5 Series You Probably Missed as a Kid (But Should Read as an Adult)

October 28, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 48 5 min read

coverIn my freshman year of college, I learned that a kid down the hall had never seen Star Wars. None of it. He had actually never heard of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or R2-D2 — I don’t know how; he seemed normal enough. Once my roommates and I overcame our shock, we plopped him down in our common room for a marathon viewing: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, with no digital enhancements — the complete series, at the time.

We sat like anthropologists, observing our perfect test subject, completely silent to avoid spoiling anything, watching him discover this strange new world. “Wait, this is the beginning?” he asked as the intro scrolled across the screen  “Why does it say Episode IV?” And then: “Whoa, they just blew up the whole planet?” And: “He can strangle people with his mind?” And: “Oh my god, they’re freezing Han?

By the time we got to the most famous line, the line, the spoiler it’s virtually impossible not to hear at some point growing up — “Luke, I am your father” — the look on my friend’s face was one of pure wonder. I could not remember a time when I didn’t know who Luke’s father was, and I envied the excitement he was feeling, the unadulterated thrill of discovering something that, though verging on the cliché for me, was completely fresh territory for him. I kept thinking, How lucky he is to get to see this for the first time now.

coverAs adults, it’s easy for us to feel that everything fun is already finished, that all the worlds have already been thoroughly mapped, especially when it comes to books. The last time I felt that childlike glee of discovering a new world was with Harry Potter, and by that time I was already in college. Now Harry has vanquished Voldemort. Aslan has fought Last Battle. Frodo has destroyed the One Ring. Katniss has — well, in case you’re waiting for the movies, I won’t spoil it for you.

But really, you don’t have to be young to experience that excitement. Here are five children’s series you might have missed when you were younger (and please add your favorites in the comments, too). Each offers a thoroughly imagined world that’s immersive enough to make you feel like a kid again, with writing sharp and smart enough to satisfy a book-loving adult. If they’re unfamiliar, I envy you: how lucky you are to get to read them for the first time now.

covercover1. The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken (12 books starting with 1962’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase)

Aiken’s series is set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which James II was never deposed and the Hanoverians — that would be the ancestors of today’s royal family — scheme against the rightful ruler, James III. Stay with me.You don’t need to know or even like history to enjoy this series, which centers around a plucky, streetwise Cockney girl named Dido and her younger sister, Is, and includes a healthy dash of fantasy while still being grittily real.

Wolves roam London at night. There are hot-air-balloon chases, plots hatched on Nantucket whaling ships, and hypnotic puppet shows. In The Stolen Lake, Dido journeys to a strange country ruled by Queen Ginevra — better known as Guinevere — who has been awaiting the return of her husband, King Arthur, for hundreds of years.  In Is Underground, Is ventures into the terrifying mines — worked by kidnapped children — to rescue her missing cousin. Aiken’s series is hardly known in the U.S., and I don’t know why: she’s the forebear of steampunk and all kinds of other historical-fantastical mashups.

Oh, and did I mention that Edward Gorey did the book covers? Yeah.

covercover2. Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

Can two books count as a series? I vote yes, because these are too good to leave off the list.  Howl’s Moving Castle was made into an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, but even the master couldn’t capture all the incredible flourishes of the book. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters and certain she’s therefore doomed to be a failure, is transformed by an angry witch into an old woman. Forced to flee her home, she talks her way into in the moving castle of the title: inhabited by Howl, a youngish, temperamental, and very vain wizard; his apprentice Michael; and a curious and powerful fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie and Calcifer strike a bargain: he’ll take the spell off her if she can break a mysterious bargain he’s made with Howl — but what is the bargain, and what will it cost to break it?

The novel is slyly funny, with gentle sendups of both fairy-tale tropes and modern-day life — at one point, Sophie and crew end up in a small town in Wales. (Don’t ask; just get the book, trust me.) Lit-nerds will delight in the John Donne poem that plays a central role in the plot. It’s clever and deeply satisfying, as is its sequel, Castle in the Air, which gives the same treatment to Arabian Nights territory.

covercover 3. The Stanley Family series (The Headless CupidThe Great Stanley Kidnapping CaseBlair’s Nightmareand Janie’s Private Eyes) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Zilpha Keatley Snyder is surprisingly unknown, given how prolific she is: she’s written more than forty books (three of them Newbery Honor books) and is still going. As a kid, I read all of them I could find, but my favorites are — and still were — the four books about the kids in the Stanley family: sensible David, precocious Janie, stolid Esther and her eccentric, prescient twin Blair, and cranky, adolescent stepsister Amanda, whose arrival shakes up the family.

In the first book, The Headless Cupid, Amanda arrives at the Stanley house, bored, bitter at her mother for remarrying, and — wait for it — obsessed with the occult. Her prosaic new stepsiblings decide they want to learn about the dark arts as well, but things start to get a little creepy when they learn about the poltergeist that once haunted their house. Snyder’s vivid characters keep the series firmly grounded in reality, though, and the series could be a master class for writers in any genre: create interesting and dynamic people, put them together, and let the sparks fly. In the following books, there’s a kidnapping in rural Italy, a (possible) monster roaming the neighborhood, and a mysterious rash of dognappings, but at heart the focus is always on the dynamics of this quirky family.

covercovercover4. The Half Magic Series (Half Magic, Knight’s CastleMagic by the Lake, and The Time Garden) by Edward Eager

The three series I’ve mentioned above could be considered YA from a time before “YA” was a thing, but the Half Magic series by Edward Eager are clearly meant for children  Despite the younger audience, though, adults — especially book-loving adults — will still adore these stories of unabashed magic.

Each takes a traditional chestnut of children’s lit — the magic talisman, a wish-granting animal, time travel — and gives it a fresh twist. For instance, in Half Magic, four brothers and sisters find a magic charm that grants them exactly half of what they ask for, and in Knight’s Castle, a boy discovers that his toy castle comes to life at night.  Jo and the Little Women, Merlin, Ivanhoe, and many more literary figures have cameos, making these books parents and kids will enjoy on different levels. Each book stands alone, but figuring out how the stories are connected — and then watching them overlap—is part of the fun.

covercover5. The Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander (Six books starting with 1987’s The Illyrian Adventure)

Many people know Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, including The Black Cauldron (and if you don’t, get thee to a bookstore or library). But fewer people are familiar with his marvelous heroine Vesper Holly and her adventures. Vesper is a teenage orphan, ferociously intelligent, insatiably curious, and completely unfazable; picture a teenage, female, red-headed Indiana Jones. She drags her elderly and devoted guardian, Brinnie, across the globe to just-barely-made-up lands — Illyria, torn by centuries-old civil war; El Dorado, where Indian tribes grapple with encroaching industrialization; Jedera, a desert land with an immense, ancient library under siege. In her first adventure, she makes an archnemesis, Dr. Helvitius; in each book, she thwarts another of his plots. These are fun, smart books, with witty characterization and sparkling writing. Growing up, I wanted to be Vesper, and now that I’m grown up, I still kind of do.

is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Everything I Never Told You. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, One Story, Gulf Coast, The Millions, and elsewhere, and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award.  She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about her, visit celesteng.com or follow her on Twitter at @pronounced_ing.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful post, I remember as a kid (and now as an adult) taking comfort in a book series even if it was the “greatest” novel ever. Visiting back with familiar characters is like seeing good friends again.

  2. There actually /is/ a third book in the Howl’s series! It’s called House of Many Ways and is completely charming.

  3. I was getting ready to mention the third Howl book, when I saw someone beat me to it! House of Many Ways is sheer delight, and in some ways I like it even better than Castle in the Air.

    Edward Eager also wrote Seven-Day Magic, in which five children find a book at the library that allows them to dip into the unwritten action of many of their favorite stories. It’s delightful and absurd. He also wrote Magic or Not? and the Well-Wishers, which aren’t quite as cracked and fun, but still charming.

    I’ve recently realized just how many people have never read The Wizard of Oz or any of its sequels. Which is a shame, because they are SO much better than the movie. Baum wrote fourteen in all (the series was carried on by other writers after his death, but I’ve never read any not by him), and while some are better than others, all are wildly entertaining with his wit, wordplay, and fantastic imagination.

  4. Louise, thank you for mentioning Seven-Day Magic! It’s one of my favorites, and I didn’t mention it only because it didn’t involve the same children–but really, you can’t go wrong with Edward Eager.

    The Wizard of Oz series deserve a whole post of their own–the 12 original L. Frank Baum books plus the Ruth Plumly Thompson additions and the many other related books of Oz, by Baum and others. As a kid I used to go straight to the T and B sections in any bookstore, looking for the ones I didn’t have.

  5. Thank you! I’d heard of the Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but for some reason, thought it was part of Maryrose Wood’s series (which is very good). I’m so going to read this.

    I was a voracious reader as a kid and loved fantasy, but somehow missed all of these except Howl’s Moving Castle. Glad someone understands the sense of wonder I get from kids’ books.

  6. I loved The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, as well as the Fern Capel novels (Prospero’s Children, The Dragon Charmer, and The Witch Queen/Witch’s Honour) by Jan Siegel. Also worth mentioning are Charles de Lint’s Moonheart and its sequel, Spiritwalk.

  7. Thank you for putting Edward Eager on the list. It was one of the highlights of my childhood to have read this series. I’m glad it’s not lost. And the original illustrations were the best. I remember them well.

  8. Thank you for this!! If I could add one more series to the list, it would be the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede. An unhappy princess runs away and volunteers to be a dragon’s assistant, and four glorious books full of fantasy characters doing what they want even if it’s “Not Done” follow. My brother and I loved them so much that our parents had to make new, specific rules about book-sharing etiquette in their honor.

  9. Perfect choices, Eager especially. I would add the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Takes two best friends from when they meet at age 5 through their weddings 10 books later. Set in Minnesota a generation after the Little House books, without a speck of the anti-native American stuff in Little House (or anything similar).

  10. Thank you, I love the Miyazaki movies, so now I will read the novels. I have to add Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle of six books, a wonderful fantasy in which a boy becomes a wizard–way before Harry Potter.

  11. Tristan, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read The Dark Is Riding series–but they’re now on my list! (speaking of series you discover as an adult…)

    Alyssa, I adored the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (and must still have them somewhere)–how could I have forgotten them?!

  12. Kids books for adults. Great idea. I, too, remember how much fun it was to watch Star Wars with my kids. Plus, they didn’t have to wait years to see the next two movies!
    I would like to recommend another kids series that wasn’t actually intended for kids to begin with. The Hank The Cowdog series of books (and audios) is filled with great characters readers will enjoy getting to know. I guarantee you will find yourself quoting them and using their lines. Hank started in 1985, and there are 62 books and counting. I would recommend listening to at least one audio (the author does different voices for all of the characters), which will bring the characters to life even more when you read the books.

  13. Jessica, I also adored the Betsy Tacy books as a child and just began re-reading them with my five year old daughter. Though they are protective of a Syrian girl they meet who is being bullied for her difference, there is also mention of blackface in some stories, which is easy enough to skip over. Otherwise the stories stand up to time, I will say. We’ve also been loving the Pippi Longstocking series. I’m looking forward to checking out some of these (which I haven’t read, at all, but I did see all the original Star Wars!) once my girls get older. Watching kids get absorbed in a more complex narrative is pure magic.

  14. Thanks for these suggestions. I know they aren’t as mysterious and edgy, but when I was a kid I absolutely loved the Little House series, the Anne of Green Gables series, and The Great Brain series. There were others, but these stood out as favorites.

  15. I’ve had a lot of trouble finding the later books in Philip Reeve’s Hungry City series, but if they are anywhere near as terrific as the first one, MORTAL ENGINES, this series belongs on the list.

    As for that discovering-a-new-world-to-get-lost-in feeling, the last time I had it was with A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, though it’s a little too, erm, adult to fit with this (very nice, btw) essay.

  16. Loved the Half-Magic series but triple loved the Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Makes me want to read it again. <3

  17. Not a series, but here’s a fun book that nobody remembers: The Adventures of Holly Hobby, by Richard Dubelman.


    You probably remember Holly Hobby as a cute character on greeting cards and things, sort of reminiscent of Precious Moments, but in this book she’s the spirit of a girl who comes out of a painting to help a descendant rescue her archaeologist father from a band of tomb robbers. It’s a surprisingly fun book, if you can find it.

  18. I must recommend Richard Peck’s Blossom Culp series. The 4 books in order are 1) The Ghost Belonged To Me, 2) Ghosts I Have Been, 3) The Dreadful Future Of Blossom Culp, and 4) Blossom Culp And The Sleep Of Death. The first book is told from the perspective of Alexander Armsworth, and details his ghostly adventure, which Blossom throws herself into. The other three are told from Blossom’s perspective, and are much funnier. Book three has a peek into the “future”, which is the 1980’s, but is still side-splitting. Can’t put them down.

  19. I love the Dragonriders of Pern, though I don’t think I finished the whole series! A really good book from my childhood was A Wrinkle in Time, but that wasn’t a series.

  20. A Wrinkle in Time was a series. There’s A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and I think, Many Waters. It’s a little confusing in that major characters in certain of L’Engel’s books wander into others of them.

  21. I absolutely loved reading Joan Aiken’s books as a child: Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Blackhearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, etc. I especially liked how she would take a minor character in one book and make him/her the major character in the next. She did stick with Dido Twite for awhile, though. I’d also put in a plug for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the books to follow it.

  22. Thank you! I haven’t read any of these books and the descriptions sound fantastic! Books that have well-written worlds to lose myself in is a definite favourite. If you’re looking for an unfamiliar book series in a similar vein, I suggest picking up Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. Without any hyperbole, it’s absolutely spectacular and prompted by first ever fan letter (well, fan tweet) to the author. The second book in the series is Twilight Robbery which is similarly fantastic. I can’t wait for the third!

  23. Thanks Meredith for mentioning The Tripods Trilogy. I loved those books and have thought about going back to see how they hold up.

    Also I first heard about them from Boy’s Life Magazine where they had a monthly one page excert in as a comic.

  24. The Half Magic series and Zilpha Keatly Snyder were my absolute favorites as a child. When I was a children’s librarian I would often suggest these series to children looking for a good series to read and kids still loved them!

  25. Edward Eager’s fantastic– I wish he’d written more than 7 books. (Given that each book of his that features new characters has a sequel, it seems pretty clear he also would’ve written a sequel to “Seven-Day Magic.” He’s also got some wonderful emotional beats in there, including how the main character’s difficulty with her perfectly nice stepfather figures in the climax of Half-Magic.

    Not as big a fan of “Magic or Not?” and “The Well-Wishers” precisely because the question of magic is left ambiguous, but the other 5 are wonderful. “The Time Garden” has a wonderful scene where a Queen of England encounters a British fan of hers whom I will not name.

  26. Danielle: thanks for the reminder. I did miss the references, and I hope they were in historical context, desribing something in a theater production rather than approving the concept.

    Do you know MHL’s The Valentine Box? Not a Betsy-Tacy story, published in the 60s sometime. Story is of a new girl in town who thinks she won’t get any valentines from her elementary school class, but ends up with dozens in her box. The girl in the illustrations is black; no hint of this in the text, which makes it more powerful. I don’t know if she wrote the book before someone came up with the idea of the illustrations, but either way it’s good.

  27. What about the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. I loved his outrageous use of puns. This series and the Dragon Riders of Pern series are what finally got my son interested in reading. It really opened his eyes to the world of fantasy.

  28. The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley is a thrilling teen series with a strong heroine, horses and adventure.. Hero won the Newbery Award and Blue was a Newbery Honor book .While you’re at it, pick by McKinley’s Beauty, an impossibly romantic retelling of Beauty and the Beast; a publishing gift for teens and adults alike.

  29. Ooh! Such a great list. I need to pick up some of these again and revisit. I cannot wait til my kids are old enough to introduce them to great series.

    Not sure if this counts, but The Giver “series” is excellent. Although the author, Lois Lowry, spanned twenty years in writing the first and the fourth (just released last year), they fit together excellently and are a thrill to read. Highly recommend.

  30. In addition to Howl’s Moving Castle and its sequels, Diana Wynne Jones wrote at least two other series that deserve mention. My favorite is the Chrestomanci series, set in an alternate version of our world where magic is recognized and fairy commonplace without being ordinary. It begins with Charmed Life, followed by The Lives of Christopher Chant, Witch Week, and the Magicians of Caprona. They aren’t so much sequels as interlocking stories that focus on different characters that overlap or brush up against each other. Two others feature the main character, Chrestomanci, at an age between the first and second books, but were written later, Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg. There’s also a book of short stories called Warlock at the Wheel. The order they’re read in doesn’t matter much, although I’d start with Charmed Life because it introduces the world more thoroughly than the others (it was written first).

    The other “series” is only two books, but they’re terrific. The first is The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which takes a boxful of fantasy tropes and cliches and turns them inside out and upside down. Amazing plot, vivid characters, fully-drawn world. The second book, set a few years later, is The Year of the Griffin, and follows one of the less prominent characters as she grows up and leaves home. They are both works of genius.

    DWJ also wrote some terrifically fun stand-alones like Archer’s Goon, The Ogre Downstairs, Fire ;and Hemlock, Hexwood, and The Homeward Bounders — all full of magic and wonder.

  31. Jessica, I don’t know that book and will look for it. The reference was indeed as you mention it, and I was able to just kind of skim over it—it wasn’t integral to telling the story, and I thought it best to leave it aside rather than get into the implications of blackface with a five year old. Saving so many books on this list for when she grows!

  32. This is SUCH a valuable list (the post and the comments)–thank you! I can’t believe no one has mentioned Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series yet: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. There is really nothing like it for the ambition and scope of the story. He is working on a fourth novel in the series, The Book of Dust.

    Also, I haven’t read them yet, but on my nightstand are The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights by John Masefield, a British writer from the 1920-30s. He sounds like he is in the E. Nesbit school of children’s literature. E. Nesbit–there’s another one! If you like Edward Eager, then you’ll love E. Nesbit. The Treasure Seekers is a good place to start.

  33. What about the Freddy the Pig series by Walter R Brooks. I have not read them since I was about 10 years old. I have the fondest memories of laughing hysterically at the antics of Freddy and his farm animal friends who had many adventures.
    There are 26 in the series and the first is Freddy Goes to Florida.

  34. Along with Edward Eager, one should consider Elizabeth Enright and the Gone-Away Lake books.

    It was in one of the Edward Eager books that the children referred to E. Nesbit and her early 20th-century series about a family of English children that get into a bunch of interesting experiences. The first is The Five Children and It, in which the children meet a creature who grants them wishes, none of which end up as they had hoped, with amusing results.

  35. Only one person has mentioned His Dark Materials, a three-part series by Philip Pullman. These were recommended to me many times, but I ignored them because I thought they would be too juvenile. When I finally did read the first one in 2012, it was one of those marvelous experiences when you just NEVER want to stop reading! There was so much creativity in the storyline, and in the third volume, one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever read. Edge of my seat! Unforgettable.

  36. Philip Pullman, yes! Yes! I discovered him very recently,and am dazzled and satisfied by his bountiful creativity. I want a familiar. And check into the prolific Orson Scott Card. Many of his available as downloadable audiobooks, well read, via NYPL or your local library.

  37. I don’t think anyone has mentioned the “Young Wizards”series by Diane Duane which starts with “So You Want to Be a Wizard”. There are nine so far; the first was written in 1982. The stories feature Nita and Kit, two young teens who discover a book that promises to teach them to be wizards. The stories are mostly set in the United States (the kids live on Long Island). I’ve read the first three and enjoyed them very much. They are filled with ideas about right and wrong, choices that are made, environmental issues.

  38. I avoided the Oz books for years because I hated the movie, but they are delightful. I am glad that people have mentioned Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series; it’s one of the best series I’ve ever read. I also fondly recall the Tripods trilogy mentioned by others (Christopher’s book The Lotus Caves is amazing, though not part of that trilogy). And I’d like to put in a plug for Eleanor Cameron’s The Mushroom Planet series, which I believe consists of four books (two children build a homemade rocket and travel to a nearby planetoid that can only be seen through a telescope if it is fitted with a special filter). My kids have also really, really enjoyed the Fablehaven series of books. And let’s not forget the Tintin books!

  39. I adored the Edward Eager books as a child, especially Seven-Day Magic, which was ideal reading for the child bookworm, deliciously meta (the book the children find is the book YOU are holding!), and – best of all – featured that intriguingly dark chapter in which Barnabas flirts with oblivion.

    But Eager owed a great debt to the children’s fantasy writer E. (Edith) Nesbit, and it was thanks to his many references to Nesbit that I discovered her works. Not only are they equally funny (in a quirky Edwardian way), they also provide the model for Eager’s fiction: take a clan of bored children with too much time on their hands, stir in a magic object with a knack for contrariness, sit back and enjoy the havoc.

    It’s hard not to see other parallels. Nesbit’s best-known trilogy – Five Children and It (1902), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Story of the Amulet (1906) – follows a small family of (mostly adult-free) children on their humorous magic adventures, much as the Half Magic series does. Many of their adventures feature intelligent – and sarcastic – magical talking animals (clearly the Natterjack is related to the Psammead). Eager’s Knight’s Castle, with the toy castle that the children can enter at will, clearly owes a lot to Nesbit’s The Magic City. And many of both authors’ books end with a separated or broken family somehow being knitted together, which gives them some extra emotional punch.

    But ultimately it’s the humour – always entertaining, often surprisingly dry – that keeps me coming back to reread them. An example from Five Children and It:

    “Tell me,” said Anthea, “why don’t our wishes turn into stone now? Why do they just vanish?”
    “Autres temps, autres mœurs,” said the creature.
    “Is that the Ninevite language?” asked Anthea, who had learned no foreign language at school except French.

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