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 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.’

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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:

  9. 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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