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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?