Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.
When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil. No need for concern. But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it. Much tougher reading.
The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007. Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.
But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two. Should they?
Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.
Book one: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)
Harry turns 11. Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8, 9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.
However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered. Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten. Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences. For them it might be better to wait.
Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease. Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games. They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.
A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too. If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older. Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive. But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.
Book two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)
If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two. It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.
Book three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)
Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced. This concept foreshadows events in a later book.
Book four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)
Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes. Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away. The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four. I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.
Book five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)
Someone Harry loves dies in this book. Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books. Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too. Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.
Book six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)
Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children. Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him. No place is safe. Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.
Book seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)
More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six. A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven. Read during late middle grades or high school.
I read the entire series in the span between the last few months of third grade and the summer before fourth grade. I remember my friend’s mom making wizard cloaks for all of us and wearing them on the playground, and standing in line outside class discussing the list of horcruxes. Even though the the books get darker as the series progresses, I do think that many kids aged 8-11 are ready to read all of them.
Alex, thank you for responding to this blog on the right age to read Harry Potter books. I agree with you that some children at 8 years old can read and enjoy Harry Potter books. But some can’t. For some children, reading the books is too difficult, and for some children, the themes are too dark.