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?