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Choosing the best boxed book sets for kids and teens

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A boxed set of books, and especially a series of novels, seems like the perfect gift for a kid. But it can be tough to tell which series will click with which kid.

Two of my children thought Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" was the bee's knees, while the third just didn't get it. But for all of our kids, a book series was a breakthrough in their reading lives.

Our oldest son, Dante, is graduating from high school and turning 18 soon. A childhood that began with Dr. Seuss is officially ending this school year with the assigned reading of Joan Didion. My wife and I asked him recently, "What was the favorite series we gave you when you were smaller?"

"Artemis Fowl," he answered. We listened to the first volume of Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" as an audiobook on a family road trip in Mexico in 2008, and I still remember being enthralled by the seedy characters that populated its first installment.

"He gets involved with the Mafia, which was really interesting," Dante said. Like many young adult books, "Artemis Fowl" created a magical world (in this case, with fairies) that took up themes from the cruel and unjust world we actually live in.

"I liked that the hero wasn't 'good,'" Dante told us. He read the last of the eight books in the series on another road trip two years later — after he read "Catcher in the Rye."

Our middle child, Diego, is 14 and just starting high school, but the young adult books that occupied him during his tween years are still fresh in his memory. His favorite YA book? "Maze Runner."

"What's it about?" I asked. "It's about this guy who's in a maze," he answered, with the straight-faced glee of the teenage comedian he sometimes is. Diego read James Dashner's "Maze Runner" — the first book of a dystopian trilogy — when he was 11. "I liked how you didn't know everything right off the bat," he said. "It throws you right into the middle of everything."

Our daughter, Luna, age 9, started reading long books about two years ago. If I ever meet the authors of the "Warriors" fantasy series (several writers who use the pseudonym Erin Hunter), I'll buy them roses and wine because today my daughter is a voracious reader, thanks, in part, to their work.

The "warriors" are cats, and in the last two years she's read 20 books of their adventures. Luna explained that four different clans of cats live in a forest: ThunderClan, WindClan, RiverClan and ShadowClan. "Instead of God, they believe in StarClan," she said.

The cat clans "hunt, sleep, eat, fight and patrol borders," Luna said, and only rarely do the warrior cats die in battle.

"Do they make speeches when they die?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking annoyed with me for having guessed that.

Luna has also read two books from "The Unwanteds" series, which has been described as "The Hunger Games" meets "Harry Potter." The first three volumes are now available in a box set (Aladdin, $51.99), though clearly it's safest to buy one book from a series and see if your kid will devour the rest.

A safe pick for a single, new book is "Flora and Ulysses" (Candlewick, $17.99) written by noted children's author Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell, which tells the story of young girl (Flora), who describes herself as "a natural-born cynic," and "an unassuming squirrel" (Ulysses), who might just be a superhero.

On the other hand, a classic series such as "Artemis Fowl" or one of the first three "Warriors" books stands a good chance of success. And even if your young reader doesn't dive into them right away, take it from me: If they're good, books left on a kid's shelf tend to get read eventually — by someone.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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