Two excellent fantasy series that are often overlooked now are The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander, and The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper. Volumes in both series won Newbery Awards and while individual books of the two series can stand on their own, readers will get more out of both of them by reading the series in order.
The Prydain Chronicles (Henry Holt, $6.99) starts with The Book of Three is based on Welsh myths and legends and contains one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in children’s literature. This book sets up the remaining series and is vital to understanding the character of Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper. The Black Cauldron won a Newbery Honor Award in 1966 and is probably the best-known book in the series because it was made into a movie in 1985. Again, it is possible to read this volume as a stand alone, but the series is worth starting from the beginning. The third and fourth volumes are The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer respectively. Many readers might see these two volumes as filler, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of them and felt like they offered a tremendous amount of adventure and character development, although the final volume, The High King (Newbery Winner in 1969), does contain the final showdown. Although this series is close to 50 years old, there is enough adventure, excitement, and mystery to appeal to modern readers. The books are also excellently written and occasionally funny. They would be good read-alouds for early/mid elementary children, but warning: the end of The Book of Three really really is deliciously creepy.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (Simon Pulse, $8.99) is the first volume the series by the same name and also incorporates elements of Welsh mythology. It won the Newbery Honor in 1974. Over Sea, Under Stone is the second volume and adds further elements of Welsh Aruthurian legends. The Grey King, the third volume, won the Newbery in 1976. I started the series with this volume and did enjoy it, but I admit it took me a while to really understand what was happening and who the characters were. Cooper is an excellent writer and this series is nuanced and intricate: give it the respect that it deserves by starting with volume one. Greenwitch and Silver on the Tree are the two concluding volumes.
The big problem I have with Cooper’s series is the publisher’s formatting. The text is small and close together, which I find alienates some readers. These books deserve to be read and I continue to recommend them, especially when someone insists that their child is “a good reader”. Like Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Alexander’s and Cooper’s series demand active engagement and I would never recommend them to a child who is struggling or doesn’t like to read. The books assume that the reader is familiar with and can recognize certain narrative tropes. For example, Taran, in The Prydain Chronicles, struggles to be a hero and his character must be understood in the context of classic literary heroes. To make the readers struggle with something so basic as small font is ridiculous. I would like to see Cooper’s series re-typed so that a new generation of readers could re-discover this amazing fantasy series.