If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.
A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.
The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.
The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.
The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.
The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.
The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.
Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.
The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.
Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.
Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.
The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.
The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.