Reading fantasy fiction and raising independent kids

February 23 2011 | 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?

  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.

    • How I wish I could have read these as a young girl. I will definitely be reading them to my own and I just hope they find the love for reading I didn't embrace til I was about 14. My first will be arriving in August this year so I have plenty of time to stock the library! There are so many fabulous suggestions! Kudos on the blog entry.

  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.

    • She also wins for the best ever magical invention: the birth control charm. I wish I could wear a necklace and be done with it. Simple. Awesome.

    • 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!

  7. Thanks for all the recommendations, y'all. Keep them coming!

    I didn't realize I was such an anglophile till I compiled this list! Anyone have recommendations by authors from other places?

    • 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

      • Sophie's World (in english) was reccomended reading in my catholic high school religious studies class. It was "safe" philososphy because it didn't get into the whole God arguement (at least not in a way obvious to most 15 year olds).

        It's a good read for teens who like to think outside of the box, I enjoyed it.

      • Ah! I read this book years ago but couldn't remember anything about it except the letters. It has been on the tip of my brain for years and I haven't been able to recall it. Thanks!

    • 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.

  8. Yes to the Tamora Pierce suggestion above! Especially the Alanna books. Awesome heroine and one of my favorites round about age 12.

    Also Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, etc.) I don't remember whether these fall into the "Aslan Dilemma" you mention, but they do feature a sassy, fierce heroine.

    • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles don't have the "Aslan Dilemma" – they're about people learning to solve their own problems and becoming the hero (also using brains rather than brawn).

  9. I am so glad to see this post! My daughter is still a baby, but I plan on reading her all of the books you mentioned. Can we get a part II of this article for some lesser-known titles??

  10. I loved loved loved the Patricia C. Wrede books as a kid!!
    Also anything by Bruce Coville (Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher was my favorite) 🙂

  11. 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.)

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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 🙂

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

    • Alice is an animal lover, so I'm sure she would like these. I read one or two when I was a kid and all my friends were into them. I was sad to hear that Brian Jacques died recently.

    • 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.

  18. I have to sing my praises for 'The Phantom Tollbooth' by Norton Juster.
    Granted, the protagonist isn't a female he still overcomes the odds to rescue the princesses (who instead of dainty things are Rhyme and Reason), with help from two other characters.
    It's very Oz-ish, but he uses the lessons he learns through the entire novel to beat the odds.

  19. The Underland Chronicles (Gregor the Overlander and 4 others) by Suzanne Collins are really fantastic. A little scary and sometimes sad, but really exciting and life-affirming: probably appropriate for 9 or 10 and up. There might be some implausible rescues, but a lot of it is Gregor (age 11 at the start of series) coming to terms with not wanting the responsibility of saving the day, hating violence but needing to fight for the cause. Also strong female characters and underlying anti-war message. And giant bats you can ride on!

    Collins is more well-known right now for the Hunger Games trilogy, also great, with a strong heroine who doesn't want anyone to save her–but definitely WAY darker and only for teens or very mature pre-teens.

  20. My favorite book in elementary school (and the source of my online handle) is Dragon's Milk by Susan Fletcher, which is the story of a young girl who is somewhat outcast due to her strange appearance (tall and blond :-P) who has to decide whether it's more important to fit in, or stand up for the "people" who need her.

    Sometime around highschool I found out it was actually the first book in a longer series called the Dragon Chronicles.

  21. If you're a fan of fantasy, you have to read Piers Anthony, particularly his Xanth series. It's sort of a farce of fantasy novels while still being an in depth series in its own light. I read nearly all of these in sixth grade. In the first book, the hero, Bink, is the only person in a world of magic users who cannot use magic. Therefore he has to rely on his other talents to get him through his adventure. I would read them yourself before turning them over to your daughter though because there is some adult level humor that some parents may find objectionable

  22. A really great childrens book writer is Cornelia Funke. She writes in German, but some of her books have been translated into English. I think the series people might have heart of is the one that starts with "Inkheart" which has also been made into a movie.
    The one I personally liked even better was "Dragonrider" which has a boy hero, but also a girl-kobold-hero and later on another girl (and her parents) join in and of course there's dragons (nice ones mostly).

    But pretty much anything by her is worth checking out. There's the one about a girl whose parents are sorcerors, but she wants to be a knight. And then she goes on to save them when they are transformed into animals. (She also has a little brother who (I think) wants to be a sorceror.

    Anybody who lives in Germany aready knows about some other series (Die Wilden Hühner!) that I could recommend here, and then there's my favourite ever christmas book, about a girl who travels into the world behind the windows of her Adventskalender and she (and her little brother) help save the prince from the chocolate castle, but then these are only (sadly) for people who read German. But it's worth checking out which ones are available in English. Especially as her books are usually aimed at kids from 8 to 14 (depending on the book a bit) but generally more accesible to younger children that for example Harry Potter (where I personally wouldn't give the later books to kids under 12).

    • I loved Inkheart! And the book about the advent calendar sounds amazing enough for me to seriously want to learn German to read it. What's the name of it?

      • "Hinter verzauberten Fenstern" = Behind enchantd windows

        And it's totally awesome! It's aimed at younger kids (I'd give it to a child as soon as they're able to get through a book with mostly text on their own (or read it to them) but stays awesome.

        It starts when Julia gets an advent calendar with pictures, it's got a picture of a house on it and the windows are even all in oder (1 at the attic, 24 on the main doors) and she wanted a chocolate calender (even though the chocolate doesn't taste all that great) and her you ger brother gets one, but her mother tells her she thought Julia would be old enough to appreciate a picture version now, which causes her to throw a tantrum. (So, this is the place where I have to admit that much of my love for this book is how I can totally relate to the annoyingness of little brothers (they're AWFUL!!!!) and the emotional outbursts.)
        Then she changes her mind about the calender and secretely sneaks down the stairs to take it to her room. She opens the first window (it's after midnight) but is disappointed (AGAIN) when she only sees the attic of the house and closes the window again. Then in the morning her mother and little brother come to her room and her brother makes her open the first window (again) and they see the picture and her mother is a bit apologetic, because: boring attic, but Julia has just noticed that where a heavy coat was hanging last night, there's now a jacket!
        So next day there's a living room behind window number 2 and there are some small things hainging from the ceiling and Julia takes a magnifying glass and looks at it and suddenly she can see them really well and then she realizes: SHE'S INSIDE THE ROOM! She meets Jacobus who lives there and he's REALLY EXCITED to meet her, becuause the calender world has been getting no visitors, because all the kids only ever want chocolate calenders (!) and nobody lives in the chocolate houses that belong to the (evil!) Leo. Another day she gets to visit the king (special visitor!) who's old and forgetful and Leo's his advisor. Later on she gets to meet everybody else in the house (big party). There's Jacobus, the small man who wears BIG wigs (long and curly), the two fairys (one very thin, one round) who live together, the 5 (?) dwarves, the mute giant (who's very good at communicating with his hands) the ungly prince Harry (son of the king, who moved out because he hated Leo).
        Then there are some mysterious happenings, involving empty rooms, an invisible attacker (Julia totally PWNs him!) and Julia's little brother sneaking into her room and MESSING EVERTHING UP! Then Harry is kidnapped!
        They make plans to rescue him from Leo's chocolate castle. Julia and her little brother get to come. There is much awesome! Julia gets Mr. invisible with a paint baloon, the dwarves and her brother walk up to the caste, ignoring the no trespassing sings and questions reply: We're to small to read! Duh! And then paint the doors shut with extra strong sugar glaze and everybody else helps too.
        Then Harry gets to be king and plans to restore the abandoned calender houses, so that many kids can come visit again.
        The end!

        I love about the book that while it's fantasy and about amazing adventures, it's really about family and taking care of each other and totally captures how you can HATE LITTLE BROTHERS but still love them in the end (they aren't ALL that bad, it was his idea to tell their mom that they were going to grandma's to have time to rescue Harry for example) and includes her mother going shopping and telling Julia to be grown up and even apologizing for it later (a bit) even though Julia was mostly over it at that point… and so on…

        So, now I've totally spammed and spoiled you, but you won't have top learn German to find out what happens?

  23. I know it isn't SciFi/Fantasy, but it is Alternate Universe – Nation by Terry Pratchett is probably the single best novel I have ever read (and i am voracious reader who LOVES her SciFi/Fantasy), and I think my favourite thing about it is that it doesn't end the way it "should" but ended the way it "would have".

    And once they are a little older, Digger by Ursula Vernon (, it is a graphic novel in webcomic form that is just winding up to an ending now, books 1-4 are published in hardcopy, and I assume the next will be out once the novel is finished. Digger made me cry! Yes, a graphic novel about a wombat, a statue of ganesh and a dead god made me cry.

  24. Maybe Aslan and Gandolf syndrome aren't so bad. I know that we're talking about fantasy, but is the idea that someone could be find themselves in a world which they know nothing about and somehow solve all of the problems which the people who have spent their lives there can't, isn't very realistic. It reminds me a bit of this post about how The Karate Kid ruined the world (Warning: Strong language)

    I've only seen the Lord of the Rings films rather than reading the books, but one of the things I liked about it was that none of the characters could have defeated the baddie on their own. They only succeeded by all of them working together and most of them making tremendous sacrifices, which felt them dead/permanently traumatised. It's a better preparation for the long hard team effort slog that any kind of social movement needs.

  25. Just so you know, The Golden Compass is published as Northern Lights in a lot of countries. The Golden Compass was the name preferred by US publishers. Apparently the guy that picked that also decided Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone should be have the word philosopher replaced with sorcerer.
    Didn't realise that US editors had power to usurp authors on book titles but either way, it might be helpful to those outside the US

  26. I would strongly recommend for younger children Jostein Gaarder's "Hello Is Anybody Out There?" about an alien that is discovered in an apple tree in a kid's garden. The kid then talks about his planet while the alien talks about how his planet is different, and the kid even unashamedly shows the alien pictures of himself as a baby being breastfed. The books for older readers are ones like "Through A Glass Darkly" and "The Solitaire Mystery". Then there's Sophie's World for teens. Jostein Gaarder basically writes these books as an excuse to toss philosophical ideas around and encourage questions and curiousity and wonder about the world.

  27. While I agree that promoting sitting around and waiting for somebody else to solve your problems is not something you want to encourage, I also think that teaching (especially children) that it's ok to ask for and expect to get help when a task is too big for them to solve by themselves is also worthy. Of course you can argue with the stories' undertones of having to prove yourself worthy of such help and the manner in with such can be proven, but I also think that the kids in the Narnia books did always have to do their part.
    In the end kids need to learn both things: To stand up for themselves, but also to accept help when they need it.

  28. I read a GREAT book this year about the allure & the problems of "Narnia" – The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia. It was part critical discussion of the series(and fantasy in general), part biography of Lewis, and part memoir about the author's own complicated relationship with the books. I really identified with the author in that The Chronicles moved, inspired, and obsessed me when I was a child, and later, as a young adult when I examined their messages, I felt betrayed and tricked. It's a great examination of how one can have a relationship with a story and not necessarily its "lesson" or message.

  29. Wow! So many great recommendations here…I can't wait to start reading!

    I was wondering if anyone could help me recall a book from my youth. When I was in 5th grade our teacher read us a story about time travel. The main character was a boy and the machine that allowed them to time travel was something that looked like a calculater? At least that is how I remember it. He met a girl and her dad and they were traveling and of course timelines got overlapped and there was a bad version of the girl and her father and a good version. One version of the girl had long hair, the other had short hair.

    Does this ring a bell for anyone? That's all I can remember of the story, but it stuck with me so I felt like I should track it down and read it again.


  30. I haven't gotten a chance to read through all of the comments, so I hope this hasn't been brought up already, but I would like to point out that there's a fine line between raising independent & self-reliant kids, and rebelious little stinkers.

    Case and point? Pippi Longstocking

    Swedish parents have a real love/hate relationship with Pippi (and all of Astrid Lindgren's other characters) because while she's spunky, fun, gets into all kinds of fun adventures, and is creative to boot, she's VERY anti-adult. She lives in a house all by herself at age 9 with a horse & a monkey(her father is a Pirate King on some island far, far away), and any time an adult tries to intervene in her fun & games, she's quick to defy them and do as she pleases. A lot of young kids in Sweden read the books and watch the old TV series, and start to develop the same attitude. I will be very quick to point out that it's the parents' job to nip that in the bud, but sometimes the parents just don't have it in them to tell the kids "no".

    We managed to avoid this with my niece, thankfully. When she started going through her Pippi phase (as did I, when I was younger – I LOVED Pippi!), we made sure to explain to her how good it was that Pippi stood up to the bully, even if socking him in the nose was wrong, and asking her how she would handle the situation if it ever arose. We also got to teach her that Pippi wasn't a perfect role model (that scene with the tea party comes to mind…), but that she gave little girls the courage to speak their minds & be creative, and not let anyone tell them there was something they couldn't do.

    It's all about perspective and balance. Personally, I love the Astrid Lindgren books and I plan to read them to my children someday. <3

  31. What a great post, and what awesome comments! I'm not a parent yet, but y'all are making me want to run to the bookstore to stock up for the future 😉

    As a kid, I loved the Narnia books, and didn't really understand the deeper meanings until an adult. I also very much enjoyed L'Engle's books, and of course Tolkein. My first sci-fi book was Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and it set me off on a course that I'm still following today. I can honestly say that I attribute my good vocabulary and eagerness to learn to my mom's early push of books that were considered for older readers. It is of course dependent on each kid as to what they can handle listening to/reading, but don't underestimate your child's ability to grasp concepts and learn!

  32. I personally don't believe in keeping any book a child wants to read from them. This was my mother's policy with me and I am better for it, I think. I read my entire elementary school library by the fourth grade. My mother didn't read to me past the first grade (my choice, I read faster to myself than she read aloud), but she often recommended things to me. My favorites as a child were: a wrinkle in time, narnia, earthsea, the hobbit/lotr, anything Terry pratchett, and Pern.
    I will not be telling my son what he can and can't read – I will just be there to discuss anything and everything that comes up. This is what my mom did and I am a huge book worm because of it. I was not permenantly scarred by reading lord of the flies in the fifth grade – I was not sheltered and I learned at my own pace. I plan to give the same gift to my son.

  33. Theres this book i really loved as a kid called The Westing Game kind of who done it mystery and the little girl ends up being the person who figures it all out. For older kids (pre-teen) Anne McCaffery's 3 books from the pern series on Menolly Dragon Singer, Dragon Drums and Dragon Song were awesome with a strong heroine doing what she had to. Though its not fantasy, I really enjoyed the little house on the prairie series when I was growing up and I even learned some cool stuff!
    Being as into fantasy and fairy tales as i am now, i can never thank my dad enough for giving me Grimms Fairy Tales to read, it was good to know the 'true' version.

    • I loved The Westing Game. Here's a funny story about keeping books away from kids: my cousin wasn't allowed to read it because it had a witch on the cover (the main character dresses as a witch for Halloween), so I checked it out of the school library and she read it in secret. It's a really good book.

  34. No one has mentioned the Wizard of oz books! I was obsessed with those as a kid– I read about 20 of them the summer I turned 10. They're probably pretty dated and silly but at the time I would've given anything to go to Oz.

  35. I'm bookmarking this article for when my son gets older. I adored reading the Narnia books when I was a kid and never picked up on the Aslan dilemma and all of the religious symbolism until I re-read them as an adult. Either way I'd still love my son to be able to read them when he's a bit older.

  36. Also, I'm a big fan of the choose your own adventure books. I started reading these in 4th grade and they're totally awesome. The majority of these feature male protagonists but you can find a few with girls as well.

  37. There are so many awesome suggestions here! I'm so excited for when my son is actually old enough to read along with me and on his own. It's going to amazing!

    One series I would suggest for kids a little older is the Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron. I absolutely adored the series when I was young (say 10-11) and I still remember the plots from all the books. I love that Merlin accomplishes things on his own and when he struggles he turns to his friends to help him out.

    Not really fantasy but possibly one of my favorite book series as a kid were the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen. (I was obsessed with all of his books actually.) Awesome for showing kids they can do anything if they set their minds to it, even when things are rough.

  38. I want to second Pippi Longstocking, and add The Moomintroll books! (Who was raised by a Swede, yeah, that'd be me)

    I also really want to suggest Diana Wynne Jones' books. She's got powerful witches, interesting characters, and a fully immersive awesome world.

    I think even if a book isn't PERFECT in our philosophical views, that a book which promotes imagination is worth so much. If your child wants to pretend they're going through the wardrobe, or down the rabbithole, or into the Swedish Countryside to play with Pippi – at least your child is using their brain to play.

  39. I second the Tiffany Aching series (and the rest of Terry Pratchett, actually – totally suitable for kids, I think), Redwall, and Neil Gaiman. Also, the Company series by Kage Baker ( I actually think Isaac Asimov, specifically but not exclusively the Foundation series, is great for older kids – I read the series when I was 10 or 11.

    Oh – and I know it's not fantasy/sci-fi, but just last night I read "The Case of the Missing Marquess" by Nancy Springer – it centers on the little sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. It is FANTASTIC and super girl-affirming. The heroine (just 14) doesn't need rescuing – she's the rescuer of herself and others.

  40. I also recommend 'Wise Child' and 'Juniper' by Monica Furlong. They are books about a girl learning to be a 'Doran' or wise woman, set in the middle ages. One of the themes that struck me as a child reading these books was, 'Everyone wants to be special, and in order for each person to feel special, we have to take turns and let others feel like they are special instead of always being the center of attention ourselves.'

  41. She may not be a Fantasy Fiction writer, but can I just throw my hat in for Lois Lowry's novels? She was one of my favorite authors as a kid. The Giver is such a fantastic book, so is Number the Stars.

  42. I love this post! So many favorites and so many new titles to try out. I have a few more to throw in the ring: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope features a perfect heroine – smart, flawed, strong, normal, must face extraordinary circumstances on her own wits. Quest for a Maid is similar, as is On Fortune's Wheel (can you tell my parents were concerned with providing strong heroines for their daughters?). The writing in all three books is just thrilling and beautiful too. Heavy on the Anglo-centric, though, so I appreciate the suggestions of stories from other cultures.

  43. I love the Keisha'ra series by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I remember loving all her books when I was a teenager, but I haven't read the Den of Shadows series in so long I can't remember how much of my love for those books stemmed from the fact that she wrote her first book at 14 (and has published a book every year since then, barring 2009).

    The Keisha'Ra series deals with a lot of awesome identity and diversity issues, arranged marriages, love, death, independence, tough decsions… what's not to love?

  44. There have been many great suggestions already – Wrinkle in Time series, The Westing Game – and as a voracious reader as a child, I'd like to throw a few more into the ring!

    The Cricket in Times Square – talking animals, a country cricket in a big city who misses the quiet countryside. It's from the 1960s, so there are a few moments of racist dialogue (swapping Rs and Ls – this could be edited out in reading to young kids, as my mother did for me, or a talking point with older kids.)

    Ella Enchanted – Ella, bound by a well-meaning curse from a hairbrained fairy godmother, lives in a magical kingdom with her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Unlike a docile Disney damsel, she flips the script on the Cinderella story and ventures off to seek her own fortune. It's a little heteronormative (yay, Princes?) but sometimes even handsome princes need saving…

    Nancy Drew mystery series – I liked Nancy Drew a lot more than the Hardy Boys. (A good portion of this could be that boys were still kind of icky when I was really into this series.) Even when I read them in roughly the 4th grade, I recognized that they were a little…idealized – Ned, the perfect boyfriend, George, the tomboy friend, and Bess, the nervous friend – but Nancy was wicked smart and balanced friends, school, a boyfriend and sleuthing on cases that tended towards (at least, when first presented) the supernatural. There were lots of haunted buildings and ghostly visions, but she kept her cool and used her wits to get out of plenty of scrapes and catch the culprit 😛 Not strictly fantasy, I realize, but a lot of the big fantasy titles/series have been covered!

    I guess my final suggestion for finding cool fantasy books would be to talk to those in the trenches. Befriend the Childrens' and YA Librarians. Read blogs by children/YA librarians (a friend writes one, , but there are lots) to get book reviews and honest feelings about books from people who have a passion for that age group and have read it all! Talk to them about your concerns and see if they can't point you in the right direction. And as long as you set the framework for a potentially problematic book/song/show/movie/piece of art/etc and have a decent handle on what your child's temperament and maturity level can handle, I think you should be able to navigate through the majority of stuff out there!

  45. LOVE these suggestions. Also the Lemony Snicket series is a great one for the kids rescuing themselves time and time again. 🙂

  46. I've scrolled down the comments and read most of them, I'm sorry if I'm wrong but I was surprised not to see Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series mentioned, they're a great read and I've loved them all. Although I'm not sure how they appear on the moral compass but they are self conscious in a moral sense; aware of right and wrong. Sometimes disregarding what's 'right' but generally expressing the consequences and never shields from Artemis's guilt. Magic does save the day on more than one occasion but they're good fun and exciting too. Holly Short is a strong female character and is constantly an equal among other strong male characters. Even though each character is exceptional from the start (either magic, a genius or highly skilled and trained in many disciplines) it shows the dilemmas from a position everyone needs to consider them and I think deals with 'responsibility for one's own actions' and 'duty' as a concept very thoroughly. I'm not certain these are what you're looking for in terms of lessons to help deal with day to day life but the characters are vivid, likable and diverse.

    • These are on my list to read eventually. My friend Abigail Hilton is a young adult fantasy author who releases her books as podcasts, and this series is one of her favorites.

  47. Some great books listed here! The Blue Sword and The Hero and The Crown by Robin McKinley were always two of my favorites as a pre-teen. And I still have and adore a ratty old copy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by R. Dahl.

  48. Aside from many above which I love, one of my favourite new discoveries is a stunningly beautiful book called 'the Selected Works of T S Spivet' which is about a young boy who makes maps and graphs and so on of his world, which is rural America. He's super talented, and writes scientific papers, draws perfect quality diagrams and drawings etc. It's a road tale … which hopefully doesn't inspire anyone's 9 year old to hitch trains across the country but it definitely fired up my geekiness. It's by Reif Larsen and there's also an awesome website:

  49. One of my all time favorite trilogies is the Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson. There is a religious component that seems to me to be loosely related to catholicism (one deity, leaders called priests, special sacraments, and quotes from their religious texts that remind me of Bible passages). I didn't mind it too much. The main character is an overweight girl of color who was chosen soon after birth for a great destiny and given great powers (though she doesn't really start to work with them until partway through the second book). She doubts herself, worries about what will happen to her, tries, falls, and tries again until finally in the last book, look out world, here she comes! She falls in love with a guy who becomes her partner in all things and makes a best friend who is like the sister she wished she had. She has magic powers, but by the end of the series she realizes that her biggest strength isn't her magic but her ability to come up with crazy-but-brilliant plans to get them out of the scrapes she and her friends find themselves in.

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