Call it the revenge of the children's librarians. Ribbed for years by highbrow associates for their choice of profession, they're now sitting in the catbird seat thanks to three books about a brave and likable young wizard named Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books are outselling Stephen King, for heaven's sake, and library waiting lists of 400 are not unheard of.
Which brings us to the librarians' delicious dilemma: what to suggest to kids who don't want to wait a couple of months to plunge back into fantasy. The librarians have been living for this moment. They virtually jump out of the telephone with their suggestions. "If You're Wild About Harry booklists are cropping up all over the place," says Caroline Ward, president of the children's services division of the American Library Association (ALA). "This is a wonderful bandwagon for us."
There's nothing quite like Harry Potter, say Ward and several other librarians, or to be more precise, like his creator, J.K. Rowlings. But there are plenty of other authors who are deft with fanciful plot, fluid language, humor and a keen understanding of what it's like to be young, good-hearted and totally fed up with grown-ups.
Here are some of the alternative authors who top the librarians' lists:
* Philip Pullman, "The Golden Compass." A precocious orphan and a demon journey to the Far North to prevent the orphan's best friend and other kidnapped children from becoming the subject of gruesome experiments.
Pullman, British like Rowlings, was endorsed by his better-known colleague at a recent National Press Club luncheon, according to Caitlin Dixon, children's services supervisor at the Central Community Library in Manassas. While a bit of a stretch for younger elementary school readers, it portrays a world not all that different from ours that is easy to slip into.
* Susan Cooper, "The Boggart." A young girl visits her family's castle in Scotland and returns home to Canada to find that she has brought back with her the invisible and mischievous spirit that gives the book its name. Librarians also recommend Cooper's five-book "The Dark Is Rising" series, British fantasy tales spun off the legend of King Arthur.
* Eva Ibbotson, "The Secret of Platform 13." A young hag named Odge accompanies an ancient wizard and other creatures through a magical tunnel to London to rescue the son of their king and queen. Also British, "Secret" is "very similar to Harry Potter, although a little more complex. I give it to kids a lot," says Dixon.
* Patricia Wrede, "Dealing With Dragons." Bored with traditional palace life, a tomboy princess runs away to live with a group of dragons and soon gets caught up in a fight against disreputable wizards. The ALA's Ward says Wrede, author of other fantasy books as well, resembles Pullman but is more playful. This is the first in a series, "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles."
Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl's Moving Castle." When a witch turns 17-year-old Sophie into an old woman, Sophie goes to live with the feared wizard Howl and gets caught up in crazy events that lead to happiness. Jones's use of language is "just terrific," says Maria Salvadore, coordinator of children's services for the D.C. public libraries. Salvadore admires "the imagery [Jones] creates, her play on words, the whole sense of being washed over by a fluent language that creates the fantasy."
* Jane Yolen, "Wizard's Hall." An 11-year-old apprentice wizard saves the wizards' training hall by believing in himself. This book, an easier read than some of the others, offers the fantasy and humor of the Potter books, according to Barbara Shansby, library associate for the children's section of the Chevy Chase Community Library.
Two authors who have been casually compared to Rowlings--Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis--are not the librarians' unanimous choices. Dahl's characters, twisted and nasty, "tend to perpetrate evil," says Ward. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, the evil characters get their due, though not because someone does something to them. "They are their own worst enemies," according to Ward.
"The Chronicles of Narnia," by Lewis, are "high fantasy" books that make good reading out loud as a family, Ward says. But they're not humorous and kids may have a hard time jumping to them from Potter.
Parents need not wait until their kids can understand these books or Harry Potter to satisfy a young craving for make-believe, Salvadore says. She recommends parents of kindergartners and early elementary school students read aloud Pamela Travers's "Mary Poppins," or "My Father's Dragon" and its sequels by Ruth Stiles Gannett. For the older-than-Harry-Potter reader, nothing beats J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" or "The Lord of the Rings," she says.
A child who has read all of these selections (or likes none of them) always can seek more titles from the local--and, at the moment, besieged and loving it--librarian.
CAPTION: Maria Salvadore, right, recommends alternative books to the popular Harry Potter stories to Vicky Thompson, mother of children ages 9 and 11.