This week we asked our esteemed panel…
I was assigned a class – if I recall correctly, it was Grade Four, which would make the students about nine years old. I chose Neil Gaiman’s 2008 novel The Graveyard Book. Right up until the last moment, as the kids obligingly gathered around me, I was nervous. It seemed like everywhere I turned, someone had written a think piece about how kids – especially boys – just didn’t like books. I had visions of bored faces and spitballs. I could almost hear the snickers, and ruder noises.
Somehow, I managed to be nervous that the kids would be bored, while I was also nervous that the book would be too exciting for kids that age. After all, the opening line is “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
As the kids stared up at me, I read that line. Utter silence. I read a few more lines. Was it my imagination, or did the teacher cringe when I reached, “The knife had done almost everything it had come to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet”?
The kids, though, didn’t cringe. The kids were rapt. They listened until the end of the chapter and they groaned in disappointment when I told them I had to stop. As I left, I overheard a boy asking his teacher whether he could borrow that book from the school library.
That line about the wet knife is about as much violence as the reader “sees” in The Graveyard Book. It’s a book with plenty of scary things in it, but plenty of love and joy too. It’s a fantasy loosely inspired by Kipling’s The Jungle Book, following a living boy as he grows up among his adoptive family of ghosts.
Although the book turned out to be perfectly appropriate for a class of nine-year-olds, I enjoyed it immensely as an adult. The cast of ghosts and their histories are sophisticated and compelling enough to appeal to anyone in between; they are a little reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s work. The Graveyard Book won both the Newbery Medal and the Hugo Award, among other honours. It would be a great place for any reader to start with fantasy.
The books I’m recommending are all books that my children have loved and happily share with friends. I was told to think about a reader of about 12, but I’m going to start off younger than that. If you have an eager reader of 7 or 8 or a more reluctant reader of 9 or 10, check out Ursula Vernon’s work. Her Dragonbreath series (11 books) features Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon who is forever trying to learn to breathe fire reliably. He and his friends deal with underwater adventures, ninja frogs from mythical Japan, giant bats, faeries who kidnap his mom, jackalopes, knights, and more. Then there is her Hamster Princess series (book 2 comes out next week!), featuring Harriet Hamsterbone, a princess who was cursed to die when she turned 12 – and who figured out that this meant she was invulnerable until that happened. She goes off to joust and fight ogres, but she’s also very good at princessly things like fractions.
For a slightly older child, her Castle Hangnail is charming. It features Molly, a young Wicked Witch who moves in as the new mistress of the castle. However, she doesn’t have a lot of training, and she has to cope with Majordomo (who doesn’t have a lot of faith in her ability as a Wicked Witch), a castle (that needs some repair work), and family (who think she’s just off at summer camp).
A series I would love to recommend but cannot without warning about it being unfinished is Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians. It’s witty. Alcatraz is a liar. He breaks the fourth wall with great abandon. It’s a completely different kind of magic. It also has only four books, leaving off with Alcatraz vs. the Shattered Lens, with more clearly to come – more that has never been published. Don’t give this to a child unless you’re sure they’re okay with never having complete resolution to the series.
For any age from 9 up to 14, I heartily recommend Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, which bring Greek and Roman mythology into the modern world (or his Kane Chronicles, which deal with Egyptian mythology, or his more recent Magnus Chase books, which delve into Norse mythology). The characters and story are much richer and more nuanced than the movies might make you believe. Percy starts off as a kid who’s a bit of a goof in school, unfocused, a victim of his ADHD and misunderstanding. Over the series, he grows to become the leader of a group of demigods who fight against Kronos to save Olympus. Riordan’s blending of modern-day life with mythological figures, placing the gods and their spheres of influence in logical places, will intrigue readers (and maybe teach them a bit of geography, too).
Though my published stories are mostly written with an adult audience in mind, my heart is in the Young Adult part of the bookstore—whether because I’m a high school teacher or because I still feel very young-at-heart. (Not that these things are mutually exclusive!) When my kids were younger, I had a ready-made excuse to browse the Young Adult and Middle Grade sections of the bookstore without seeming like a weirdo, and try to get a feel for the state of the market.
It was on just such a trip that Janice Hardy’s The Shifter jumped out at me, with its beautiful cover that just promised a big, rich world inside. The book was in the kids’ section, not the teen’s section, and yet it had a more young-adult voice, and was longer than your typical MG title. It also had what I still think is one of the best openings I’ve ever encountered:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder that stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack, and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.
The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.
I loved the voice, loved the moral complexity suggested by the frank discussion of stealing, and I loved the magic system and Nya, the relatable young protagonist.
Nya is a young orphan caring for her sister. She and her sister both have the magical ability to remove pain from injured people. Nya, however, lacks the ability most healers have to push that pain into the enchanted metal commonly used to store it. Instead, she has the very illegal ability (only heard of in legends) to push it onto other people. (One complaint: Outside of the U.S., this book is called The Pain Merchants. Now isn’t that a much cooler title?)
I fell into this world as an adult, but I would certainly have eaten it up as a kid—this was exactly the kind of book that drew me into the genre as a young reader. One thing that stood out to me was how the tension on the protagonist literally never let up. And Nya also faced one moral dilemma followed by another about whom to help with her gift and whom to let suffer (or whom to make suffer).
I would give this book to any reader from middle-grade age on up. There isn’t a romantic subplot—though one is hinted at that becomes more prominent in the sequels—but the voice is sophisticated enough for older readers, and there are unexplicit suggestions that this is a real world in which bad things really happen. Nya seems to be around fifteen, but it’s suggested that she can pass for an adult.
I think what science fiction and fantasy always did for me as a kid was show me a bigger world where anything was possible and anybody could turn out to be important. If you’re looking to hook a young reader on speculative fiction, I think this book would make a fine gateway drug.
How Much for Just the Planet? gave me a not moment’s respite from mirth; I never laughed this much reading a book, before or since. Star Trek as musical comedy! Golf to the Death! Spot-on Tuckerizations of people I actually knew! Actual compelling plot lines bejeweled with throwaway gags! Nods to Hitchcock! Nods to Mel Brooks! Computer incapable of lying, lying!
There are funny bits in The Final Reflection, but they are ironic-funny. The book itself combines clarity and nuance in ways I envy and admire in roughly equal parts. “Oh would some power giftie gie us/to see ourselves as others see us –” John M. Ford is that power, Klingons are those others, and The Final Reflection is that giftie. And it’s very much a YA novel whose protagonist is a “chosen” orphan — but he is a “chosen” Everyman, sorry, EveryKlingon, whose skills are borne of hard knocks and not of superpowers.
This is a book I reread every few years since it came out in mid-’80s. I keep discovering new depths in it. Yes, I can’t believe I am saying this about a Star Trek novel, either. Or a novel I am recommending for the younger reader.
In other news, as a data point, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was the first non-illustrated book my son read for fun. To the best of my recollection, either Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World may have been that for me. All highly recommended. And of Heinlein’s oeuvre, Double Star shines in the zenith, while Samuel R. Delany’s Empire Star sheds its brilliant light as his most accessible masterpiece. And for that kid who can’t stay still, or loves history, or both, you cannot go wrong with Melissa Scott’s A Choice of Destinies and Judith Tarr’s Lord of Two Lands, both about that poster boy for ADHD, Alexander the Great.
The first fantasy trilogy I ever read, and the one that sent me down the dark and deadly path of the geek, was the Dark Elf trilogy by R. A. Salvatore, especially the first two novels – Homeland and Exile. I’ve read hundreds of fantasy novels since, many of them more nuanced and sophisticated, but I still think these two are the perfect gateway novels into the world of speculative fiction.
The prose is simple enough to be accessible to children, but not so simplified as to feel condescending. Same goes for the plot; it touches upon many mature, even dark themes, but never in a heavy-handed or callous manner. The hero, Drizzt, is a dark elf boy who grows up feeling different and alienated in a magical city of wonder and horror. Unlike many similarly unlucky heroes of fiction, he doesn’t have to endure just one nasty family. It’s his entire race that’s evil and dishonest. Slowly, while having very exciting and evocative adventures, he learns the truth about the world and sets on an adventure where he overcomes great loss but also makes brave friendships. All this takes place in a very alien, very imaginative underground setting whose dark and unexplored corners leave plenty of space for a fertile imagination to fill up with new ideas. It’s a trilogy that doesn’t just make you want to read more, it makes you want to create more.
And why shouldn’t it? The Dark Elf trilogy has an amazing diversity of fantastic encounters and curious creatures, a dark plot that opens the mind and tantalizes the imagination, magical items and magical pets, and mysterious locations that offer many surprises. Even more importantly, it makes the reader feel mature, but not too mature, a very important criteria for capturing young hearts and minds.
In short, if you want to get a kid hooked on fantasy, send them to the sunless world of the dark elves. They are sure to come back wanting more.
I’ve been an unabashed fan of Philip Reeve’s work, since I read his lush space-opera Larklight, which is peppered with space galleons and ancient aliens. Since then I finished that trilogy and read the Mortal Engine series (including prequels), which is a brilliant take on centuries after a sort of apocalypse and how society might rebuild themselves. His science fiction always feels fresh and unusual and his latest offering, Railhead, is no exception. Though he writes for young readers he doesn’t talk down to them and offers sophisticated characters and intricate worlds that are brimming with adventure. They’re also so much fun because, if anything, Philip Reeve is a master of adventure.
A snippet from Railhead’s dust jacket says this: The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, hive Monks and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.
That’s right, sentient trains. What’s not to love?
I loved this book so much from the interesting, downtrodden thief, Zen, who can’t seem to catch a break, to the Motorik he has to work with and the enigmatic and mysteriously notorious outlaw who forcibly enlists his help. Though Zen starts out being pulled along an unexpected adventure he soon has to make some choices that will decide whether he is just a thief or actually a hero. The stakes are high and Zen’s way of thinking about the world will be severely challenged.
This book is brimming with a sense of wonder and mystery. It’s full of big ideas and startling, impossible technologies. It also has a cast that is as diverse as the many colonised worlds in this far-flung future, varying in colour, gender, class, and orientation.
In his usual style, Reeve manages to throw some social commentary into the mix through observations of the ‘old world’ way of doing things. Reeve has a delicious, subtle sense of humour that threads its way through the book, despite its general serious adventure trajectory.
The book reads much like the Interstellar Express hurtling through the K-gate – it’s fast-paced, exhilarating and brilliant. I highly recommend it for budding sci-fi enthusiasts.
This is a tricky one for me because I grew up reading the scary stuff rather than science fiction or fantasy. I couldn’t get enough of Bunnicula, Christopher Pike, R. L. Stine, and those Scary Story collections from Alvin Schwartz. To get young ones interested in fantasy and/or science fiction I would take it way back and do the collections of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies they do specifically for kids. I don’t think there is any better introduction to the world of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, or horror) than the mythology from around the world. Build a love for the foundation of storytelling and grow out from there.
After mythology I think I would go with the Shel Silverstein collections. I haven’t read them in ages, something I need to rectify, but the memory I have of them is one of whimsy and my imagination soaring. Developing a love and respect for poetry at an early age will help any young reader as they grow into their own. The Silverstein collections help bring humor into the fantastical poems and artwork and we could all do with a bit more humor in our lives, no matter what age.
Now, if you have a young reader that wants to dig into something with a bit more meat I’d recommend titles such as Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise, Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, or Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives. Each of these books offer a completely different tale, but one thing they all have in common at their core is the jaw-dropping, heart-pounding story and characters. If you want children to get hooked on reading, put some of these books in their hands and watch them enjoy the ride. You can borrow the books when they’re done.