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There’s something special about young adult fantasy. Perhaps the limits YA authors set on themselves—no cursing, no graphic sex, not too much gory violence—actually make the stories more clever and more human, than some of their more adult-oriented counterparts.
Or maybe it’s just that I look back on so many of these books with such fondness and nostalgia. In many ways, these are the stories that shaped me as a young human being. I’ve long maintained that reading is one of the best ways to help young people become more empathetic, and there’s something about YA fantasy that really taps into our moral compass and our ability to stand up to the forces of evil—whether those forces are dark lords or hallway bullies.
The following list includes ten of the best YA fantasy novels that readers of any age should pick up. These are ten of the very best I’ve ever had the good fortune of reading, and I hope you and your kid(s) will give them a go.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
With excellent prose and relatable characters, A Wrinkle In Time is one of those books that every pre-teen or teenager should read. The story of Meg Murry, the lovable Charles Wallace and their missing father, it’s the first book in an excellent series of fantasy novels that continue to deepen the world and its mysteries.
Meg and Charles’s dad is a scientist who has gone missing while working for the government on something called a tesseract—or a “wrinkle in time.” They have to find him, but they find much more than they bargained for in the process. At times hilarious, at times chilling, A Wrinkle In Time is profound throughout.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
No YA Fantasy list would be complete without Harry Potter included, and while The Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the best of the Harry Potter books, it is where the magic of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy began. It’s the book you or your child should start with if you haven’t already.
As wonderful as the film adaptations were, the novels are better—loads better, actually. Rowling’s trick is that she actually writes very good mystery stories, then dresses them in all the trappings of fantasy, with Dark Lords and Chosen Ones. But it’s the mysteries that will keep you turning the page, reading long into the night and losing sleep just to see what happens. Between such good mysteries and such marvelous characters, it’s no wonder these are such huge hits and modern classics.
The Book Of Three by Lloyd Alexander
No other YA fantasy holds a dearer place in my heart than Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. The epic fantasy, about an assistant pig-keeper named Taran and the band of adventurers he befriends, is five novels long (plus a prequel). The final book in the series, The High King, won the Newberry Medal, and though each of these novels is a wonderful read, you’ll want to start with The Book Of Three.
I’ve read the series many times, including once to my children, and I will read it many more times I hope. Drawn from Welsh mythology, there is certainly an echo of Tolkien here, but it’s nevertheless a very different story with such delightful characters and a great deal more humor than Lord of the Rings. I do not doubt for a second that my life has been richer thanks to these books.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien started something very special when he wrote the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his adventures with Gandalf and the dwarves. It was intended to be a children’s book, but it led to Tolkien’s much more epic (and adult) fantasy, The Lord Of The Rings. Shorter and smaller in scope, The Hobbit is a wonderful read for all ages. Tolkien’s prose can be a bit stiff at times, but he paints an engaging world with such compelling characters that it’s hard not to become completely lost in the page. From the dark canopies of Mirkwood to the treasure-filled caverns of the Lonely Mountain, Tolkien’s Middle-earth was born in The Hobbit, and it’s a must-read for any lover of fantasy.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
On the cover of the latest edition of The Last Unicorn, fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss is quoted as saying “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read.”
He has a point.
There are very few novels so beautifully written as The Last Unicorn. While I absolutely loved the film adaptation, the book is something so special, so perfect in every way, that to not read it would be to do yourself a grave injustice. Sometimes I just open it up and read the first page, just to relish Beagle’s gorgeous prose.
The story of the last of the unicorns and her quest to find what happened to the rest of her kind is one that explores the meaning of magic, of friendship and of self. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve ever read, fantasy or no.
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
When I started to read The Dark Is Rising, it frightened me. I was unsettled and afraid. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading.
I’m glad I did. This is the first book in a larger sequence, and it introduces us to a world where not everything is as it seems. Powerful forces work behind the scenes, and time itself is far more malleable than we thought.
Will Stanton is just a normal boy, suddenly thrust into an epic battle between good and evil playing out all around him, invisible to most people. He must go on a quest to find six magical Signs to help aid the Old Ones in their fight against the Dark. Danger, terror and the forces of darkness will line up to stop him.
Taking place in the winter, it’s a great holiday gift, and for lovers of Arthurian fiction—with a twist—this is a must-read for fantasy fanatics.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Technically, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s groundbreaking Chronicles of Narnia series, but it’s the one you should read first nonetheless. (The Magician’s Nephew takes place earlier chronologically, but serves as more of a prequel than a first installment.)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe introduces readers to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, four children who’ve gone to live with their uncle in the countryside during World War II. They step through a magical wardrobe into another world, and a great deal of fantasy adventure awaits. Yes, there is plenty religious allegory at play here, but readers of all faiths (or lack thereof) can find enjoyment and wisdom in Lewis’ work.
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
Even though in many respects they are the polar opposites of one another, Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia received acclaim and controversy in equal measure; for Pullman, thanks to his deeply critical stance on organized religion—especially Catholicism.
But that’s the thing about reading, and about fantasy in particular. We should never be afraid to open our minds to different perspectives, different world views, even when they make us uncomfortable. Especially when they make us uncomfortable.
Besides, The Golden Compass and the rest of the His Dark Materials trilogy is mind blowing. The world-building is superb. There are armored polar bears, mysteriously vanished children, a nefariously powerful Magesterium and so much more. Lyra and the rest of the characters are all terrific and well-drawn, and you won’t want to stop reading right up to the bitter end.
Redwall by Brian Jacques
The first in a long-running fantasy series of the same name, Redwall focuses on mice and weasel and hedgehog characters, telling terrific stories of very small heroes, very dastardly villains, and their epic adventures and battles. Redwall itself is an Abbey, where peaceful critters assemble over exquisitely detailed feasts—if Jacques hadn’t struck gold with Redwall, I could see him doing quite well as a food critic. But these animals are often prey for more nefarious beasts, and so the story unfolds.
You might also want to start with Mossflower, which is something of a prequel to Redwall, but you could go either way. I haven’t read all of the many books in this series, but I loved the first few and I wish this had a movie or TV adaptation. It was also the inspiration for my first-ever tabletop RPG, before I had even played D&D, when I made up primitive rules about how to play as badgers and hares and sword-wielding mice. Good for the imagination, bad if you’re very hungry.
A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The first of the Earthsea novels, this tells the story of the young Ged—also called Sparrowhawk—and his misadventures on his path to becoming a true wizard. Set in a world of islands, there’s a bit of everything here: a wizarding school, a dark evil unleashed upon the world, and lots and lots of food for thought.
I’m a very big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work—especially the adult science fiction novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness, which is weird and compelling in all the right ways—though for younger readers, Earthsea is more appropriate fare.
Le Guin is simply terrific at getting you thinking about the world and society and all the big questions you should be asking when reading science fiction and fantasy.