Reading fantasy fiction and raising independent kids

Guest post by Amy Watkins
Amy and Alice reading together.

When I read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books for the first time, I could practically feel the blast of frosty air and magical possibility as Lucy pushed through coats and branches and into a new world. Twenty years later, those simple, vivid stories are still my gut definition of magic and fantasy and grand adventure. But, boy howdy, are they problematic!

Besides their heavy-handed religious allegory, eurocentrism, phallocentrism and imperialism, the Narnia books suffer from a problem common in children’s literature. We’ll call it the Aslan Dilemma. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Peter and Edmund ride to battle against innumerable foes — only to have Aslan show up at the last minute, kill the witch and save the day. They’re not really expected to win the battle; they just have to stay alive until the real hero shows up.

In other stories, we might call it the Gandalf Problem or the Magical-Object-Only-to-be-Used-in-Dire-Need Quagmire, but it shows up again and again in juvenile fantasy: the god-like savior swooping in, tidying up, robbing the protagonists of responsibility and victory. That’s not what I want from stories for me or for my child.

When I read with my daughter, I want what Narnia gave me — magic, wonder and the limitless possibility of story. I want her to learn that she can face danger with pluck, ingenuity and bravery and that, although she doesn’t have to do it alone, she can save herself. With that in mind, here are a few books that feed our sense of wonder while letting us fight our own battles — at least in our imaginations.

The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

These books have been adored, banned, panned, burned and turned into a little movie franchise you may have heard of. After Professor Dumbledore dies in book six, the burden of defeating Voldemort falls squarely on Harry. Over seven volumes, he learns to trust himself and rely on his friends, important lessons for independent wizards and muggles alike. All the small-time wonder in Rowling’s intricate wizarding world (i.e., Mrs. Weasley’s clock, Hermione’s bottled blue fires) is a bonus!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Caroll

Alice, my girl’s namesake and our favorite storybook heroine, praises nonsense until she finds herself neck deep in it and has to find her own way out of an absurdist dreamscape full of egomaniacal enemies and aggressively unhelpful “friends.” There’s no Dumbledore in Wonderland, and the Cheshire Cat is no Aslan.

Coraline, Neil Gaiman

Coraline is a creepy, lovable and empowering little horror story about a girl whose parents are held hostage by a mystical being (the conceptually terrifying “Other Mother”) who tries to trap Coraline in a doppelganger-filled mirror world. Coraline’s main charm is Coraline herself, a serious, sometimes lonely only child who takes things in stride, even when things go very wrong. Gaiman also wrote the Newberry Award winning The Graveyard Book and the picture books Instructions and Blueberry Girl, all of which definitely belong on this list. Cheers to Neil for giving us both girl and boy heroes (and a purposefully gender neutral character in Instructions) worth admiring!

His Dark Materials series, Philip Pullman

Pullman’s trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) has been called Narnia for atheists. The series have a lot in common—travel between worlds, talking animals, children placed in ridiculously dangerous situations—but Pullman’s books are more emotionally and morally complex. Like Narnia, the series has its flaws (the “heavy-handed” criticism applies here too), but its heroine Lyra is perfect. Tough, dangerous, loyal and vulnerable, Lyra is what Lucy would have been if Father Christmas had given her a sword. At seven, my girl’s a bit young for these (they’re quite intense and violent), but they will be right up her alley in a few years.

Our Family Tree, Lisa Westberg Peters

For pure, fantastic awe, you really can’t beat nature. We’ve read this science-y picture book, with its gorgeous illustrations by Laura Stringer, again and again. That evolution connects us intimately and mysteriously with the rest of the world is truly, deeply wonderful.

This list isn’t nearly as long as it could be nor as diverse as it should be, so let’s add to it in the comments. What books boost your self-confidence and fire your imagination?

Comments on Reading fantasy fiction and raising independent kids

  1. I have to add to the mix Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching stories from the Discworld. They are The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight.
    Tiffany, a young girl, discovers she’s a witch. She struggles through a number of issues any girl must overcome to find herself including stereotypes, being the big sister, losing a loved one, her first love, new responsibilities, reality vs perception and that doesn’t even touch on her witchly duties. Anyone who reads it will adore the characters. Especially the Feegles.

  2. Great post. My dad was mostly concerned with making sure I understood that heroes could be heroines, too, but I remember some conversations about Narnia along the lines of what you mention.

  3. As an adult, I still find myself reading this kind of fiction. I adore the Harry Potter series.

    One series that I keep going back to every few years and look forward to sharing with my son is the Wrinkle in Time series.

    From Wikipedia:
    A Wrinkle in Time is a science fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle, first published in 1962. The book won a Newbery Medal, Sequoyah Book Award, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. It is the first in L’Engle’s series of books about the Murry and O’Keefe families.

    It is great sci-fi, great fantasy, and the kids are the heroes.

  4. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge is another one I would add to the list. The Heroine in this book, Mosca, is smart and brilliantly stubborn. While this doesn’t have the magic that may surround may of the other tales listed here it is a great story set in a world very different then ours and is about grappling with the world as it is and coming to terms with it on your own. It also might be a bit over the head of younger ones, not for intensity and violence, but more for complex politics, religions, and history.
    I would also potentially add The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea. I haven’t read it in a while and can’t remember if it falls in the “letting us fight our own battles” category.

  5. I have to say, I didn’t especially pick up on the Christian imagery, the dodgy attitudes to Islam etc in the Narnia books when I read them, between the ages of 7-9. I don’t think there’s especially a need to get in a moral funk about them – the important source of values in a child’s life is their parents; they’re not going to get sucked into dubious opinions by the dated undercurrents inherent in some fantasy fiction if that’s averse to the values they’ve been given.

    • I didn’t pick up on a lot of it as a kid either, but it’s problematic enough for me that I wanted to share some other options.

      My girl and I have read most of the Narnia books together, as well as some other wonderful books with problem passages, and we talk about the things that come up. It’s been a good way to approach some tough topics.

      • I loved Enid Blyton as a child, but I am concerned that they might suggest that there is only one way to be a “good” child. But Enid Blyton taught me about owning up and telling the truth was a form of courage, that I shouldn’t care more about my hairstyle than my kindness and down-to-earthness, and to try to make the best of situations instead of prejudging and complaining.
        Initially I thought I would let my kids read C.S. Lewis because I think the Christian stuff is fairly well hidden – to me it is like them reading the Odyssey, but you make a good point about making kids believe that someone is going to jump in and do the last part for them.
        I guess the most important thing to teach kids here is how not to take anything at face value but extract the bits that their conscience agrees with and ignore the bits that their conscience has issues with. No book is perfect.

        • Absolutely! And I have read most of the Narnia books with Alice; I just notice this trend in kids fantasy and want to seek out books that go against, not so much keep her away from books that are basically good, but have this one weakness.

    • While I didn’t pick up on the Christian symbolism/anti-Islam stuff as a kid, either, what WAS very apparent to me was how Lewis preferred his girl characters to be…I dunno, meeker(?) than the boys? Lucy not getting a sword, for instance, or the big deal made at the end of the book about Susan not getting to go back to Narnia because she dared to grow up and wear lipstick and have her own interests as an adult. That stood out for me, and left kind of a bad taste in my mouth, though I did love the books overall.

  6. Anything by Tamora Pierce:
    she writes amazing fantasy, and purposefully focuses on fierce heroines. plus, the romantic relationships are partnerships, and on occasion, the prince gets turned down for a better match.

    • Heck, I’m 22 and still addicted to Tamora Pierce. I can’t wait for her next book to come out. I look forward to sharing them with my little ones when i have them. 🙂

    • I went to a conservative Christian school. One year my cousin was working for the librarian by reading books that had been donated and writing book reports on them. She read the first of the Alanna series, and the librarian said they weren’t fit for our library. I had read the book when she was done, but we could never find the second and third. By the time I was big enough to buy my own books, I had forgotten the name. Flash forward 16 years, and I stumbled across them again. I was so excited! I think these books are great for adventurous kids.

      • I was raised conservative Christian, and I found the first Alanna book at the public library and loved it. I think I read the second, too, but when I checked out the third, my stepmom found it before I could read it. She read the back cover and told me to take it back to the library. I did love the ones I read, though.

    • As a little girl Alanna was my HERO. I wanted to grow up to be her! I even took swordfighting (much to my mothers glee, and my grandmothers horror). Alanna gave me the courage to be a small swordfighter, even when I couldn’t see.

      Also, her new Beka Cooper books are great!

    • While Gloria Whelan is not from India, Homeless Bird captures the culture wonderfully. I read it in third grade for required reading and freaked out when I finally found a copy to own at my local Half Price.

      It discusses arranged marriage and widows in Indian society, through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl. I’d recommend it for an older child. Personally, I first found it in the third grade and I think that’s the perfect age.

      Also, the Moribito Series by Nahoko Uehashi is very good too. (Summery for the first book, Gauridan of the Spitit)
      It takes place in a fantasy counterpart to Asia during the middle ages, centering on a female bodyguard and her newest job of protecting a prince who is believed to be possessed by a water spirit.

      I’d read it with any child over the age of five, but you may want to skim it yourself before deciding. It’s a ten book series but only two exist translated in the US. Because they are very good as stand alone stories, you can enjoy them without worrying about feeling like you had no resolution.

    • There’s really only one Norwegian book that I can thing of to recommend, and that’s really for much older kids. I would say it works best for young adults.
      Anyways, it called Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. I guess the title says it all ^^ Sophie, the heroine, isn’t tough like Coraline or Lyra, but she’s curious, independent and intelligent. The lessons in philosophy can be a bit dry but it’s a good introduction, and the rest of the book is definitely exiting!
      I guess I should also note that I haven’t read the translation, so it might be horrible in English xD

    • I concur on all the suggestions! Especially Ender’s Game – Absolutely a must for older kids! Ender has no one to turn to but other kids to help him fight his battles. I re-read this book every year and can’t wait until my son is old enough to read it to him.

    • I loved Ender’s Game, and then I found out more about Orson Scott Card’s homophobia. Now every time I read one of his novels, I see that intolerance creeping in.

      • Agreed. Reading the Ender’s Shadow series made me want to throw things, not just for the homophobia, which only really gets mentioned once or twice, but also for the ridiculous Freudian misogyny in the later books (apparently, the only motivation that can be ascribed to adult women is wanting babies. Girls can want power, but women just want babies).

        • similar problems to Narnia, really! How do you separate the message from the narrative? Can you? If you didn’t notice it on the first reading, do a fiction writer’s biases really matter? interesting questions.

    • Ender’s Game is a great novel for older kids, especially younger boys hitting puberty. I have a copy that has made the around through all of our pre-teen kids in the neighborhood.

  7. What age would you say is a good age to start reading these types of books? My husband and I want to start reading longer books to our son, but he’s only 4, and I don’t want to scare him or give him bad dreams.

    • Every kid is different, as far as I can tell. Alice loved “scary stories” from the time she could request a favorite, but we’ve waited for some of the books that have more violence. She’s nearly 8 now, and we’ve read all the books on this list except the last few Harry Potters and the last two books in His Dark Materials. Right now, she’s on a more realistic kick with our shared reading (we’re deep into Little House and Ramona Quimby territory at the moment).

      Part of the issue with really little kids is simply whether or not they can follow a more complex and sustained story. For kids in more of the picture book stage, I’d say Where the Wild Things Are fits in with this list. We also love Nancy Willard and Mo Willems. Our Family Tree is appropriate for all ages.

      Anyone else have suggestions for littler ones?

    • I babysat 3 kids throughout highschool while their mom went to college. They’d all been read the entire Tolkein series at bedtime (hobbit on through) since the oldest was about 3–they’d made it through all 4 books twice, and all had the BEST vocabularies of any children I’ve met since! When they didn’t understand certain parts, they’d ask questions or fall asleep, both were productive!

    • I think the Phantom Tollbooth is a good longer book for kids. I loved it when I was little, and read it to my nephew when he was about five or six. He didn’t understand all the underlying meanings, but enjoyed the story. It has adventure, but it’s not scary, plus you can re-read it when they’re older. I think it is a good book that will grow with the kids.

    • I started reading ‘scary’ books at a very young age. My mother allowed me to read Thunder Cave by Dean Koontz and then I started on multiple Stephen King books at age 6-8. We read the entire Brother’s Grimm story book collection under the age of five and I loved the Matchbook Girl, even though she froze to death. I don’t think that I came out any worse for wear. I did have some pretty awesomely vivid dreams that I still remember. (I’m an Electrical Engineer and Applied Mathematics major at university.)

  8. I agree that kids won’t pick up on any of the undertones present in the Narnia books (I didn’t actually remember/realize there were until I read this article).

    I like J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit is good for younger readers, and Farmer Giles of Hamm is entertaining.

    Artemis Fowl is fun as well, although if you do have an enterprising young child you might want to wait until they understand that taking advantage of younger siblings is morally questionable.

    A slightly scary series is The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. It’s about a family in Wales and how they get mixed up in Arthurian legend.

    Jane Yolen wrote some excellent fantasy novels, such as Wizard’s Hall (essentially Harry Potter in a small book, published before HP), and the Pit Dragon Trilogy.

    Anne McCaffrey wrote a Pern series geared at a slightly younger audience (or simply appropriate) – the Harper Hall Trilogy.

    Isabelle Allende wrote three books for younger readers – City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, and Forest of the Pygmies. These were translated from Spanish for those of you looking for books not originally in English.

    Eva Ibbotson wrote some interesting books, like The Secret of Platform 13, Dial-A-Ghost, Journey to River-Sea, Which Witch. These are good for younger readers.

  9. Ursula Le Guin! Particularly the Earthsea Books. The greatest villains in her books are often her characters’ own pride, and their victories are bittersweet and ambivalent. And yet her tales have the archetypal, myth-like quality of the finest fantasy.

    The second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, is among my all-time favorites; I feel like it manages to map the darkness inside me and inspires self-reflective chills every time I reread it.

    Her recent series for children (Powers, Voices, and a third I haven’t read) are also excellent. Her heroes and heroines win with self-discovery, friendship, and diplomacy.

    • I haven’t read the Powers series, but I absolutely adore Ursula K. Le Guin! You’re right: Earthsea is fabulous. I ca’t think of one of her books that I didn’t enjoy. Plus she’s a poet and an all around bad ass.

    • You have to be careful with Ursula K. LeGuin, I used to love her but picked up one of her recent books and was shocked by the extraordinarily blatant, all-encompassing ablism, up to and including describing a girl with mental health issues as being an empty, soulless being and a meaningless burden on her family. It was really horrible. I don’t think there was anything as bad in her other books so just make sure you read them carefully before giving them to a kid.

      • Was that Vardan in Gifts, the girl Orrec nearly gets betrothed to? The other characters treat her like a meaningless burden on her family — but I don’t think Le Guin was endorsing that view! It’s how a child with mental disabilities would be treated in that society — at least by someone like Ogge Drum. People in stories do horrible things — it doesn’t mean the author thinks it’s a good idea.

        In ‘Tehanu’ and ‘The Other Wind’ a physically disabled child (severe burns) ends up saving the world. There’s also a minor character called Heather who is mentally disabled and is a likeable character.

        So I don’t think Le Guin is ablist at all — although she writes about characters who are.

  10. I believe the phenomenon you are referring to is called “deus ex machina.” (And I know Wikipedia is not always the most informative source but you get can an idea – ). It is a legitimate literary device though it often makes the readers groan, it can be used for comedic purposes also. Interestingly, children often use this device in their stories (“They were stuck in a hole and then a huge bird came by OUT OF NOWHERE and picked them up! and…”).

    So, I don’t think you need to completely steer clear of stories like these per se, if that is your only problem with it (i.e. that those kind of stories aren’t “realistic”). I think the religious components are a separate issue, than the “deus ex machina” issue.

    • I should clarify: I still love Narnia, and I’ve read those books with my girl. I wouldn’t try to keep her away from good books that have a few weaknesses (we’d never read anything), but because “and then a giant bird swooped in” is pretty common in kids fantasy books, I am always thrilled to find books that avoid it.

  11. I loved Ronia the Robber’s Daughter! Also another book and it’s sequel centered around a girl named Rania – “Sandwriter” and “The Promise” by Monica Hughes.

    I am the biggest Harry Potter nerd on the planet, but nothing beats Phillip Pullman’s trilogy. My daughter’s middle name is Lyra, as that series has been my favourite since I randomly picked up the Golden Compass at around 11. Phillip Pullman’s other series, particularly the Sally Lockhart books, aren’t fantasy as much, but are still great -The Ruby in the Smoke, the Tiger in the Well, the Shadow in the Well, and the Tin Princess (I’m fairly certain that’s the right order). Loved them in my pre-teen/teen years, and still do 🙂

  12. As an elementary librarian who deals with the K-4 bunch, one of my favorite books for kids is “The City of Ember” by Jeanne DuPrau in which Lina and Doon have to work together with the occasional support from an adult, to save their dying post-apocalyptic underground city by finding the way out. In the 2nd book, “People of Sparks”, Doon and Lina have to help their people survive once they’re above ground. I read both to my summer camp kids (9 and 10 years old). They even made me read all through their art time, lunch time, and FREE TIME so we could finish the last book! I had no voice, but they were SILENT to hear the conclusion. I even had a few parents ask me for the name of the book because their kids couldn’t stop talking about it and they wanted to read the series for themselves.

    I also love Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” series (for the late middle school/high school crowd) and his Keys to the Kingdom and Seventh Tower series (late elementary/middle school). My 4th graders are reading Seventh Tower independently and are loving it. I can’t keep the books in the library. And Keys to the Kingdom has such an INTERESTING view on how the world was created. I HIGHLY recommend Keys as a great read for adults, too. My 54-year-old father couldn’t put it down.

  13. Though they are not high fantasy by definition, have you tried the Redwall books by Brian Jacques? I grew up on them and intend to raise my kids on them too. They very often have young protagonists who beat the odds

    • YES! i read the Redwall series so much when i was younger and collected about 10 or so before i moved on to other series. while they can be a bit formulaic, i found them SO AWESOME when i was younger, though some of the battles can be a bit violent. and jacques utilizes girl and boy protagonists, which sets a great example for the kids reading them.

    • I absolutely ADORED the Redwall series when I was little. As a young nature lover (my dad is a entomologist and we spent a lot of time outdoors), these were right up my alley. Also I was a fast reader and devoured books, these were some of the few books that could last me more than a day or two. Yes they are a little formulaic to an adult, but to a child they are simply EPIC. Jacques was a masterful storyteller that had a real sense of history to his books.

      Also, Watership Down and Tales from Watership Down were a favorite of my sister and I. I will always remember the story about the land of the King of Yesterday with all the extinct animals in it. It was sad, but definitely gave me a sense of perspective on things at a young age.

      • I was excitedly scrolling down the comments to add the same series! But ACK you beat me to it!! 😛
        But seriously, as of a few years ago, I’ve been scouring used-book stores to build my own Redwall Series collection for my future kids. I’ve even been so picky as to only want the SAME HARDBACKS (illustrations and everything) that I read!
        The series is so wonderful because not only is it beautifully and eloquently written, but it has such an extensive vocabulary for “children’s” books! It taught me all sorts of synonyms and British and “older” words that I’d never heard before. So, yay for subtle education!
        It also has such amazing heroes, male and female. Mariel of Redwall was my favorite, because she was such a freaking badass, and she had a beautiful name. I STILL want to name my future daughter Mariel. The series is so great at cultivating heroes from a variety of backgrounds, genders, ages, and even species! Simply amazing.

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