[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week’s Mind Meld topic was suggested by Mark Nuhfe. Thanks Mark!
I have two boys in that age group–a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. The younger one went through a Harry Potter binge at 9, where he read the whole series…then started right back on book 1 and read them again. During the second read-through, I decided it might be wise to find him some fantasy read-alikes I dug through my older daughter’s library (which is where he got the HP books) and pulled out the Artemis Fowl books, which did the trick. Then he read the Percy Jackson series from his brother’s shelves. After that, I went to bookstores to see what was new and recommended in fantasy middle-grade. His favorite two series from those picks were The Ranger’s Apprentice and The Last Apprentice. So, my recommendations then, would be:
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, starting with Artemis Fowl
- Percy Jackson & the Olympians by Rick Riordan, starting with The Lightning Thief
- The Last Apprentice by John Delaney, starting with The Spook’s Apprentice
- The Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan, starting with The Ruins of Gorlan
The trouble with recommending books for 9 year olds is that their reading abilities and attention spans vary so much. Some will already be reading Harry Potter or His Dark Materials to themselves, others will still be reluctant to read anything at all. My own love of fantasy was sparked off by The Lord of the Rings, but I had it read to me the first time round; I was seven or eight at the time and might not have struggled all the way through it on my own. I still remember the thrill of entering that world, which was not quite like anything I’d encountered before. That’s not really going to be the case for modern children, because fantasy is so much more part of the mainstream; I think the danger for them is that by the time they’re old enough to appreciate Tolkien they may already be bored with dragons and orcs and magic forests…
However, I think children appreciate humour in a book, so I’d recommend Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon and its sequels (the movie was good, but the books are better). Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s The Edge Chronicles are hugely popular, and full of the most beautiful illustrations; Chris Riddell also illustrated Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a darker sort of fantasy which I would have found too scary as a child, but which less sensitive souls than me will doubtless love. Also, from my own childhood, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain are built from much the same components as LOTR but are shorter, pacier and funnier. And do Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix books count as fantasy? They have magic potion in them, so I think I’d include them.
It’s harder to think of good science fiction suited to this age group. There has been some marvelous stuff in the YA category lately, but much of it may be too dark and/or complex for most 9 year olds. I’d be tempted to give them something from the ’50s or ’60s; maybe one of Robert Heinlein’s ‘juvenile’ novels like Have Spacesuit Will Travel, or an anthology of classic short stories (those were what first got me reading SF). Ray Bradbury is someone I don’t hear mentioned much these days, but his short fiction effortlessly encompasses Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror and combines good storytelling with a real love of language.
You want a few books for a nine-year-old? Oh, my, have you come to the right place! I pretty much am a nine year old!
Ignore the gray hairs. You can barely see them between the curls anyway.
Inside, where it counts, in my brain and my heart, I am still nine. I still gawk at the full moon. I still squee over kittens. I still hope that I’ll find a stray friendly telepathic dragon in my backyard.
But most importantly, I still love the same books. And I still read for the same reasons: to find magic and wonder in the world, to escape into an adventure, and to feed my always-hungry imagination.
So here are some books that I (and my nine-year-old self) love:
Anything by Tamora Pierce — Medieval fantasy series about kick-butt girls. Very empowering. Start with Alanna if you want knights or Wild Magic if you want lots of talking animals. (And if you want a fabulous audio book, I recommend Sandry’s Book from Full Cast Audio.)
The Young Wizard series by Diane Duane — Urban fantasy before it was called urban fantasy. Girl and boy find magic books that teach them to become wizards. My personal favorite is Deep Wizardry (I dare you not to cry!), but start with So You Want To Be A Wizard.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones — If you want to elicit that awesome shivery feeling, go with The Homeward Bounders (lots of parallel universes, very haunting). If you want more of a “hee-hee-squee!”, then I’d recommend Howl’s Moving Castle (clever magic with a great protagonist).
Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan — Greek myths in modern day. If you were one of those kids (like me) who treasured D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, then this series is required reading. Start with The Lightning Thief and don’t forget to read the chapter titles.
Beauty by Robin McKinley and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine — If you love fairy tales, these two retellings are beautiful and clever.
Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George and Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede — Fabulous girl-with-dragons stories. Very different from each other but both awesome.
The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett — Start with The Wee Free Men and be prepared to laugh a lot and break out in a brogue at random moments.
The Girl With The Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts — Girl with ESP. This one feels nicely realistic so it’s a good one to hand to that reader who claims to only like contemporary fiction.
Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy — This series has a detective who is a skeleton and a kick-butt girl protagonist who is his sidekick. Lots of action. Lots of violence (and I mean that as a compliment — sometimes you want a book with lots of butt-kicking). The audio book for this is also great.
Where The Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin — Absolutely lovely book with a fairy-tale feel. Sweet and gentle. Zero skeleton detectives.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle — Classic. If you haven’t read this, then you should not be reading this post. You should be off reading this book instead.
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers — Egyptology, mystery, and magic. If you’re like me and the first place you go in the MET is the Temple of Dendur, then you’ll love this series.
The Unicorn Chronicles by Bruce Coville — The quintessential unicorn books. If you’ve ever stuck a unicorn sticker on a notebook, this series will remind you of that part of your soul. Start with Into the Land of the Unicorns. For those who prefer aliens to unicorns, I recommend Bruce Coville’s Rod Albright Alien Adventures, starting with Aliens Ate My Homework.
Happy reading to your nine-year-old and your nine-year-old self!
I started to write a very serious response to this because my book Jumper caused quite a kerfuffle when the Starscape YA edition was put out with an “Ages 9-14” label on it. Hijinks (and assorted screams of outrage and supermarket chain bannings) ensued. However, forget the issues inherent in a nine-year-old reading Ender’s Game. We all know it would depend on the nine-year-old.
For the actual answer to this Mind Meld, I went to my daughters. The about-to-leave-for-college daughter recommends the fiction of David Lubar, particularly the series starting with Hidden Talents. The sophomore-in-high-school daughter suggests the Guardians of Ga’hoole series by Kathyrn Lasky. Both of them and me, strongly recommend anything by Tamora Pierce, but especially the quartet, Protector of the Small.
You push the age we’re talking about up a couple of years and I’m sure we’d have different answers.
I’m going to limit my suggestions to science fiction rather than fantasy, since there’s an enormous amount of good fantasy for young readers out there, and it’s not at all hard to find. Good science fiction for young readers is more rare.
There are of course many different nine-year-old readers. There’s your starting out nine-year-old reader and your advanced and ambitious nine-year-old reader, and there are readers of all different levels in between. (There are also readers whose taste doesn’t match mine at all.) I’ll put my recommendations in order from starting out to ambitious.
Probably the first science fiction book I read as a child was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron. I read it again recently–battered copies of it are still in libraries, though it was published in 1954. It holds up fairly well as a story. The science in it is more like fantasy, but it does have a rocket ship, a non-Earth planet, and aliens.
For a beginner, it might be a fun start. On the easy (and silly) side is also Bruce Coville–look for anything with “alien” in the title. A good taking-off point might be Bruce Coville’s Book of Aliens, which is a collection of stories by different authors.
More sophisticated, but still easily accessible, is The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh. It’s a short, beautifully written story of a family leaving a no longer livable Earth to settle on another planet, where they encounter difficulties that the children play an important role in sorting out. This is one to be read not for adventurous action but for the intense feeling of what it’s like to leave your home behind and try to survive in a place full of unknown dangers.
Next I will immodestly recommend The Books of Ember, by me. There are four of them: The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold. Most of their readers are between 9 and 12, though I get mail from teenagers and adults as well. The first book is about a city where there is no natural light–no sun, no stars or moon. It’s completely dark unless the electricity is on, and the electricity is failing. Books 1, 2, and 4 take place in a post-disaster future, and Book 3 in a future closer to our own time. Kids who say they’d never liked science fiction, and some who say they’d never liked reading of any kind, write to me and say they liked these.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time has to be on any list of children’s science fiction, though the SF is mixed with fantasy. I read it as an adult, so it doesn’t have that childhood magic for me, but I know it’s been an intro to science fiction/fantasy for many thousands of readers.
The nine-year-old (probably a boy) who’s into video games and quirky humor will go for Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett, which features a game that turns alarmingly real, with aliens in blown-up ships really dying, while the human war on tv, the first Gulf War, looks like a video game.
I liked the first book of the Fire-Us Trilogy, The Kindling, by Jennifer Armstrong and Nancy Butcher, in which only kids survive a plague and make their strange new life in abandoned places. And I liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, in which four kids go up against a villain bent on mind-control of the planet’s population. It’s written with a sprightly wit and gives its likable characters clever logic puzzles to solve, though it could have been a lot shorter than 485 pages.
For the advanced nine-year-old, the good reader, the one who’s poised to leap into the world of science fiction, two suggestions. First, When the Tripods Came, by John Christopher. This is a prequel to the Tripods Trilogy. It’s a short book, not hard to read, not meant as a children’s book but with all the elements that would make it compelling to kids–most of all, a story that starts out with a punch and keeps going relentlessly. The situation–aliens taking over the minds of the human race–provides plenty to think about, and the image of those giant three-legged creatures striding across the landscape sticks in the mind.
And finally, there’s Ray Bradbury, whose stories captured me completely when I was about twelve. Could I have read and loved them at nine? I think so. Nine-year-olds could try out The Martian Chronicles and get a taste of Bradbury’s voice without having to understand every nuance. They can always come back for more later.