Throughout April, I’ll be tackling 26 A to Z topics related to children’s literature. Today’s F theme has a bit of alliteration: Here are five of my favorite fantasy novels (and series) for young readers.
Dragons. Magic. Princesses (preferably the feisty variety, not damsel in distress). Swords. Myths.
All of those elements and more are pieces in the fantasy genre. And all of those elements are enough to run away with a young reader’s imagination.
My imagination did run away with those bits of stories in grade school. The fantasy genre played a prime role in developing my love of literature. Certain books ignited my imagination more than others, though.
Five of those fire-breathing, imagination-sparking fantasy books/series are listed below. In no particular order of preference:
- The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Remember that earlier mention of the feisty variety of princess instead of the damsel in distress? That’s largely referring to Princess Cimorene, the lead character in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. In the first book of the quartet, Cimorene decides to run away from her royal boring life to become a dragon’s princess. The dragons are surprised when Cimorene volunteers for the job — after all, most dragons have to kidnap their princesses, and then they turn the girls into servants to clean their caves, do their cooking, etc. Kazul agrees to take Cimorene on board as her captive princess. Thus begins Cimorene’s life of keeping princes at bay (won’t they ever give up on trying to “rescue” her?), battling evil wizards, and keeping Kazul’s household in order. In subsequent books, Cimorene and Kazul venture into the Enchanted Forest for more adventures together.
- The Chronicles of Prydain: Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the Disney animated film “The Black Cauldron.” I can’t see how many hands are raised out there, but I’m betting not many. It’s a surprisingly dark story for Disney to adapt without … well, Disney-fying it. But the movie is pretty much as grim as its source material. Lloyd Alexander’s novel “The Black Cauldron” is Book 2 in the Chronicles of Prydain. They follow the adventures of an assistant pig-keeper, a princess, a hairy creature named Gurgi, a wandering bard, a dwarf, and a cast of other unlikely heroes, adventurers, and villains as they try to reclaim Prydain from evil. The books are age-appropriate, although a bit creepy at times. After all, dead bodies are reanimated using the black cauldron and essentially become a zombie army. But there’s enough comic relief (particularly from Gurgi and the witches Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch) to make the enjoyable.
- Harry Potter: This is an obvious series to include, but it’s obvious for a reason: Because J.K. Rowling constructed an amazing fantasy world with memorable characters, moments, and details. This series has reeled many young readers into the world of literature — and the fantasy genre. I was skeptical throughout the opening chapters of Book 1 — Harry’s life on Privet Drive with his dull, grim aunt and uncle didn’t immediately grasp my imagination. But as the story unfolded about an average boy going to the wizarding school (which also happens to be a boarding school), I was pulled into the classroom alongside Harry during the school day and participated in his after-hours mischief at night. The authenticity of school life boosted by the fantastical element of magic classes makes the books relateable to young readers while also serving as a form of escape. It’s a rare balance.
- James and the Giant Peach: What I really wanted to list in this spot was Roald Dahl, but since he’s an author and not a book or series, I picked my favorite among his titles. Even so, I’m going to recommend all of them. Dahl brings magic into a world parallel to our own, but fantastic things can happen … such as a boy escaping his horrid caretakers by flying away in a giant peach accompanied by human-sized bugs. Or a gentle young schoolgirl who develops the power of telekinesis. Or a poor young boy who wins a golden ticket and gains entrance to a chocolate factory beyond imagination.
- The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles: You didn’t think I’d put together a list of my favorite fantasy books without including this one, did you? Like Harry Potter, “Whangdoodles” begins in our world. Three ordinary children meet an ordinary (ahem … well, actually, a rather eccentric) professor who helps open their minds and cross into Whangdoodleland. Once the story shifts into Whangdoodleland, there are plenty of fantastical elements and creatures — including sidewinders, Gazooks, tree squeaks, the Whiffle Bird (ah, good old Whiffle Bird), the Slippery Prock, the High-Behind Splinter Cat … This book eternally tops my list of favorite fantasies because it opens children’s minds to the magical worlds that can be found in their own backyard. (Oh, and a bonus? The professor is a firm believer in science and even performs a major DNA experiment in Whangdoodleland. It’s never going to a book added to the STEM curriculum, but it’s a nice addition.)