MIND MELD: Science Fiction and Fantasy for Very Young Readers

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Many of us got hooked on science fiction and fantasy in our teen years or later. But why should the newest generation of readers have to wait that long? With that in mind, here’s what we asked our panelists:

Q: What science fiction or fantasy books would you recommend for children under the age of ten?

Ursula Vernon
Ursula Vernon is a Hugo-award winning author and illustrator. She writes and illustrates the Dragonbreath series of comics for kids and is the author of Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew.

There are so many awesome fantasy books for kids these days that it’s hard to narrow it down. I grew up on Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and can’t recommend them highly enough–and how many of us are still harboring a secret desire for a fire-lizard of our very own, after reading McCaffrey’s Dragonsong and sequels?

More recently, Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers books are just wonderful, and China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun has a place on my shelf in perpetuity. (If you took The Phantom Toll-Booth and gave it a truly terrifying special-effects budget, it might look a little like Un Lun Dun.)

I was a weird kid, though–weren’t we all?–and my favorite books were always ones with talking animals. I inhaled Narnia and wanted more like that. I was obsessed with Watership Down in fifth grade (and unlike so many of my peers, I loved the animated movie with the terrifying General Woundwort!) and wanted dozens more like that. So that’s the genre I’d like to talk about for a few paragraphs, if I may.

Young readers today are luckier than I was–they’ve got a whole range of talking animal books, from the Warriors series to Guardians of Ga’Hoole. (My guess is that kids like me grew up and decided that they had to write those books!)

I love the fact that kids get so many options in my favorite subgenre today. There was a tendency for awhile to make talking animal books very dark. (I read them anyway, of course–my mother assumed that “talking animals” mean “kid-friendly.” She meant well.) So you won’t find my personal favorite, Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams, shelved in the kid’s section, and I have no idea where they’re shelving the beautiful and sad Book of the Dun Cow. I love those books passionately as a child, despite their dark bits. (Mind you, I grew up during the Old Yeller era, so perhaps my trauma threshold was skewed by today’s standards. Also, I have an irrational terror of rabies.)

Let’s not even talk about what happened when I said “Bambi had talking deer! I’ll go read the book!” Wow. Just…wow. Bambi’s mom was only the tip of a very grim iceberg. I was so thrilled to discover Bunnicula because it was fun and charming and none of the main characters are killed off in order to grab your heartstrings and beat them against a wall.

Well, I wandered off topic there a bit. I blame rabies. These days, kids have so many more options for really cool fantasy books featuring talking animals! The entire Redwall series is a delight, full of swashbuckling hares and fierce warrior mice, there’s The Tale of Desperaux, the aforementioned Bunnicula, Pratchett’s utterly wonderful The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the Silverwing series…the list goes on and on.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. In addition to Shattered Shields, he edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013) and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @BryanThomasS.

First, The Chronicles Of Narnia are great books and C.S. Lewis intended them for children. I read them all when I was around ten, and I think even seven and eight year olds, depending on reading level, could do very well with them. The place to start is probably The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, of course, because it’s the best entry to the world, in my opinion, but after that, any of the others would be just as much fun.

I’d also recommend A.J. Hartley’s Darwin Arkwright series, which are delightful middle grade novels in the vein of Harry Potter. He has three out so far and they star a cross cultural group of kids, adults, and monsters, also centered around a school, with a lot of fun adventures, but very family friendly feel.

Now, I can’t forget Harry Potter, the obvious one, which is beloved by kids and adults. J.K. Rowling’s series have rightfully become classics and center around young wizards at a school and the evil Lord who would destroy them and conquer the world. And I also think for experienced readers, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is a great place to start. Parents could even read these books to or with their kids.

There are lots of great chapter book series as well. Such as The Zack Files by Dan Greenburg, which focuses on two boys going back to the dinosaur age and interacting with dinosaurs, learning science and history and more. Along the same lines, I really enjoy Kate McMullan’s Dragon Slayers’ Academy series, which have a fun cast of kids, adults, and dragons. Both of these are great for younger readers who aren’t quite ready for novels. I also have written the Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter series which is for the same age group and has 10 year old Abe stuck back in time with his idol, Davy Crockett, and two friends, as they learn to survive the dinosaur age and try and repair their time machine to get home.

I know Neil Gaiman has several children’s books out, including Coraline, which are probably also great, but since I haven’t read them yet myself, I can’t speak to the age appropriateness. But I have heard raves from lots of other people.

Greg Van Eekhout’s The Boy At The End Of The World is a delightful post-apocalyptic tale about a boy who survives an apocalypse. As he searches for other survivors, he befriends a robot and has a fun adventure. This one was on award nomination lists and got some year’s best recommendations that were well deserved. I keep hoping Van Eekhout will do a sequel.

These are the books I’d start with because I’ve really enjoyed them, even as an adult, and I also read many of them in childhood as well. But I’m sure there are dozens of others which others can and will recommend along the same lines. The good news is, children’s books are more popular than ever and new titles arrive all the time, so I know that people’s biggest challenge will be to choose something, not finding choices to choose from.

Alethea Kontis
New York Times bestselling author princess Alethea Kontis is known for screwing up the alphabet, scolding vampire hunters, turning garden gnomes into mad scientists, and making sense out of fairy tales. Her YA fairy tale novel, Enchanted, won the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award in 2012, was nominated for the Audie Award in 2013, and was selected for World Book Night in 2014. Both Enchanted and its sequel, Hero, were nominated for the Andre Norton Award. Find out more about Princess Alethea at: http://www.aletheakontis.com

I love this question. I’m often accused of my literary taste skewing young, AND THESE BOOKS ARE WHY. I try to review all the SF&F books I would recommend for young people on my Goodreads profile (be sure to check it out!). This list includes:

  • This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger
  • The Haunting of Cassie Palmer by Vivian Alcock
  • Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
  • Half Magic by Edward Eager
  • No Flying in the House by Betty Brock
  • The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Gertie’s Green Thumb by Catherine Dexter
  • The Man Who Took the Indoors Out by Arnold Lobel
  • The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop
  • …and Gelett Burgess’s Goop Tales of course

…gah! I have to stop now before I go on forever!

Arthur Slade
Arthur Slade was raised in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan and began writing at an early age. He received an English Honours degree from the University of Saskatchewan, spent several years writing advertising and has been writing fiction full time for fifteen years. He is the author of fifteen books, including Dust (which won the Governor General’s award), Tribes, and The Hunchback Assignments. He currently lives in Saskatoon, Canada.

Ah, that glorious moment when you can read on your own. When those worlds (and words) that were under the control of grown ups become yours to have and to hold and to dive into. My own personal experience is that at age nine I picked up a copy of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three in my school’s library and I have never turned my back on fantasy since (nor science fiction either, of course). The book was the first in a series and my first introduction to pure fantasy. There is Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper who becomes a hero and taught me that anyone could become a hero. Perhaps more importantly there was Princess Eilonwy, a feisty princess who appeared in my head long before Prince Leia began shooting down storm troopers on the screen. Years later, these books still stand up.

A more recent series is M. T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales, the first being Whales on Stilts. Just picture that: whales on stilts invading the world with their laser beam eyes, all under the control of a mad scientist. This book demands to be read. It references B movies, HG Wells, and a truckload of other SF concepts and is funny, dramatic and madly entertaining. And that’s me as an adult talking. I wish I could have read these at age nine. I would have gone bonkers for them.

My third selection is Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel. This book (and series), about a bat named Shade, the runt of his colony, gladly made me forget my overpowering prejudice against talking animals. The world building around the various cultures of the bats, about their own beliefs and rules feels completely plausible. And there’s nothing like seeing a plucky, runt of a hero succeed.

Actually, there’s nothing like being taken to another world. Which is exactly the point of this book and the others I’ve mentioned.

Kristen Harvey
Kristen Harvey is a Library Media Specialist in an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago. She is the coblogger of The Book Monsters, a review blog for children, middle grade, and young adult readers. Kristen is a lover of all things books, but especially loves graphic novels, as well as fantasy and science fiction novels.

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke.

The first book that popped into my head is a graphic novel series, the first of which is called Zita the Spacegirl. Zita is a young girl whose best friend is sucked into a portal to another world after pushing the button of a device they found in a crater. When she enters the world herself, she finds that her friend has been abducted by alien creatures and she must rescue him, if only she can figure out this new world herself. Encountering robots, spaceships and all sorts of aliens, Zita must embark on an adventure to find her friend and also her way home.

I love Zita and pass these books on to any of my students that love graphic novels. Zita is a great heroine and the graphics are top notch. I’m excited for the third Zita book to come out this year so I can see where her next adventure will take her.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is one of my favorite fantasy series for young readers. The length and amazing illustrations engage young reader to know the world of Spiderwick, a place where you can see faeries and other fantasy creatures. The books follow the Grace children as they discover an old journal in their creepy new house, which chronicles the different creatures that live nearby. They find ways to see this creatures and end up in their own adventure with trolls, elves, goblins and many others.

If you cannot get enough of the Spiderwick world, this pair of writers also wrote a follow up series called Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles.

Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton.

Jane and the Dragon is one of my favorite fantasy picture books, featuring a girl who just wants to be a knight, a nontraditional role for girls. When a dragon captures the prince, Jane has her chance to prove she has what it takes to be a knight. It’s nice to see a reverse role in this picture book, where it’s the prince being the one that needs to be rescued.

My Teacher is An Alien by Bruce Coville.

I was ecstatic when I saw they were remaking the covers of these books as they have now been a big hit with my 4th and 5th grade students. This is the first in Coville’s alien series about a sixth grade class that has a very strange substitute teacher. Not only is Mr. Smith an alien, but he has evil plans for their class. Together, Susan and Peter must find a way to save their class and reveal Mr. Smith’s alien nature. These books are also short enough to read with even younger students out loud to introduce them to science fiction.

Mieneke van der Salm
Mieneke van der Salm works as an information specialist at a university library. In her free time she aims to create her own library at home and, together with her husband, raise two little geek girls. She blogs about her reading adventures at A Fantastical Librarian. You can find her on Twitter at @Pallekenl.

This question turned out to be harder to answer than I thought! Partly that’s because my girls are so young that they read mostly picture books, which are hard to easily divide into genres, and most of them are by Dutch writers and haven’t been translated. And partly, it’s because the books I remember from my own youth or a bit more recently are either pretty obvious – hello Narnia and early Harry Potter – or Dutch. Still, I had a good gander through the kids’ bookcase and trawled my memory and I came up with a list.

Let’s start off with some absolute classics. Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story is one of my favourite books from childhood. I’ve only read the Dutch translation – it was originally written in German – and of course I’ve seen the films, but Bastian, Atreyu, and Falkor are so memorable and I really identified with the bullied Sebastian and wished I could escape to a fantasy land in the same way he did. Another older book is Anthony Horowitz’s Myths and Legends. It’s a book filled with retellings of classic myths and isn’t that where fantasy starts, with myths and fairy-tales? So while I’m pointing out Horowitz’s wonderful collection, I’d actually recommend all the classic fairy-tales and mythology.

One series that blew me away when I was just a wee thing was Thea Beckman’s Toekomsttrilogie (Future Trilogy) which was made up by Kinderen van Moeder Aarde, Het Helse Paradijs, and Het Gulden Vlies van Thule (Children of Mother Earth, The Hellish Paradise, and The Golden Fleece of Thule). It’s set in the future, six centuries after the Third World War, when the Earth has shifted and civilization was remade. In the land formerly known as Greenland, where the ice and snow has melted away, there is now a country, Thule, governed by women, a peaceful utopia that gets cruelly disturbed when the war-like Badeners come to invade. I devoured this series by one of the late Grand-dames of Dutch children’s literature when I first read it and it remained one of my favourites through the years. Sadly the series has never been translated to English, but for those of you who read Dutch, this one is a classic.

Another childhood favourite was Monica Furlong’s Doran series (Wise Child, Juniper, and Colman). Telling the story of Wise Child who is apprenticed to the village healer/wise woman who is rumoured to be a witch was fascinating to eighth-year-old me. However, honesty bids me say that I haven’t read these in twenty years and I didn’t even know there was a third book, so I don’t know how well they hold up.

The following are some of the books I’ve read more recently, which I think are wonderful for younger readers to read on their own or to read with them. The first is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which is a gorgeous and spooky little tale about an orphan who takes refuge in a graveyard when his parents are murdered and who is raised by the ghosts that inhabit the graveyard. Next is Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It’s a magical tale of a young girl who gets whisked away to Fairyland and has lots of adventures. It’s gorgeously written and filled with clever allusions that make it a fun read for adults as well. It’s the first book in a series of thus far three books, with two more on the way. And lastly, Hollow Earth is a time-travelling fantasy series with by John and Carole E. Barrowman (and yes that is that John Barrowman of Torchwood fame). I really liked the books so far – there are two out so far with a third later this year – with an interesting magic system and a strong brother-sister duo of protagonists.

Kathy F.
On a normal day, Kathy F. wrangles at least 3 kids under 10. Books cover most surfaces in her home and the library is a second home. Hobbies include creating craft fails and blowing up her friends to read lists. She’s had a few writing gigs over the years but is happiest sharing news of fantastic books, movies and more on Stellar FourKindle-aholic’s Book Pile, Twitter as @kindleaholic, and Pinterest.

“Best SFF books for the 10 and under crowd,” this is an excellent question and one that I’ve explored over the last couple of years as the kids have started reading on their own. For the upper end of the age group, kids fully reading chapter books and heading into middle school/young adult territory, one of my favorites is Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis. Magic, family drama, breaking Society’s rules, Kat is an excellent read. I’m also looking forward to Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library. Again, magic, getting literally pulled into books, this sounds like a winner.
When it comes to the younger kids, I have to break down the recommendations in this age group between books that I read to the kids and books that they read to themselves (and that I end up reading to them as well). Right now we are reading Kenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi, the story of a little rabbit who loves books and the dragon he befriends. We’ve read The Wizard of Oz a few times and have The Flight of the Phoenix by R. L. LaFevers on standby. I could list a ton of fantastic SFF chapter books and already have a substantial collection on the bookshelves at home.
The challenge for me was the early or transitional chapter books. Generally much shorter with more illustrations, it was a bit harder to find books that we all enjoyed.  At the bookstore, this category is dominated by the Magic Treehouse and Rainbow Fairies books. Both series left us underwhelmed. The Treehouse books showed promise, but, to quote my daughter “not a lot of exciting things happen.” This was largely the problem with the Fairies books as well. Then we found The Notebook of Doom by Troy Cummings. Part of Scholastics Branches line, the new kid in town and his friends battle monsters such as the Balloon Goons and Meat-Eating Vegetables. It had the right balance, not too nice, not too dark, and lots of fun. My eldest has struggled with independent reading and she latched onto this series. Her school uses the Accelerated Reader program and she was able to use these books in class.
Another series of note is Megan McDonald’s Stink Moody books. This is a spinoff from her Judy Moody series, and while technically it is not SFF, I include it because Stink and his friends, Webster and Sophie of the Elves, are fans. They love comics, superheroes, zombies and while their adventures happen in the real world, many times they pull from their love of the genre. Such as the time that Stink was licked by a mutant frog and thought he had super-frog powers (Stink and the Freaky Frog Freakout) or when he had a meltdown that Pluto was no longer classified as a planet (Stink: Solar System Superhero). Recently, the eldest started the Monstrous Maud series by A.B. Saddlewick, about a human girl sent to a school for monsters. So far it gets a thumbs up.
Kristin Centorcelli
Kristin is a mom of 3 whose superpower is useless movie trivia. The inmates run the asylum, but in moments of quiet, she reviews speculative fiction for her own review blog, My Bookish Ways, and contributes to a few other sites where she indulges her other love of crime fiction. She’s known for her massive library which has already taken over the house, and threatens the entire block. Eventually she will finish her English degree and begin raking in the big bucks, but until then, reviewing books makes her deliriously happy, as does boxed wine, Supernatural, and traveling the world as a secret agent. One of those things isn’t true.

I’ve been reading for a long, long time, since the glory days of Sweet Valley High and EL Konigsberg, and it’s only recently that I’ve been really paying attention to books aimed at middle grade readers. This is because I actually have a middle-grader, and he’s just starting to get into reading, much to the muppet flail joy of his dad and I. So, I’ve got some suggestions from when I was a kid, but I’ve also got some newer recommendations that will hopefully send your middle grader on a monumental book binge. Here’s hopin’.

Probably my top choices from when I was are, in no particular order, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster , The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. In fact, I recently scrambled to find new (ish) copies of these to add to our library. If you’ve never read Bridge to Terabithia, I dare you to read it without tissues. I just dare you.

Oh, and I feel I’d be neglectful if I didn’t include Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt…sorry, I just took a trip down memory lane there for a minute, eyes glazed over, the works. These are magical titles all, and don’t let your kids tell you they’re “boring”. Read ‘em aloud. Do voices. You may be surprised.

Now, onto some newer fare. If you haven’t experience the joy of a Peter Abrahams book, you’re in for a treat. Now, he writes for adults too, but his Echo Falls Mystery series (Down the Rabbit Hole, etc) starring the indomitable Ingrid Levin-Hill is wonderful. Yes, these are mysteries, but since we’re on SF Signal, I feel I should stress that they are most definitely magical. If you’re looking for actual magic, you’ll want to check out Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood St., also by Abrahams. Robbie is a young heroine to root for. Chris Grabenstein ‘s fantastic Haunted Mystery series (The Crossroads, etc) about a boy who sees the dead, is great for young readers who love ghost stories. Also of note is the brand new A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd featuring 12 year old Felicity Pickle and a town called Midnight Gulch that’s missing its magic. It’s Felicity’s journey to bring that magic back that will captivate you, ahem, your kiddo. Another wonderful title for young’uns is the deliriously stunning Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, which is inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” In addition, you can’t go wrong with The Real Boy, also by Ursu. Speaking of “The Snow Queen”, another relatively recent release is Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, which is a retelling of “The Snow Queen”, and a lovely story about bravery and friendship.

Another lovely set of books is the Riley Bloom series by Alyson Noel, about a young girl who has crossed over into the afterlife and becomes a Soul Catcher. It’s a decidedly non-dark, luminous, and very sweet series. And, last but certainly not least, Boys of Blur by ND Wilson is coming up in April and you’ll want to put it on your list for your reluctant boy reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think girls would love it too, but it definitely holds special appeal for boys with adventurous hearts that love to roam. Trust me.

6 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Science Fiction and Fantasy for Very Young Readers”

  1. What an amazing collection of books. Thank you to the great mind that thought of this subject, and to all the contributors!

  2. Great recommendations– I have already added one to my “call the bookstore and order” list!

    I just have to add: Jane Yolen has a multitude of books, and some of those smaller ones for kids just starting to read chapter books independently are my favorites: Wizard’s Hall is a family favorite.

    I also heartily recommend Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton place series. Fast-paced, full of interesting situations, children who might just be werewolves, a fantastic young protagonist with a mysterious past, and terrific for the younger set as well as the preteeens.

    There are also some terrific picture books: Emma Bull is famous for her ground-breaking novels, but she also wrote a fantastic story about a Princess who outsmarts a curse, The Princess and The Lord of Night. Margaret Mahy was known for her YA fantasies, but she wrote many books for younger readers. I love her picture book, Leaf Magic. Also look for Miyoko Matsutani’s retellings of Japanese folk tales– there are several, all with beautiful artwork, too.

    Happy reading, kids!

  3. Everyone should absolutely read _The True Meaning of Smekday_ by Adam Rex. It’s a great story with alien culture clashes and endearing hilarity. Imagine the stylistic qualities of _Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_ in a kid’s book about alien invasion.

  4. The very first book I remember reading, at age 6, was SPACE CAT by Ruthven Todd. Originally published in, IIRC, 1952, the “science” was pretty implausible even back then, but if you can put that aside the book is enjoyable even today. Love the cover illustration (by Paul Galdone) of Flyball in his spacesuit.

    This was the book that established my lifelong love for both science fiction and cats.

  5. My preschooler loves ZITA and JANE AND THE DRAGON. We’ve also been getting into the AMULET graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi. Robert Munsch’s PAPER BAG PRINCESS gets a lot of reading in our house, as do many of his other books. There are also a lot of pre- and first level readers with SFnal/Fantasy themes. My daughter demands frequent readings of Spider-Man’s origin and is starting to read along.

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