Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
There is no way in hell I would read this book to a child. (There is also no way in hell I would recommend this essay to someone who hasn't read the book yet but plans to, because it is ridden with spoilers.) It isn't just that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is fraught with not terribly subtle allusions to incest, child molestation, and the lure of in-crowds and old boy networks. Nor is it that a major character is suddenly and spectacularly murdered, nor that Harry is forced to painfully poison his own mentor by the man himself. It has zombies too.
Its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was hyped as bleak and scary, but despite the murder of Harry's beloved godfather, a little gruesome imagery, and a whole load of caps-locked, ellipses-laden teen angst that made this reader want to give our hero a well-deserved spanking, it really wasn't all that terrifying: there was nothing in it as horrific as the graveyard scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
But it's obvious from the first chapter, when the Minister of Magic meets with England's prime minister--his "real world" counterpart--to fill him in on disturbing goings-on in the wizarding world, that the sixth and penultimate in J.K. Rowling's absurdly successful series is going to be deeply, creepily dark.
The clueless head of state realizes there's a bloody civil war going on that he is powerless to do anything about, and it's all downhill from there. The household of Professor Snape, Harry's controversial and snarly potions master, complete with cringing, abused servant, is introduced for the first time. It's decidedly not posh, no matter what some fans have wanted to think. Through a glimpse of history in a Pensieve (a magical device for the preservation and viewing of memories), Rowling also reveals the family history of archvillain Tom "Voldemort" Riddle, and it's not posh either. His mother and her relations are a cousin-fucking, cross-eyed, squalid lot squatting on their filthy floor, killing things for fun, smacking each other around, and speaking entirely in Parseltongue, the magical language of snakes. The wizard equivalent of Faulkner's southern inbreds, they're so insane, ugly, and upsettingly pathetic that it's actually hard not to admire the evil Lord Voldemort for managing to make something of himself.
Rowling also introduces a werewolf named Fenrir Greyback--who, like the much more cuddly lycanthrope Remus Lupin, seems to have been fated to that state from the day his parents named him. Greyback, a fanatical Voldemort supporter, is, unlike Lupin, utterly remorseless, to the extent that he intentionally goes around biting children in the hope of winning eventual werewolf converts to his cause. His rapturous exhalations about tender young flesh would give Bruno Bettelheim nightmares.
Rowling may not be the tightest plotter or the canniest social critic in the world--one of my favorite subplots involves Stan Shunpike, the friendly conductor of the wizarding transit service the Knight Bus, who has been jailed indefinitely by the Ministry of Magic on suspicion of Voldemort sympathies, with no access to counsel and no evidence against him to speak of--but she's also no Pollyanna. In fact, what separates the later Potter books from other works of satirical fantasy is their grim lack of hope. Well-intentioned characters bring about their own destruction or that of others by accident. A mother's love for her child compels another character to carry out the horrible deed her son was ordered to do. Harry winds up having to manipulate the grief of one of his truest friends, and the guilt of one his fakest, to obtain a piece of vital information. His closest friends are playing dirty tricks on one another between teenage hookups. And the "half-blood prince" of the title wins Harry's loyalty by helping him cheat his way through potions class and learn all manner of wicked curses.
As Rowling's characters have aged from children to teens to young adults, the plots of the Potter books have become more complex, and the adult characters appear less and less powerful or trustworthy. The ending of each volume since the fourth has left young Harry a little bit more alone and short a few more allies. By the end of this one, he's running out of them, and he's ready to commit murder to get Voldemort. People call him "the chosen one"--a phrase that should indicate that the series has jumped the shark--but there's nothing remotely Christlike about the passion of Potter. The forces that "chose" him aren't benevolent and his responses to their tests of him aren't noble. Even his saintly mentor Dumbledore comes off as desperate, manipulative, and ruthless in a way that, say, Gandalf never does. When he is shockingly, theatrically assassinated at the book's climax, both the reader and (almost) all the characters can see the roads that led to this particular Rome, and it's uncomfortably clear that Harry may not have a quarter of the years left that his teacher had. By the end of the book, Harry and his friends Ron and--incredibly--bookish Hermione have all announced that they're quitting school to fight evil full-time.
Much has been made of the oddity of adults being passionately addicted to a series of children's books, and many articles have been written by hooked defenders. I have no shame at all about my fascination with this series. Like many adult junkies, I'm not so interested in Harry or his friends or their personal growth or their relationship games. I'm mesmerized by the intricate world Rowling has created, its shadowy, scheming, and interconnected adult characters--the scarred and the dead, the insane and the missing, the hopeful and the hopeless, the mangled and begrudging and guilty--and its overlap with the global state of war and terror in particular.
If Rowling wanted to, she could do a sweeping family epic next, or a hard-boiled detective story, or a genteel romance, or a comedy of manners, or a steamy bodice ripper, or a spy thriller, or a heroic quest fantasy with cleaner lines between good and evil, or a wickedly funny Terry Pratchett-esque parody. Having already nodded to almost all of these genres throughout the Potter series, she could set any one of those tales within this particular world completely convincingly. Heck, the Harry Potter setting would even be a great place for a children's book. She wrote two of those early on, and she could do it again, if she'd only discipline herself to stop before too much bitter and bloody truth comes out.