridged version; if you get the stand-alone book, it’s got a lot more adventures in it. For instance, Wart encounters a giant and gets turned into a snake, which aren’t included in TOAFK. (I think. It’s been 10 years since I’ve read that book.)

  28. 28
    Grrrly says:

    thank you, thank you, thank you, for mentioning five children and an it. i’ve been wanting to read it to my daughter and have spent years looking for it with nothing more to go on then “kids meet snail-thing and get wishes” and the mistaken title of ‘three children and it’. what a relief that this book that no one but i seemed to remember wasn’t the product of my own imagination! :)

    i’d also recommend (though they’re quite old and more teen/ya stories than children’s) margaret mahy’s ‘the tricksters’ and ‘the changeover’. ‘the spellkey’ by ann downer was another frequent check-out from the local library. and i just found out she wrote it as a trilogy, so looks like i’ve got some shopping to do. :) for the rest of the books mentioned, looks like rooting through my storage unit is in order, as i recall reading and loving a vast majority of them.

  29. 29
    Lisa says:

    It’s times like this that I’m glad for ebooks…Remembering favorites earlier, I downloaded the two newest Tamora Pierce e-books onto my Palm and have been happily reading at a time when all the bookstores are closed. Seriously, I do a lot of my browsing LATE at night and I like instant gratification. If more books were available in e-version, I’d snap them up…I’ve got the YA page open at fictionwise right now :)

  30. 30
    Jennifer says:

    I love YA books, especially YA fantasy and science fiction, but the Harry Potter books aren’t among my absolute favorites.  I enjoy the Harry Potter series, but I have problems with it.

    My favorite YA books are:
    The Thief of Always and the Abarat series by Clive Barker
    The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Beauty by Robin McKinley
    the original three Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin
    Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet
    anything by Tamora Pierce I can get my hands on
    The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
    Summers at Castle Auburn and The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn
    The Changeover by Margaret Mahy
    Weekend, Last Act, Remember Me, and Witch by Christopher Pike
    nearly all of Norma Klein’s YA books
    Forever by Judy Blume
    P.S. I Love You by Barbara Conklin
    A Kindred Spirit by Ann Gabhart
    The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares
    Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
    everything by S. E. Hinton
    The Divorce Express and It’s an Aardvark Eat Turtle World by Paula Danziger
    Caroline B. Cooney’s YA romances
    everything I’ve read by Paul Zindel
    Bruce and Carole Hart’s books

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