Posted: Jul 04, 2014 7:00 AM
J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series makes up the most popular children's books of modern times. With masterfully interweaving story lines and characters that practically introduce themselves to you, it's easy to want to share her world with your child. But when is the right time to take them on the Hogwarts Express?
Photo credit: Scholastic/J.K. Rowling

It's hard to deny the success of the Harry Potter franchise. J.K.Rowling's series about an orphaned wizard destined for greatness has achieved both commercial and critical acclaim, topping bestseller and teachers' favorites lists alike. Beyond their success, the books have been shown to engage children who weren't already reading for fun and keep them reading — an important achievement as the more kids read, the better they perform at school. So the question doesn't seem to be should your kids read Harry Potter, but when?

A series your child could grow with

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harry Potter series provides the most difficulty for parents: Throughout the books Harry Potter grows up. Each book represents a year in his life, and as Harry matures, so do the themes in the books. This was sheer brilliance on behalf of Rowling, for her books — released over the course of a decade — allowed the reader to grow up with Harry. If a child started reading the first book at 11 — the same age as Harry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — they would have been 21 when the final book in the series was released, still perfectly able to relate to a 17-year-old Harry. The dilemma for parents now is the series is complete. As a child finishes a book, the next is immediately available without the one- to two-year buffer in the initial release which allowed for the reader to mature.

Mature themes abound

As Harry Potter grows throughout the series, he spends the majority of his time trying not to get killed. And he loses friends along the way.

Make no mistake, as the series progresses mature themes are absolutely introduced. Even Book 1, the mildest of the series, has its share of violent and disturbing imagery. “A young boy is orphaned when his parents are murdered by the villain in the story, and that's just the opening credits. Harry then goes on to live under the stairs in 4 Privet Drive in conditions that would be considered cause for arrest in most places,” points out child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting expert Katie Hurley . “As Harry Potter grows throughout the series, he spends the majority of his time trying not to get killed. And he loses friends along the way.”

With all of these mature themes, when is a good time to introduce the world of Harry Potter to your child? While the answer varies greatly, the most important part is to be aware of the potentially disturbing concepts in each book, and evaluate the effect these concepts can have on your particular child. With that said, here's Common Sense Media's recommended ages for each book, along with a breakdown of the mature themes of each. Please know there are several spoilers below, so if you haven't yet read the books yourself, proceed with caution.

Book 1, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Common Sense Media says: ages 6-7, read aloud, discussing as you go.

Why?^ Harry is orphaned in an attempt on his life at the age of 1. We then witness him suffer through child abuse living with his aunt and uncle, repeatedly disobey the rules of Hogwarts, and discover the possession of a teacher by an evil spirit.

Book 2, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Common Sense Media says: ages 7-8

Why?^ Bigotry is discussed heavily in this book, with Mudblood (a disparaging term for wizards of non-wizard parentage) being introduced. The tale of a Hogwarts student dying plays a pivotal role in the story, introducing the idea that kids can die the same as adults. Another possession occurs, this time of a student by a book (or rather, a spirit within a book).

Book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Common Sense Media says: 9-10

Why?^ The books get pretty dark starting with this one, introducing the concept of a serial killer in Sirius Black. We also learn of impersonal killing, with a character who murders a street full of innocent people without cause.

Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Common Sense Media says: 9-10

Why?^ This book has some pretty mature themes, and 9 may be too young for some kids. There are two deaths in this book, one a stranger, but a death which we witness in real time. The second is a Hogwarts student, and it happens fairly suddenly without much foreshadowing. More disturbing than the deaths though is the twist at the end of the book, where we learn a Hogwarts teacher has actually been a Death Eater in disguise, violating the trust of everyone and working towards Harry's demise. The idea of an adult violating a child's trust can be very disturbing and a hard one to reconcile for less mature readers.

Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Common Sense Media says: 10-11

Why?^ Lies abound in this book, from everyone from Harry to the media to the wizarding government. This book includes a prison break, a fight scene where children are hunted as if they were adults, and the death of a major character.

Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Common Sense Media says: 10-11

Why?^ Both Book 6 and Book 7 are really dark with pretty mature themes, so 10 to 11 may be too young for some kids. Really heavy concepts are introduced: what murdering does to a soul, the idea that someone may want to have their soul damaged and may enjoy taking the lives of others, that there is no one on earth who can protect you forever and the unexpected death of a central and loved character. This is probably the most mature of all of the Harry Potter books.

Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Common Sense Media says: 12+

Why?^ Death and disfigurement abound in the final book in the series, with several major characters meeting their end. We see the hero, Harry, cast two of the three Unforgivable Curses. This book is far tamer than Book 6 though, so if your kids have read Book 6, this should be no problem for them.

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