What to read while waiting for new Harry

Books: Titles that might capture young Potter fans' imaginations.

June 05, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Everybody loves a hero. Whether they exist in real-life or as larger-than-life legends, heroes epitomize our quest for the best. Bravery, physical agility, integrity, honesty and overall excellence are characteristics that come to mind.

Scrawny, near-sighted and an outsider, Harry Potter seems an unlikely candidate for this status. But it's his vulnerability, as much as the less obvious hero traits, that keep young readers coming back for more.

"I like to solve the mystery," says Alison Dearie, a first-grader at Piney Ridge Elementary in Sykesville. "That's my favorite part of all, and even when it's scary, I keep on reading."

Kids who have developed a craving for the fantastic world J. K. Rowling opened up, may find an equally consuming interest in other hero stories. In the final, wrenching month before Harry's return, this could spell some relief for parents who have struggled to find substitutions. Harry is, after all, a new breed of hero who's following in the footsteps of classical heroes such as Odysseus, King Arthur and Robin Hood.

Although Harry's world is rooted in the here and now, the one he enters into at Hogwarts (the school of magic) is a place suspended in time, where past and present mix. Here, centaurs and dragons share space with trappings from the Muggle (non-magic) world. Many children are discovering mythic elements for the first time, not realizing the rich foundation Rowling draws from to complete this intricate tapestry.

"What kids seem to like are strong plots and humor," says Kathy Horning, head children's librarian at the renowned Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The element of humor is really important, at least in my dealings with kids. We had so many years of grim fiction for children, and they are so relieved to find funny things."

Original fantasy titles were the first to pick up the slack left over from kids pining away for Harry replacements. At Columbia's Junior Editions, a Harry Potter board sits at the front of the store listing other titles that might appeal to this audience. Among them, the "Dark is Rising" series by Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques' "Redwall" series and "Tomorrow's Wizard" by Patricia Maclachlan. Although Harry may have spurred some kids into this genre, Barbara Frederick of Junior Editions says, "Some have been fantasy lovers for a long time and Harry Potter's just opened the door to a different dimension."

Alex Almonte, a fourth-grader at Sykesville's Freedom Elementary, says, "I like a wide variety of books but fantasy books are my favorite. They really get my imagination going."

Still, even he is at his wits' end in trying to find something that satisfies his reinvigorated curiosity. Children like him might find that the classic hero stories and myths to their liking.

Harry's story allows him to claim a collective connection with other heroes. Ancient Greek bards and orators laid the foundation for these myths, recounting feats of heroism and daring, as well as conjuring up creatures ready to ignite young imaginations. There are many tales to choose from.

"Most hero stories are not funny, as Harry Potter is," says Anne MacLeod, who teaches children's literature classes at the University of Maryland at College Park. She does, however, have some light-hearted recommendations, including two retellings of Homer's epic: Alfred Church's "The Odyssey of Homer" and Aubrey De Selincourt's "Odysseus the Wanderer."

Goal-oriented stories emphasizing wit and perseverance over magical obstacles carry sentiments familiar to Harry's fans, who can read about Jason's adventures in search of the golden fleece or Perseus' pursuit of Medusa's head. Homer's "Odyssey" and Howard Pyle's "Robin Hood" are finely wrought tales of struggle and consequences, journeys filled with adventures and new experiences all woven within the eternal battle of good vs. evil.

"I don't think any of us would have read Greek mythology if we weren't taught it in school," says Alec Colvin, 14, of Burleigh Manor Middle School.

His teacher agrees. "They definitely need to be steered toward it," says Toni Ireland. "But when they do read stories such as `Beowulf,' they find it challenging and entertaining. They enjoy elements of the supernatural and heroes with superhuman powers."

Adds Erika Carlson, 14, also of Burleigh Manor, "I guess I think nothing exciting ever happens to me, so I like to picture myself in the hero's shoes." She also prefers fantasy because, she says, if she wanted to read what else is peddled to her age group, "I could just listen in on the gossip here."

Alec tries to put it in perspective. "School is like your mom. It forces you to open your eyes to everything out there."

While waiting for Harry ...

Pick up these books for kids looking for a Harry Potter fix. Recommendations come from children's literature professors, the Horn Book and the Central Children's department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library include:

"It's All Greek to Me" by Jon Scieszka

"The Samurai's Daughter" by Robert D. San Souci

"D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths" by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, Doubleday Book for Young Readers

"Robin Hood" (Howard Pyle) and "Arthur: High King of Britain" by Michael Morpugo "The Odyssey" (Homer) retold by Robin Lister, or the version translated by WHD Rouse

"Beowulf" by Robert Nye

"The Arabian Nights: Their Best Known Tales" edited by Kate Wiggin and Nora Smith

"Passager" by Jane Yolen (Merlin series) "The Bronze Cauldron: Myths and Legends of the World" by Geraldine McCaughrean

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

"Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Engle

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis

"The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman

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