If you loved reading The Wizard of Oz, these books have similarly magical storylines.
Reading level: Middle grades
Cat knows his sister Gwendolen is a wicked witch—but she’s the only family he has left, and he loves her furiously. When Gwendolen conspires with her black magic tutor to get taken into the home of the great enchanter Chrestomanci, the thoroughly non-magical Cat is forced to go with her. While his sister determines to make an impression on the unflappable Chrestomanci, by conjuring apparitions to interrupt dinner and bringing total darkness to the castle every two hours, Cat tries to get along with the Chrestomanci’s enchanter-in-training children and the rest of the curious family at Chrestomanci Castle. But Gwendolyn’s plans are darker than even Cat realizes, and he has to choose between loyalty to the sister he loves and doing the right thing.
Charmed Life is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, and it’s a delightful introduction to the world of the Chrestomanci, where magic is so ubiquitous that it needs a sort of President-of-All-Things-Magical to keep it all in check. (Alternatively, you could start with The Lives of Christopher Chance, which introduces the Chrestomanci when he was just a kid named Christopher Chant having magical dreams.) Diana Wynne Jones is a masterful world-builder, and with almost no exposition or explanatory passages, she manages to bring a complicated and nuanced world to life.
It’s easy to get a little frustrated at Cat’s devotion to Terrible Gwendolen, and he’d have to be unflinchingly loyal to miss some of the clues to just how awful his sister really is—much like Chrestomanci, we’re tempted to protect him from that knowledge, even though we know that realization is the only thing that will pull him out of Gwendolen’s shadow. Gwendolen is pleasantly villainous and makes no apologies for her villainy—her glee at successfully working evil magic is one of my favorite parts of the book.
Seeing another kind of wizards school—totally different from Hogwarts—is always fun. (I especially love the students’ magical battles over marmalade and toast.) But really, anything I say about it is going to seem pallid and flat once you start reading the actual book, which you should do, stat. You don’t have to go out and buy every single book Diana Wynne Jones has ever written after reading this, but I bet you’ll want to.
(My copy weighs in at 224 pages, meaning you can use Charmed Life to cross off “more than 200 pages” if you’re playing along with summer book bingo.)
Can you recommend a good book series for reading aloud? We have read Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and Percy Jackson, all of which we really enjoyed.
I feel like everyone should read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (start with The Book of Three), about the adventures of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his friends — the princess/enchantress-in-training Eilonwy, king-turned-not-so-great-bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the curious and perpetually hungry Gurgi — as they fight to save Prydain from evil influences of Annuvin in an imaginary world drawn heavily from Welsh mythology. As in the Harry Potter books, Taran grows up over the course of his adventures so by the time the events in The High King take place, Taran is an adult facing adult decisions. This was one of my favorite series as a kid.
Everybody talks about The Hunger Games, but fewer people seem to know Suzanne Collins’ earlier series the Underland Chronicles, which may actually be a more interesting read. In the series’ first book, Gregor the Overlander, 11-year-old Gregor discovers a world beneath the surface of New York City, populated by giant cockroaches, tame bats, evil rats, and humans who have never seen the sun. Gregor, whose coming may have been foretold in an Underland prophecy, embarks on a series of quests, starting with a journey that might lead him to his long-missing father.
But what’s up with all the heroes? Add a couple of awesome heroines to your series readalouds with the Sisters Grimm, starting with The Fairy Tale Detectives. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm find out that Grimm’s fairy tales is not so much a collection of stories as it is a record of magical mischief cases solved by their famous ancestor. It’s fun to recognize characters from fairy tales living in the real world of Ferryport, and the sisters — especially Sabrina — are complicated, developing people, not just heroine stereotypes.
Another feminist series is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Many people stop after A Wrinkle in Time, but continue on with A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time, and you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. L’Engle is great reading for bright, thoughtful kids, who will appreciate the science, philosophy, and mathematics concepts that run through her books.
Another destination worth visiting is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where you can follow the adventures of young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Start with the hilarious The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany discovers her powers and attracts the loyalty of the Nac Mac Feegle, an army of rowdy blue pixies.
If you’re missing the thrill of a magical world, pick up Charmed Life. It’s not the first book chronologically in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, but it makes an ideal introduction to a parallel world in which magic is supervised by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. In this book, Cat and his sister Gwendolen find themselves studying magic at the Chrestomanci’s own castle.
One of my favorite recent new book series, Lockwood & Co. takes place in an alternate London haunted by ghosts and spectres that can only be seen — and defeated — by children with special abilities. Mysterious Anthony Lockwood hires plucky Lucy and cynical George to join his independent ghost detection agency, where the trio are pitted not only against vengeful spirits but also against the big supernatural agencies run by adults. The Screaming Staircase is the first in the series.
In Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth discover that their grandparents’ isolated country house is actually a preserve for mythical and legendary creatures — one of several secret preserves located around the world. The preserve is governed by strict rules for humans and magical beings, and breaking one of those rules can have serious consequences. Not surprisingly, there are dark forces at work hoping the harness the magical potential in places like Fablehaven.
It’s a little different from a traditional readaloud, but the graphic novel series Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi is a great adventure, following Emily and her brother Navin as they venture into an alternate version of earth to rescue their mom. The series kicks off with The Stonekeeper.
Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.