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About The Book

On the Midwinter Day that is his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers a special gift-- that he is the last of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark. At once, he is plunged into a quest for the six magical Signs that will one day aid the Old Ones in the final battle between the Dark and the Light. And for the twelve days of Christmas, while the Dark is rising, life for Will is full of wonder, terror, and delight.

Reading Group Guide

About the Book

On the day of his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, ancient, immortal beings charged with keeping the evil powers of the Dark from ruling the world. Immediately, he sets off on a quest to gather the six Signs, Things of Power necessary to vanquish the Dark for good. With the help of Merriman Lyon and others with the gift of the old ways, Will must find each of the six Signs, but also face a malevolent messenger of the Dark who will stop at nothing to keep Will from fulfilling his quest.

Discussion Questions

1. On his eleventh birthday, Will learns that he is an Old One, an ancient being gifted with unimaginable powers with the sole purpose of keeping the evil forces of the Dark from rising and taking over the world. Discuss how Will adjusts to this new identity. How does he balance this enormous responsibility while still being part of the Stanton family? Will often questions himself and his newly found powers. Reread the scene on page 175 in which Will comes to an important realization. What is this realization and how does it fortify him in his battle against the Dark?

2. As an Old One, Will has memories stored within him that he must learn to use responsibly. On page 40, standing before two great carved doors, Will hears the tinkling music that he first began to hear on the eve of his eleventh birthday. “As the doors swung open beneath his hands, he thought that he caught a phrase of the fleeting bell-like music again; but then it was gone, into the misty gap between memory and imagining.” Describe what the “misty gap” might represent to Will.

3. Merriman tells Will that being an Old One, and the powers that come with it, is a burden, “‘Make no mistake about that. Any great gift or power or talent is a burden, and this more than any, and you will long to be free of it.’” (p. 51) What is a burden? How could having an exceptional gift, power, or talent be burdensome?

4. Throughout the story, Will travels through time. Indeed, the nature of time is a theme that is woven throughout the entire story. Discuss how time plays an important role in the plot of the book. What do you think Merriman means when he tells Will, “‘For all times co-exist, and the future can sometimes affect the past, even though the past is a road that leads to the future. . . . But men cannot understand this.’” (p. 65) Why must Will fulfill his quest in his own time?

5. Discuss the meaning of the word betrayal. In the chapter of the same name (pp. 125–153), Hawkin feels used by Merriman, and is persuaded to turn to the Dark. Do you think Merriman betrayed his trusted servant? How can Hawkin’s actions also be seen as a betrayal? Discuss what Merriman means when he explains to Will, “‘He will have a sweet picture of the Dark to attract him, as men so often do, and beside it he will set all the demands of the Light, which are heavy and always will be. All the while he will be nursing his resentment of the way I might have had him give up his life without reward.’” (p. 138) What is a resentment, and what does it mean to “nurse” one? How did Hawkin’s resentment lead him to choose the Dark?

6. In the beginning of the story, Will is startled by the reactions of the farm animals, who recoil from him in fear. Birds appear in the text as forces of the Dark and as communicators. Discuss other ways the author employs animals in the story and what they represent.

7. In the chapter The Coming of the Cold (pp. 195–221), Will’s sister Mary compares the relentless snow to an intruder. “‘It’s pushing at us—it’s even broken a window in the kitchen . . . I don’t care what you say, it’s horrible. As if the snow was trying to get in.’” Discuss how this is an example of personification and identify additional examples of this literary device throughout the text. Discuss how the Dark uses the natural world for its malevolent purposes. How does the comparison of cold versus warmth align with the battle of the Dark versus the Light? Merriman tells Will that the Dark bring in “‘The cold of the void, of blank space. . . . ’” (p. 226) What do you think the void and the blank space represent to the Dark?

8. As Will confronts Hawkin on page 252, the servant of the Dark claims, “‘It [the Dark] will never go away. Once it comes, it breaks all resistance into nothing. And the Dark will always come, my young friend, and always win.’” Do you agree with Hawkin? Why or why not? Put his statement into your own words. If you had to reply to Hawkin, what would you say?

9. As Will regards the powerful presence of Herne the Hunter, he notices that the yellow eyes “had grown cold, abstracted, a chill fire mounting in them that brought the cruel lines back to the face. But Will saw the cruelty now as the fierce inevitability of nature.” (p. 271) What is the “inevitability of nature”? Why do you think the Hunter has qualities that can seem both good and evil? How is that quality also similar to the natural world?

Extension Activities

- A Bird’s-Eye View. In the story, rooks are aligned with the Dark, but are also described as communicators of emotion. Begin a research project into the symbolism of birds. Have each student choose a bird to research, focusing on the symbolism of that bird in various cultures. As a culmination of research, students can create a work of art that encompasses their learning. The following resource is a good starting point as students embark on this research project:

- Shadow Times. Merriman explains to Will on page 262 that, “‘The Dark Ages were rightly named, a shadowy time for the world, when the Black Riders rode unhindered over all our land.’” Today, historians refer to this time in history as the Migration Period. According to the “Migration period, also called Dark Ages or Early Middle Ages, [was] the early medieval period of western European history—specifically, the time (476–800 CE) when there was no Roman (or Holy Roman) emperor in the West or, more generally, the period between about 500 and 1000, which was marked by frequent warfare and a virtual disappearance of urban life.”

Give students an opportunity to go back in time and learn about this period. Have students choose one object that they believe is representative of the time. After a period of research, students can present what they’ve learned in a slide presentation, poster, or other original artifact. For further short articles on the Middle Ages, visit:

- Starry, Starry Night. As Will is reading the Book of Gramarye and learning the ancient wisdoms of the Old Ones, he finds himself “flying. . . at large in the blue-black sky, with the stars blazing timeless around his head. . . .” (p. 126) Go on a night field trip to identify constellations in the night sky. Before the big night, prepare students with this resource for young stargazers:

- Words-to-Images. Throughout the Dark Is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper’s mastery of descriptive language helps the reader to imagine the fantastic worlds and actions that Will, Merriman, and the other major characters experience. As you read through the text, note passages that create strong images in your mind. After reading the story, choose one passage to illustrate. Incorporate as many details as possible into your picture.

Guide created by Colleen Carroll, literacy educator, content creator, and author of the How Artists See series (Abbeville Kids). Learn more about Colleen at

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

About The Author

Photograph © Tsar Fedorsky Photography 2013

Susan Cooper is one of our foremost fantasy authors; her classic five-book fantasy sequence The Dark Is Rising has sold millions of copies worldwide. Her books’ accolades include the Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and five shortlists for the Carnegie Medal. She combines fantasy with history in Victory (a Washington Post Top Ten Books for Children pick), King of Shadows, Ghost Hawk, and her magical The Boggart and the Monster, second in a trilogy, which won the Scottish Arts Council’s Children’s Book Award. Susan Cooper lives on a saltmarsh island in Massachusetts, and you can visit her online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (December 21, 2001)
  • Length: 232 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780689847868
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 910L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

"[A] thunderous fantasy."

– The New York times

"As well as a thrilling, flawlessly structured adventure...The Dark Is Rising is a perfect coming-of-age story."

– The Guardian

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Newbery Honor Book
  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • Agatha Award Finalist
  • Carnegie Medal Honor Book
  • Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Finalist
  • Gateway Readers Award (MO)
  • Boston Globe/Horn Book Award
  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award
  • Kate Greenaway Medal Honor Book
  • African Studies Assn Children's Bk Award

Resources and Downloads

Common Core Text Exemplar

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More books in this series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence