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At What Age Should You Read Each Harry Potter Book?

The topic of which age you should let your child read each Harry Potter book keeps circling around in my life, and I decided to throw up my thoughts here in case they are helpful to anyone else.  I came up with these guidelines as a former teacher (looking at similarly thematic literature presented to kids within the classroom), as a writer who knows that readers tend to “read up” (books for teenagers tend to be read by preteens), and as a mother to sensitive kids.

All of this is to say that you may find your child is ready much earlier, or you may find your child is ready much later.  But this is information (without containing any spoiler details) to help you make a decision that works for your kids or students.  Wait, actually, scratch that.  While there are no exact details, I broadly discuss plot.  So if you are super-sensitive to spoilers, stop reading this post.

One more note: I chunk the books with age chasms in between.  If you can read Book One, you could also read Book Two.  But there’s a maturity chasm between 2 and 3.  To indicate which books can be read back to back without a time gap to account for maturity, I’ve made asterisks between where I see the breakdown and explained why.

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Image: Sonia Belviso via Flickr

Book One: We started reading the series together when they were six years old.  I based the decision on a few things: what they had already been exposed to within books and movies, how these particular books were constructed (the most terrifying parts, until you get to the last few books, are always at the very end), and how fearful/not fearful they seemed as we started reading.

I started the series by telling the twins that before we began, I wanted them to know that Voldemort was no longer in this world.  I wouldn’t tell them if any other character was alive or dead, but I wanted them to know that no matter how scary Voldemort sounded, he was gone.  As a result, our evenings were nightmare-free, though the books themselves weren’t ruined.

The first book is constructed with two “scary” scenes that are sort of the fear-equivalent to the kiddie roller coaster: small dips and twists.  In the middle of the book, there is a troll fight that cements the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and at the end of the book, there is the requisite fight scene.  Again, the end scene is creepy, but nothing more upsetting than what you would get from a bad guy in a Disney film.  Your child has already been exposed to the concept of parental death via any Disney film as well.  Er… unless you haven’t encountered a Disney film yet.

Book Two: Can be read immediately following Book One, which means that it’s okay for a six-year-old child.  The scary scene is at the end, and it mirrors the intensity of the first book’s fight scene.  The only change is the introduction of the idea of a child dying.  A girl was murdered in the school years earlier by a magical animal, and her story is told in this book.  Personally, my kids glossed over that fact because it’s a tangential character.  But Rowling puts that concept out there in this book: kids can die too.

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Book Three: There should be a small age jump between Book Two and Three, unless it has taken you a long time to read these books and your child is now seven or beyond.  My kids had just turned eight when we started reading this book.

This book introduces the concept of a serial killer, as well as someone who kills impersonally.  Up until this point, in all the stories about death contained in the series, the murder has always had a purpose and the murder and the murdered always knew each other (or “of” each other) somewhat.  In the case of the murder discussed in this book, the killer didn’t know most of his victims because he took out a street full of people.  Again, the twins sort of glossed over the enormity of this idea, but Rowling is setting the stage at this point to introduce the ideas in Book Six.  The scariness of the series is still in the kiddie roller coaster zone, though the pace is picking up somewhat.

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Book Four: There is a steep drop-off in scariness between Book Three and Book Four.  We waited until just before they were turning nine.

This book introduces the first two character deaths.  The first one occurs at the beginning of the book.  The characters is a stranger, but the child is reading about the murder in real time vs. hearing about it in retrospect.  The second death happens about three-quarters of the way through the book.  It’s a lesser character, one your child probably won’t be very attached to, but it’s a student’s death.

Additionally, this book has a twist at the end, which my kids found much scarier than the death of the student.  The idea of an adult violating the trust of a child — or really, anyone violating anyone’s trust — hit much closer to home than murder by magic.  Additionally, this is the book where I think it really hits home that our world can be be permanently changed by the actions of others.  That even if we do everything right, there are others who can negatively impact us.  I know my kids struggled with seeing this idea in such stark terms.

Book Five: If your child can handle Book Four, they can probably handle Book Five, hence why I didn’t put a gap between these books.  Again, the scary part takes place at the very end.  The death, this time, is of a “major” character.  It’s a character far enough away from the action that the reader won’t feel the loss as acutely as they would one of the main people in the book, but still, if Harry loves this person then we love this person.  So it’s the first close death.

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Book Six: We will not start this book for a while.  The twins are turning 10 this summer, but they still feel far away from ready for this book.

Rowling introduces the concept of what murder does to a person’s soul, and how there could be people out there who want to have their soul wrenched apart.  We have enormous, unwanted responsibilities being placed on the shoulders of a child, and even his parents can’t protect him from what he’s being told he must do.  Both concepts are really scary ideas for kids to consider: that someone may enjoy taking someone’s life and the idea that your parents can’t protect you.

Because that is the theme of this book: there is no one on this planet who can protect you forever.

That there’s no space — not even a place as protected as Hogwarts — that is completely safe, and the people in charge of protecting us — such as parents — can be taken away at any moment.  That is a scary, scary thought for a kid.  That ending alone is why I would wait to introduce this book.  The death that occurs at the end is very intense and upsetting.

Book Seven: If your child can handle Book Six, they can handle Book Seven.  Yes, there are many many more deaths, but quantity shouldn’t be confused with quality.  Yes, there are beloved characters who die, and each one is disturbing in its own right.  But the reader doesn’t learn anything new in this book.  Let me rephrase that: they may learn a host of lessons about internal strength or what we can endure or the importance of the choices we make.  But all of the worst facts about death and murder have already been covered by this point in the series.  And maybe it’s looking at the good side of human nature that tempers some of the worst facts about life.

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A lot of people read this series with their kids for the enjoyment of being there as the story unfolds.  They enjoyed the books, and now they want their kids to enjoy the books.  But if your kids are reading these books on their own, you may want to jump in and catch up so you can discuss.  I think there are certain books — the Harry Potter series, Harriet the Spy, anything by Judy Blume — that scream out for a bit of adult guidance.  This is not to say that your child can’t read those books on their own — most of us certainly did.  But your child will get a lot more out of it with some discussion.

We use the same guidelines above for the movies, perhaps being more conservative age-wise with the movies since the twins seem to react more emotionally to the visual than the written word.  The movie comes at the child in a condensed, two-hour window.  The book unfolds slowly over many days, giving them time to process.

On a side note: the two Harry Potter tours we created for the kids in London (Harry Potter sites around London and visiting the Harry Potter movie set) were both done when the kids were on Book Three.  It’s possible to do both with a much younger kid who is in the middle of the series without giving away anything from the later books.

Anything you’d add about knowing when your child is ready for Harry Potter?

38 comments

1 Leanne { 03.24.14 at 7:47 am }

Great advice! I’d been wondering about this myself, as I LOVE Harry Potter, and know I’ll need to be patient introducing it to my son.

2 LN { 03.24.14 at 9:28 am }

I read the first book aloud to my 5 1/2-year old son, and he become completely entranced with it, reading and rereading it compulsively, playing games that all centered around Harry and magic, a Harry Potter birthday party, etc. He then wanted me to read aloud the second book, and he was terrified. Really, really scared. He never reread it himself. Now, two full years later, we’ve started reading Book 3 aloud.

3 Jen { 03.24.14 at 9:33 am }

This is such an interesting topic for me, I spent ages figuring out a strategy for introducing my elder daughter to HP. I started Philosopher’s Stone when she was five and she lapped it up so we read that book and then watched the film. She begged to watch HP2 but I stalled her for weeks saying I thought it was too scary.

In the end, after a long and serious chat on being honest about how she felt if she did get scared, we watched it and she was fine. So we read the book. After that I let her drive the pace and it’s worked well.

At 6 and a half she’s reached her natural levelling point and stopped reading about two thirds through HP5. My only intervention was a very long talk before the most shocking chapter in Goblet of Fire (no spoilers but I’m sure you know the one I mean!).

So now she’s less interested in the more complex later books, but listens to the audiobooks of 1-4 almost every night.

A great learning curve for me about respecting her wishes and trusting her to identify her boundaries. Plus I’ve helped form another HP fan so it’s a win all round!

4 a { 03.24.14 at 10:14 am }

I bought the first book for my daughter’s 7th birthday and she wasn’t really interested. Then, one night when we were looking for something to do, I pulled it out and we started reading. I thought we would read it together, but she got caught up and sped through the whole thing. I was amazed at how fast she read it and was concerned that she wasn’t actually getting things. But then we watched the movie this weekend and she was asking where this or that event was – it happened in the book, so why wasn’t it in the movie? I just ordered the second book. I think 2 per year might be a good rate to read them.

The problem is that she gets very excited and takes the book to school. She’s reading well above her grade level and I think that might be a problem. Her teacher may (or may not, it’s unclear) have forbidden kids from bringing chapter books in to read. Because it’s first grade and some kids might be uncomfortable if they feel like they’re behind? I don’t know and it’s not a big enough deal for me to pursue.

Anyway, book one was a rousing success. Book two is on the way!

5 Serenity { 03.24.14 at 11:04 am }

Bookmarked this post. Thanks; I’ve been wondering when I could get him into Harry Potter, so this is perfectly timed. 🙂

6 Ana { 03.24.14 at 11:20 am }

Such a great PSA! I’m really looking forward to the reading aloud of chapter books with my kids one day. Right now we are still reading and re-reading picture books (though going to the library regularly helps A LOT)

7 Lisa {Amateur Nester} { 03.24.14 at 4:59 pm }

Such a great post. My husband has been reading through the series and is just starting the last book. We had this conversation last night about which books are appropriate for different ages.

8 Briar { 03.24.14 at 5:48 pm }

We also waited until 6 to try book one. He made it 2/3 of the way through and wanted to stop so we did. I would have left him alone about it for longer, but we decided to come to London and I knew we were going to the Studios (FOR ME!!!) so I pushed a bit on the first movie, playing up how brave he’s become in the last six months (true, really) and he made it through no problem. He generally does require a bit of a push to overcome fears of all kinds in that way, though. We were at the Studios today! It was fantastic and amazing and I cried when I entered the Great Hall. Oh, and he loved it, too.
As a school librarian, I agree with all your age recommendations. The majority of my students have read them all by 3rd or 4th grade, though. I guess they are just kids who let the scary bits wash over them? I was not that kind of kid, nor is my kid.

9 April { 03.24.14 at 7:44 pm }

J had read all of the books by age 11. She was exposed to the movies at a young age and reading the books was a natural extension of the movies.

10 Jamie { 03.24.14 at 10:12 pm }

I’ve had parents ask me the same questions about HP and pacing when I was teaching. I agree with what you shared and the suggested ages. But, a lot of it comes down to knowing your child and having those important conversations about some of the themes. It is not just about HP, but that parents should know what their children are reading as any book may have more adult themes. But, it is an opportunity for a child to safely experience some of these things and even better with someone they love to help them learn and grow.

11 Jamie { 03.24.14 at 10:12 pm }

I’ve had parents ask me the same questions about HP and pacing when I was teaching. I agree with what you shared and the suggested ages. But, a lot of it comes down to knowing your child and having those important conversations about some of the themes. It is not just about HP, but that parents should know what their children are reading as any book may have more adult themes. But, it is an opportunity for a child to safely experience some of these things and even better with someone they love to help them learn and grow.

12 Alexicographer { 03.24.14 at 11:15 pm }

Wait, Voldemort is gone? I don’t think you fully understand, Mel, how thoroughly I manage to avoid knowing things that — apparently — everyone else knows (for the record, however, I am aware that Charlotte dies at the end of Charlotte’s Web, my apologies if that constitutes a spoiler for anyone else).

So. Um. HP Novice here working my way through book 1 with the son and starting to read book 3 myself in order to get in front of him — my sense is we are likely committed to book 2 (he got both 1 & 2 for his birthday), though based on what @LN says maybe I should go read that one myself first.

13 Queenie { 03.24.14 at 11:25 pm }

My husband loves HP, and introduced our kids to the first HP movie (he deemed it “safe” while I wasn’t home 🙂 ). The 4 year old found it frightening, and the 2 year old (seriously. . .WAY too young for her!) loved it and asks for it constantly. I have no idea what she could possible find appealing about it at that age. Although both my kids are currently obsessed with White Christmas (thanks, again, to my instance husband), so maybe they just have wacky taste.

14 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 03.24.14 at 11:58 pm }

I had actually been wondering about that. We’ve started to read adventure books lately, and Harry Potter is bound to be somewhere on that list. But it does escalate in themes over time (part of the appeal, to have the books grow with their readers) and my memory probably would have put less of a cut between two and three (I remember being sobered up by book four, but book three still being ok).

15 nicoleandmaggie { 03.25.14 at 9:18 am }

Offered book 1 at age five, no interest. Devoured it and book 2 age 6. Very sloooowly made his way through book 3 before he turned 7. Right now he’s taking a break from chapter book novels to read comics (Big Nate, Peanuts, Sheldon, Foxtrot), manga (mostly Pokemon), and Pokemon encyclopedia.

16 Tiara { 03.25.14 at 10:56 am }

I have a question: I’d always imagined reading these books for the first time along with my child. Do you think I should read them first? After reading this post, I feel pretty good about knowing the suitability but am unsure if maybe i should get a head start.

17 Shana { 03.25.14 at 11:16 am }

I have told my 5 year old about Harry Potter, and he loves chapter books (totally devoured the first 6 Oz books, and the 6th does have a hint of darkness) but I probably won’t provide the 1st book to him until he is maybe 8-ish. Very sensitive kid. Many Disney movies scare him to the extent that he does not even enjoy them. So, I’m not going to rush it.

18 nicoleandmaggie { 03.25.14 at 12:21 pm }

@Shana– my kid is super sensitive too (ditto on Disney movies until recently), but LOVED the Oz books (far earlier than HP), hungry tiger, nome king, headless princess, and all. Maybe the violence in those books is too cartoonish to actually be scary?

19 Turia { 03.25.14 at 3:15 pm }

Really interesting post, Mel. My question is: how did you keep your kids from reading the books you thought they weren’t yet ready for? Did you talk to them about it and agree that it wasn’t time yet? Were they enjoying the shared experience so much that it wouldn’t occur to them to go and read ahead by themselves? If they had pushed to read it earlier, would you have changed your order?

I am already anticipating that E. will be on the late side of getting to things as he is very sensitive now, but I am wondering if I would keep a book from him if he really pushed to read it, even if I knew that it would provoke nightmares, etc.

20 It Is What It Is { 03.28.14 at 12:19 pm }

I have waited and waited to read this post because it is apropos of the very conversation we are having in our home now. Our older son, now 7 wants to read these books himself (as in the series), and while I only read the first three, I have on vague knowledge of how the series ends and it was based on that that I’ve been hesitant to let him get beyond the first two (as in we’ve discussed that he can read Books 1 & 2 but he’s balking already that he can’t read THEM ALL). At any rate, I’m sharing this post with my husband (who has been playing D&D with him since he was 6, but, that withstanding, we’re on the same page as it relates to this literary series) as a primer to lead our discussions. Thank you.

21 Natasha { 08.14.14 at 7:09 am }

My daughter is 8 and has read just read all the books, both me and her dad have read the books several times and could discuss everything that happened with her. We only let her see each film after she had finished each book which made them less scary.
She is a deep thinker and previously wouldn’t watch Disney’s Up so Harry Potter was a big jump. We have now been recommend Eragon to read next but I am reading them first so I can check them out and discuss them with her.
My advice to all parents would be if your unsure read the book yourself and judge if you feel your child can cope with it.

22 Rhi { 10.28.14 at 11:58 am }

Interesting. I just went through some old pictures and found pics of myself reading book 6 at age 7. But by that point I was also well into the grown-up section at the library, so I guess it’s just up to the person. But at the same time, I couldn’t watch Cinderella until I was 7. For me, movies have always been scarier than books. Generally, kids know when stuff is inappropriate. I read so fast as a kid that my parents couldn’t keep up in order to vet stuff, and once or twice I read something that I knew wasn’t appropriate and told my parents. I think you really have to work around the child, while I think you have a fairly good guide here, it should really be taken on a case by case basis.

23 Wendy { 11.20.14 at 12:54 pm }

Thank you for this post! Really appreciate you taking the time to write it!

24 Caroline { 11.29.14 at 6:52 am }

So interesting to read all this. My 8y.o is devastated I have decided to stop her at book 5 having heard how dark and heavy they become. Felt sure that this was right decision but now having just read 6&7 myself I’m having 2nd thoughts as I just don’t feel that they’re all that different. Certainly the movies might be more frightening but …this is the first time I’ve had to deal with this issue!! Tricky stuff!! First world problems, eh?!

25 Carolyn { 12.15.14 at 11:50 am }

My grandson taught himself to read at 5½ by looking at pictures of dinosaurs and sounding out the names together with the illustrations. My daughter was amused because he taught himself with such intensity. But I couldn’t get him to read about anything but dinosaurs until he began 3rd grade last year at age 9 and found HP in the school library. His teacher thought he might be too young and too sensitive to understand the concepts, but he devoured all 7 books in 3 months with great enthusiasm. We discussed the books one by one, and then he quizzed me on details. When I admitted it was several years since I’d read the books, he suggested I reread them, “and this time pay attention,” he said.

26 Sarah C { 03.05.15 at 2:53 pm }

Thanks for this – it pretty much confirms the thinking I’ve been doing already. My 5 year old is completely obssessed with Harry Potter, after reading book 1 and almost done with 2, but I’m hesitant to move on to 3 so soon. We’re zooming through the first two books so fast that there’s no natural aging for her. But she’s begging. I guess I have to find something else to grab her attention for a year or so before I feel ready to read books 3 and beyond. Do you have suggestions for what else to read to HP-obssessed kids?

27 Mel { 03.05.15 at 2:58 pm }

The Narnia books work well with younger kids. Though I would follow her lead: if she feels ready, she may be ready. If you’re reading it together, you can always pause if she gets scared.

28 Shriram { 03.10.15 at 6:34 am }

Hi! I am running an edutainment library for children. I purchased the entire Harry Potter book series, removed the last 4 books from the series as they seemed to contain some adult content. I have been reviewing books at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based child care organization. I removed 2 more books as they seemed to mention the use of addictive substance. As mentioned in your post if the portrayal of violence in book 1 is limited to that in Disney movies, I shall retain at least that book or ban the entire series. For Sarah, I would suggest The Secrets of Droon series, which is supposed to have attracted Harry Potter Fans but is a lighter book in terms of violence for 6 and above.

29 Celeste { 08.02.15 at 12:01 pm }

Personally my parents let me read all the books by myself by age 7. Most kids would have been scared but family has always been rather exposed and my 8 year old younger sister adores horror movies and has watched all the Harry Potter movies. Most kids I knew might have been able to handle them all by age 10.

30 Lisa @ The Meaning of Me { 10.03.15 at 5:18 pm }

I love this. Just found you via a Google search about Potter books today and this is spot on, in my book. I’m also an educator and I agree with your assessment here. My youngest sister read these when they first came out and she was reading on her own – a very mature reader, though. I read the entire series front to back as an adult after the last book came out. I’m excited for my daughter to read but I do agree we’ll probably read through them together. She very much reads up, but guidance here will be important.

31 Britney { 10.12.15 at 10:51 pm }

My daughter is 8 and completely devoured books 1-3 in a month. We had read them to her 2 years ago, so she remembered some things and just plowed right through them on her own this month.
I agonized over whether to let her read the 4th one, and eventually decided to sit down with her while she read the first chapter. She got some of the way through it and said she didn’t think she wanted to read this yet.
I think she could sense that it was beyond what she was ready for.
Thanks so much for pointing out so many of the themes that run throughout the books beyond just the adventure, it makes it so much easier for me to decide if she’s ready for that.
Great, great article!

32 Caren { 11.10.15 at 10:56 am }

My husband and I are HUGE Harry Potter fans, but we are parenting a VERY sensitive child (we don’t watch Disney movies–mostly too scary still at age 10) and had planned to hold her off on HP until she turned 11, which is where the story begins. Frankly, I tend to hold to the concept that a child should read books that portray characters roughly their same age, and Harry is 18 by book 7. I knew that once she started, she wouldn’t want to stop, and that she’d also want to watch the movies, and I really think the later ones are not appropriate for children below the teen years. I believe that if we “wake up” children to certain concepts about violence, evil, and sexuality too early, they will not be able to process them appropriately. That being said, I think the HP series is a gorgeous and high quality introduction to those concepts, I just think most elementary kids are too young for them. I know I’m in the minority though! One thing that’s been disappointing about waiting, however, is that children at school delight in spoiling the stories for my daughter! It’s been frustrating for her, but I guess that’s just the price we pay…

33 Top { 11.27.15 at 5:47 pm }

I’m not personally a Harry Potter fan, but the series is such a cultural phenomenon that I didn’t want to deny my kids the chance to participate. I was VERY concerned about subject matter appropriateness, so I decided to read the books too so I could help guide the kids (I don’t worry about this with other children’s books). I waited till my daughter was eight years old and bought her the box set. She devoured the first three books in just a few days (Thanksgiving break); I barely stayed ahead of her. I was disappointed that book 3 introduced mild profanity, which my daughter picked up on right away (“what’s this word mean?”). Usually children’s books stay away from this sort of thing.

Last night I finished book 4 just as my daughter finished book 3. This morning I discussed book 4’s ending with my wife and we decided that the one scene (readers will know what I mean) was simply over the line. We discussed voluntary censorship (“don’t read these pages”) but in the end decided to wait until she was older. She was very disappointed, but we think this is the right decision for us.

34 Will { 05.23.16 at 11:06 pm }

I started reading Harry Potter when I was five.
I know a lot of parents would consider it early but I could read it to myself as well as handle the themes. I had to wait for the release of the final books, but I finished the series just before I turned eight. I never found the books scary (though the Voldemort/Quirrel image from the movie was freaky), in fact it actually put some of my fears to rest. It also expanded my imagination.
My youngest brother is five now and I feel like he could hand the first two books. The others I would have to gauge from his reaction to the first two, but I feel as if the death in the books feeling real would actually be beneficial as he is exposed the a lot of play violence and death through other children at school and he doesn’t actually understand the severity of it.
I also know older child that would not be able to handle the books, so again it is a matter of whether or not they are ready.

35 Eleanor { 06.05.16 at 5:19 am }

I personally think that Harry Potter books should be 12+ if you want your 7 year old children reading them why not read them funny books like diary of a wimpy kid I’m 10 and a half and I find Harry Potter very dark and I don’t read Harry Potter at all don’t read or encourage 4 year Olds read diary of a wimpy kid or just 4 year Olds books

36 Zoey { 06.10.16 at 9:53 am }

I’m 9 and I have finished the series

37 no name { 06.22.16 at 8:11 pm }

this is rubbish I am 11 and on the 6th book and I had no nightmares reading any of them to bad for harry though he had a lot of bad dreams that caused the worlds biggest headache (s) 😈

38 Bridget { 07.06.16 at 4:12 pm }

I’m 11 and I read all the Harry Potter books in a month. I might have cried a little at certain very (ahem) sad parts but it never scared me. I guess it all just depends on who you are

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