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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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?

  6. 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 (www.diggercomic.com), 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.

  7. 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 http://www.johndiesattheend.com/updates/?p=1071 (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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    Thanks!!

  13. 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

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

    • I’m not suggesting censoring what kids read, just consciously offering them options that encourage their independence. Free range reading is a great gift!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

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