For a book-loving child, nothing is more exciting than a row of unread volumes in a newly discovered fiction series. It may sound strange, but it's true: characters in books can become the most reliable friends in a young person's life. A century ago kids were reading the Boxcar Children. Then Tom Swift flew onto the scene with a new invention under each arm. Four generations have cut their teeth on the reckless escapades of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, whose fresh adventures are now packaged to resemble more contemporary favorites, like the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. These days, as everybody knows, the series most young readers are anxiously following is the one featuring the boy with the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Every Muggle child on Earth, it seems, is walking around with a J.K. Rowling book in his or her hand, talking about Harry and Ron and Hermione as if they sit beside them at school. Thanks largely to Rowling, who single-handedly inspired the children's bestseller list, fantasy series in general are flourishing. In fact, we've discovered several worthy alternatives to the Potter chronicles. In between updates from Hogwarts, kids can turn to the exciting new series spotlighted below.

Battling the Queen of Elves
Terry Pratchett is the author of, among many other things, the Discworld books, a series set in a crazy world where magic works (sometimes), and children and frogs converse like Monty Python characters. Pratchett's books have sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. An utterly unpredictable author, he seems to have cobbled together Discworld from medieval superstitions, Victorian novels and a host of fairy tales, all of which are filtered through his modern and intelligent sensibility. His books are often both suspenseful and funny. Best of all, he doesn't cushion his satirical punches. In the recent Carnegie Award-winning The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a cat rants about government, and rats debate what happens after death. In the latest Discworld volume, The Wee Free Men, smart young Tiffany Aching finds herself uneasily allied with a wild clan of six-inch-high blue men who help her battle the Queen of the Elves. Along the way, she bests villains, monsters and patronizing adults.

Pratchett's dialogue, as always, is outrageously funny. It's typical of him to put a new spin on classical creatures like fairies and leprechauns. The flying fairies in The Wee Free Men are as scary as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and Pratchett's grimhounds are fully worthy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the chief delight here is the character of Tiffany, a tough, bright heroine.

A one-of-a-kind hero
Any child who has wearied of the virtuous and heroic Harry Potter will delight in the subversive series about Artemis Fowl, written by Irish novelist Eoin Colfer. Artemis, it appears, is giving Harry a run for his money. The third installment in his adventures, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, has a first printing of 250,000 copies. Colfer's young hero is a genius, a criminal mastermind who concocts world-class schemes usually involving stolen Fairy technology. It's easy to imagine the pleasure a young reader will have following his newest escapades. The Eternity Code is a wild tale replete with spies, high-tech inventions, unreliable magic and military centaurs. Artemis' adventures occur all over Earth and, not surprisingly, elsewhere. This time around, the young whiz has constructed a supercomputer from Fairy secrets that, of course, he stole. Does he pay for his crimes? In misadventures, yes.

A cross between Han Solo, Harry Potter and Encyclopedia Brown, Artemis is a one-of-a-kind. With such a wild inheritance Colfer's novels seldom veer toward cliché. His books are long and solid and, like Pratchett's, they lack illustrations. These are stories for older readers who are ready to sink their teeth into a meaty novel.

The amazing Graces
Tony DiTerlizzi is the artist responsible for last year's acclaimed picture book The Spider and the Fly. Before tackling children's books, he illustrated games such as Dungeons &and Dragons and the trading card series Magic the Gathering. Lately, he has focused his talents on a five-book series co-created with fantasy novelist Holly Black. "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a new series from Simon and Schuster, tell the story of the three Grace siblings twins Jared and Simon and their older sister Mallory. When their parents divorce, they move with their mother into a relative's decrepit old house. Jared, the trouble-prone underachiever, is the viewpoint character. In the attic he finds a field guide to faeries and soon sees evidence of them all around the premise upon which the books are based. The first two Spiderwick entries are The Field Guide and The Seeing Stone. The first suspenseful volume lays the necessary groundwork and permits the reader to eavesdrop on Jared's initial puzzling discoveries. Packed with misadventures that will inspire sympathy in readers, both books are fast-paced, with line drawings and full-color paintings that are richly detailed. This fall, the Grace kids' adventures will continue with the publication of Lucinda's Secret.

A dreadful scene
The first book in a trilogy by popular children's author Philip Ardagh, A House Called Awful End stars 11-year-old Eddie Dickens. The first sentence will pull in readers who enjoy Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket: "When Eddie Dickens was eleven years old, both his parents caught some awful disease that made them turn yellow, go a bit crinkly around the edges, and smell of old hot-water bottles." The hero is named Dickens for a reason. The story takes place in a kind of cartoon-Dickensian London, and Eddie runs into enough misfortunes and eccentrics for an Oliver Twist or a David Copperfield. Dreadful Acts, the sequel to Awful End, has just been published, and the third installment in the series will arrive in the fall. Although it lacks the wit and sophistication of the Discworld and Artemis Fowl tales, the series is endlessly jokey and playful. Many a child will laugh aloud at parenthetical snide remarks, and the illustrations by David Roberts have a very contemporary spookiness. Like the other series, the Eddie Dickens books make the human race look alarmingly freakish, which, as these authors understand, is pretty much how kids view the adult world.

Viking will publish Michael Sims' new book, Adam's Navel, in August.

 

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