The first book that I ever fell in love with was Dinosaurs at Dark, the first of the Magic Tree House series . I remember sitting alone on the living room carpet at six years old when, suddenly, I realized I was reading a “real” book with no trouble. There was something curious about the solitude of reading by myself, no longer reliant on my father’s voice or my mother’s calming presence while I painstakingly pronounced each word. I could read for as long as I wanted. I finished Dinosaurs at Dark that day. The next morning, I returned to the carpet to devour the series’ second installment, The Knight at Dawn. Within months I had read the whole series, and become my first grade class’s “Magic Tree House Expert”: ask me about any Magic Tree House book and I could tell you if it was any good. I even gave recommendations.
I read other “long” books as a child, though they were closer to the Dick and Jane genre. What really intrigued me about the Magic Tree House series was its sense of adventure. Jack and Annie had the freedom to travel anywhere and any time in history they wanted with the help of their magic tree house.
Now that I am an English major at the University of Connecticut, one of my great frustrations has been the disappearance of books involving fantasy. The older I get, it seems, the more focus is put on “the classics,” which is largely limited to works of realistic fiction for adults. Though the occasional touch of magical realism is both a surprise and a delight (shout out to Gabriel García Márquez), I believe that limiting “great” works to novels of realistic fiction means leaving many enjoyable, well-written books out of our reading piles.
And so, in a spirit of reminiscence, I’ve assembled a list of what I believe are the best children’s and young adult fantasy novels. Several limitations: I can only talk about books I’ve read. Thus, though my father’s insistence on recommending The Once and Future King is probably well based, I can hardly talk about it given that I’ve never followed him up on his endorsement. Also, I’m not going to spend time begging you to pick up Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings – they are both very popular and among the greats, so if you haven’t read them yet, I don’t really know what you’re doing here.
I’ll start with the lesser-known good books, and work my way up to the greats. So, with much ado:
Recommended age range (don’t let that hold you back!): 9+
If magical realism is the key to getting fantasy into the ranks of literary fiction, this novel is my introduction to how magical realism can be masterfully executed. Unlike many fantasy books that transport readers (and protagonists) into entirely new worlds, this novel is based firmly in contemporary America – with a twist. The story follows twelve-year-old Mibs Beaumont as she approaches her thirteenth birthday; the dreaded onset of puberty, the age at which each member of the Beaumont family has developed their savvy: a superhuman ability unique to each child. Once I looked this book up, I realized it had done pretty well publically: a Newbery Honor, New York Times Bestseller, Oprah’s Reading List. For some reason, I was always under the impression no one else had read it. If you haven’t, I’d recommend it as a quick and entertaining read.
Recommended age range: 14+
The only reason this novel is so low on this list is because it’s technically not a work of fantasy. However, I’ve decided to include it because it has some magical realism aspects, and because it may be the best young adult novel that I’ve ever read. I know I’m not alone on this, too, because I recommended it to my father and then two days later walked in on him crying in the living room as he finished it. You may find yourself both loving and hating the main character, Taylor, but that’s how you know that Marchetta has produced a well-developed character. This author has also has written a fantasy trilogy, The Lumatere Chronicles, which has received a fair deal of critical acclaim. I haven’t read them, but they’re high on my to-do list.
Recommended age range: 5+
Back in high school my friends who took French had to read the children’s book Le Petit Prince in its original French rendition. At lunch, while they were bemoaning the fantastical plot, I discovered that I had an uncanny ability to describe what came next. After a moment of confusion, I realized that my telepathic ability was really the result of having read the book before, in its English translation. This is the oldest of the books I recommend, and it has inspired its own sort of cult following. My friends, for some reason, hated it. However, when I reread it I fell in love with the young prince and his whimsical, allegorical journey. The Little Prince is often described as a book for children written for grown-ups, and I believe that this description rings true. Plus, it comes with illustrations, which are exciting at any age.
Recommended age range: 14+
Personally, I’ve found that the recent popularity of young adult fantasy has led to a lot of poorly written books getting published. This may seem hypocritical given that I started out this article calling for a more widespread and positive reception of fantasy novels. However, I think that this decrease in quality is a rampant problem. This being said, The Graceling Realm Series is one of the good ones. The most recent book of the trilogy, Bitterblue, was just published in 2012 (although I’d argue that Graceling and Fire are the best). All three novels have nuanced, well-developed female protagonists and thrilling plots. One of the things I like about this fantasy series is Cashore’s ability to expand a world through novels that follow different characters in different locations, time periods, and situations. I’d recommend starting with the first novel, Graceling, for a captivating introduction to the first half of the world, before progressing to Fire, which is loosely linked to the first book but describes characters with very different powers and under a separate government. I’d rank Fire above Graceling but that’s just out of personal preference: I liked the characters and plot of Fire better.
Recommended age range: can’t say
The first novel of this young adult trilogy is a book you’ve probably heard of: The Golden Compass. Yes, that is the book that hit theaters as the movie Northern Lights in 2007… but don’t worry about it, because the movie absolutely butchered the book. This is a loss not just because The Golden Compass was good, but because the two books that follow it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, are even better. If you’re short on time, I’d even recommend that you skip The Golden Compass entirely; you need to read The Subtle Knife to understand The Amber Spyglass, but it is the final novel in the series that took my breath away. In The Amber Spyglass, Pullman does an exceptionally good job of converging the world-building and character development of the past two novels into one thrilling conclusive plot. In addition, many of his characters and plot devices are spin offs of Christian allegories, constructing symbolism I know I didn’t fully understand the first time I read the series. I’ll definitely be reading it again.
Recommended age range: 9+
This is one you definitely have heard of, and the movies have been pretty good so far too. I’d like, however, to make a case for reading beyond The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. All of the books in this series are good, but I think both The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy are especially underrated. This may be because both of these books don’t directly involve the Pevensie children. Yet, even as relative standalones, each novel has its merit. The Magician’s Nephew manages to build the history behind the land of Narnia, while still telling an engaging story of two children who happen into another world and encounter a terrifying evil sorceress. The Horse and His Boy is the story of a Narnian boy who teams up with a talking horse and finds himself on an epic cross-country journey, both coming of age and accidentally becoming players in a terrible battle in the proces. Finally, if you have time to invest in the whole series and haven’t done so yet, I’d highly encourage it. The ending of the last book is among my favorite within the whole series, in no small part due to the fact that it’s very allegorical and I still wonder about it today. You have to deserve the ending though – if you have interest, read the series and see where it takes you.
Recommended age range: 9+
I put this series at the top of this list because A Wrinkle in Time (the first book in the series) is a classic and I don’t think that this series gets the attention it deserves. L’Engle does a beautiful job of presenting worlds and adventures for the consumption of nine and ten years olds in ways that still imparts meaning long after the book has been closed. As she was once quoted, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Assuming you may have read A Wrinkle in Time, I’d like to recommend my two favorite books of the series: #3, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and #4, Many Waters. As I mentioned before, while many authors of fantasy series write about different characters undergoing different adventures within a single world, L’Engle turns this tactic on its head and takes different members of a family from Earth on distinctive otherworldly adventures. In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, younger brother Charles Wallace has 24 hours to stop a nuclear war by traveling on the back of a unicorn to four different periods in history and reversing the things that went wrong there. In Many Waters, jockish twin brothers, Sandy and Dennys, are thrown back in time to a vast desert, in the days before a very great flood. Of the two novels, I loved Many Waters the best for its careful and imaginative development of biblical allegory. I think it’s one of the most under-appreciated books of the series, and I’d highly recommend you give it a read.