Lastly we wanted to mention a couple of series that are educational. The Harry Potter series was not written specifically to improve your grades at school. That said, in encouraging many thousands of children to read who might not have otherwise, they were extremely effective. Also, in having the diligent, hardworking Hermione as a hero, and her knowledge of books and dedication to schoolwork a big part of why she’s so effective, the series does set a good example: it’s no longer uncool to be a swot. It’s also true that Latin comes up a lot in the Harry Potter books, via myths, names and spells. The entire series has, in fact, been translated into Latin.
There are now many series for kids that are educational. For example, if you’re interested in the Roman world and want to learn more about it, there is the Roman Mysteries series. These are for kids up to around age 12, and offer an entry into the ancient world. Like Harry Potter, it’s a group of friends working together, led by Flavia Gemina, who solve mysteries. Although the premise is unlikely, this series is genuinely educational, in that you really learn a lot about ancient Rome. The first book, The Thieves of Ostia, introduces the characters and the town they live, Ostia, whose ruins you can still visit near Rome’s main airport, Fiumicino. The second book, The Secrets of Vesuvius, is our favourite. Caroline Lawrence, the author, studied Classics at Berkeley and won a Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge, and she seems to use genuine sources (eg Pliny) to recreate the Roman world she describes.
Two other educational series that look at history (but are quite UK-centric) are Horrible Histories and My Story, both of which are mentioned in our interview on the best history books for young kids. They’ve led to an embarrassing situation in our household where though I have a history degree from Oxford, my kids seem to know a lot more about, say, George IV than I do.
One final series to read—that most Americans have heard of, but not everyone else—the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They’re about her life as part of a pioneer family, travelling further and further West with her family in 19th century America. These are for younger kids, but completely engrossing. They’re an idealized account of her childhood—and have come under fire for their depiction of Native Americans, which is a problem. But as long as you warn kids about these limitations, these are books based on a true story, someone’s account of their life more than century ago, and completely readable. That’s pretty unique.