Wizards and Witches
The Harry Potter books have to be commended and congratulated for getting so many kids interested in reading and fantasy books. However, they're far from the only 'Wizard School' books suitable for kids of roughly 7-13.
The following titles offer much the same boarding school formula as Harry Potter but without serving as mere clones. Some kids may prefer them to Harry Potter and others will be happy to read them before or after Harry Potter.
The Worst Witch
Hettie Hubble and her many spellcasting mishaps have been around for longer then Harry Potter. The Worst Witch books combine a female 'lead' with plenty of comedy. Spells go wrong, Hettie's naivety causes trouble and Hettie usually has to wake up to what's going on to extricate herself.
There's an almost endless range of slightly slapstick comedy resulting from the mishaps when spells go wrong. The school, Miss Cackle's Academy, also provides plenty of laughs, as the teachers are more than a little eccentric and Hettie's enemy, Belladonna, is usually just a little too clever for her own good.
Regrettably, many boys won't give the Worst Witch a try for the same reasons as Hollywood didn't come calling. Hettie is likeable but not heroic, the school is magical but not forbidding and the villains aren't menacing. All pluses for a series of books which are great for newly confident, independent readers but not considered the stuff of blockbuster movies, so far.
The Worst Witch website is more to do with the TV series than the books.
Midnight For Charlie Bone
Jenny Nimmo established herself as a children's writer years ago when she wrote her Snow Spider Trilogy. The Welsh-based fantasy trilogy was excellent but, possibly, a little too bleak to have as much international success as in the UK.
The Charlie Bone series is more recent than the Harry Potter titles and has just concluded with an eighth title. The writing is of a high quality throughout. The series can, perhaps, be read at an earlier stage than Harry Potter and kids of 8-12 are particularly likely to enjoy the set.
The usual absent parents, family bullies, boarding school trials and powers from the past are all ticked off but Bloor's Academy is not quite as 'by the numbers' as Hogwart's. The school is genuinely forbidding and there's a skilful blend of mystery and novelty.
As a descendant of 'The Red King', Charlie has powers that are a bit more subtle than Hogwart's magic. The same applies to other descendants and the various powers add an amusing twist to the formula. For example, Charlie can travel into pictures and photographs, while another character has the ability to enchant clothing.
Unsurprisingly, the Harry Potter books and movies eclipsed Charlie Bone at first. More recently, they've been gaining ground and it will be no surprise if movies follow. Especially when kids who complete the first book tend to want to complete the series.
The same can be true of Harry Potter, but some of the later Harry Potter titles are so long that kids may falter part way through the set. As with Harry Potter many teenagers and adults should enjoy reading the The Charlie Bone series.
It might also have been a help if the outstanding cover art on the UK paperbacks had appeared on the US paperbacks, which have good but unspectacular cover art from the perspective of a ten-year-old.
The Wizard of Earthsea
The Wizard of Earthsea is shorter than our other titles, was written first and is the darkest of our fantasy recommendations. A young Sparrowhawk travels to a wizard's school which has few of the privileges and affectations of a boarding school. Magic is dark, powerful and interwoven into the fabric of the many islands of the world of Earthsea.
The book stands out as a fantasy adventure story, a literary work on the power of language and a serious lesson about the consequences of our actions. The other books in what became a series are less immediately accessible. The Wizard of Earthsea is, probably, best read at an age of 11 or older to help kids appreciate a story as tense and compelling as anything Harry Potter has to offer.
The following fantasy titles are all about dragons and their relationships with humans. The first two books are aimed at young adults of about 9+, while the third title is a fantasy and SciFi classic suitable for teenagers and adults:
Dragon Orb: Firestorm by Mark Robson
Four young teenagers discover they're to become 'Dragon Riders' when their dragons come looking for them. We're introduced to Elain first. He meets his dragon and soon sets off on a quest to save dragons and humans alike. Elain is joined later by a young hunter called Kira, the fearful Nolita and, finally, the temperamental Pell. Each Dragon Rider is bonded to one of the four types of dragons found in the world of Areth, (i.e. Dragons of the Dawn, Day, Dusk and Night).
Firestorm is the first of four books in a series. It concentrates on how the Dragon Riders meet with their dragons and learn of their powers. There's also a particular challenge for Nolita, which asks her to overcome her many fears.
All four titles come together to offer a fairly undemanding, but entertaining, fantasy adventure. Much of the series concerns a quest to retrieve four orbs that are required to protect everyone living in Areth.
Dragon Age: Firestorm is the first in the series, followed by Dragon Age: Shadow, Dragon Age: Longfang and Dragon Age: Aurora.
Dragonsdale by Salamanda Drake
The Dragonsdale series offers a 'dragon school' storyline, about youngsters learning to look after their own dragon and then ride their dragon in competition. Cara wants to train a dragon, but her Dad runs the dragons' stables and she is strictly forbidden from joining in. As might be expected, Cara isn't left out for long and soon finds herself training her own dragon, Skydancer, in secret.
Cara's adventures continue in Dragonsdale: Riding the Storm. Cara argues with her friend Breena and this sets in motion a series of misadventures and dangers orchestrated by the malicious Hortense. As events spiral out of control, it's down to Cara to put friendship first and to try to help out Breena and her dragon Moonflight.
Both Dragonsdale books have some excellent illustrations.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Anne McCaffery's Dragonflight delivered a very complete fantasy/ dragon/ magic 'school' storyline long before either The Worst Witch or Harry Potter came along. In Dragonflight the young heroine, Lessa, finds herself in danger as a usurper kills her noble family and seizes their land. Lessa's telepathy offers protection and also brings her to the attention of a Dragonrider, F'lar. He sets out to persuade her to try to bond with a newborn dragon.
Dragonflight is the first of many 'Dragonriders of Pern' books. The series offers a very fully realised fantasy world. The first few books are well worth reading and the series is underpinned by the persistent threat from deadly clusters of destructive 'Threads', (which can fall from the skies across the whole planet of Pern).
The Pern books are for confident readers, but it's possible to make them more accessible by seeking out editions printed in reasonably sized text. Many editions of Dragonflight have been, and are, available in a tightly-packed, undersized text which is fairly off-putting. The cover shown is from a recent printing with readable text.
Mermaids and Minotaurs
The Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
Twelve-year-old Emily has spent all her life living on a boat, but her Mum won't let her learn to swim. When the chance finally comes Emily finds her legs don't seem to work properly in the water and she has to be lifted out. Curiosity takes Emily back to the water's edge and she dives in, soon discovering that she's a mermaid.
Emily meets another mermaid, Shona, and they attend a mermaids' school. Before long they start looking for Emily's Dad Jake, who disappeared into the sea years earlier. Jake Windsnap is imprisoned beneath the waves and it's up to Emily and Shona to try to rescue him.
The Emily Windsnap books offer easy-going, amusing fantasy without Demon Lords or their evil minions waiting round every corner. Younger readers may enjoy reading several of the Emily Windsnap books, while older readers are likely to want to move on after a couple of books.
Secret of the Sirens by Julia Golding
The Companion Quartet starts with Secret of the Sirens, which introduces 11-year-old Connie and her Aunt Evelyn. Connie finds she's able to communicate with and understand animals. This proves to be important when it's revealed that her aunt is part of a secret society working to protect mythical creatures.
The Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures, and those they look after, are in great danger from the evil Kullervo. He plans to use his allies to get rid of most mythical creatures on the way to destroying humanity. Connie and her friend Col need to put themselves in harm's way to try to protect the mythical creatures and challenge Kullervo.
The Gorgon's Gaze, Mines of the Minotaur and The Chimera's Curse continue the story of the battle against Kullervo and his allies. The series is well worth following, as the mix of unicorns, minotaurs, banshees, sirens and other mythical creatures offers plenty of variety.