Earlier this year I decided to devote some time to reading a bit more fantasy, looking for gems to recommend. In January, I posted one batch of titles which you can find here.
Over the past months I’ve tackled quite a few titles and thought I’d dish up another helping of what rose to the top.
Today’s list is a mix of new and vintage selections.
I hope you find something new to you that you love!
The Moomins and the Great Flood, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson
originally published in Finland in 1945; current edition 2018 by Drawn and Quarterly
The Moomin books by Tove Jansson are some of the most beloved classic children’s stories, read the world over. We have thoroughly enjoyed reading them aloud over the years.
This much shorter story is actually the first one Jansson ever wrote about Moomintroll. It was an effort she began in 1939, then left unfinished until 1945. In the years that followed, she fleshed out Moominvalley more completely in the chapter books about these quirky, rather bohemian folk and the odd assortment of friends and strangers who come and go from their world.
It was fascinating for me to see in this kernel state some details that lasted throughout the stories. Moominmama’s handbag is here, and timid Sniff, and the weird, pale, Hattifatteners. Others who enter this story never appear in future installments — a flower lady called Tulippa, for example, and an apparently human boy. Aside from the general unconventional-ness of the tale, it differs considerably from the other stories.
For Moomin fans, this origin story is a certain treat, while for those of you who don’t know the Moomins whatsoever, it will read as quite a quirky fairytale. Ages 6 and up.
The Greatest Show Off Earth, written by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Wendy Smith
published in 1994 by Viking
Margaret Mahy was a superb New Zealand author who wrote many, many children’s books, mostly peppered with zany humor.
This is the story of Delphinium and her new pal Jason who live on the dreary Space Station Vulnik and who, on Delphinium’s 10th birthday — a day which certainly ought to be gloriously glorious — manage to launch themselves into hyperspace, tumble into the midst of a missing, traveling, space circus, and take down the sinister La Mollerina and a host of fun-sucking Acropola!! Ai yai yai!
My kids listened to this intergalactic craziness quite a number of times, they loved it so much. The version narrated by Richard Mitchley is superb! Ages 8 and up.
Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, written by Tania Del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle
published in 2015 by Quirk Books
This deliciously-illustrated and formatted book is a rare treat, a whizbanger of a story that was conceived by the illustrator, then brought to life in partnership with the author. It’s certainly one of the most stylish, inviting books you’ll find on the fantasy shelf, practically begging to be read the moment you lay eyes on it.
Warren the 13th is a young lad who’s currently acting as bellhop, valet, groundskeeper, errand boy, and in truth, lone sane figure, at the ancient, decrepit hotel which has been in his family for generations. He’s an uncommonly homely boy, but one full of courage, loyalty, and determination, all of which he will need in spades as he outmaneuvers a host of creepy creatures and his ghastly Aunt Annaconda — yup, her name is really Annaconda — in order to locate a magical treasure and save the hotel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this spiffy, inventive, heavily-illustrated, hair-raising story. There’s a sequel available as well. Recommended for ages 10 and up. Adults, you’ll enjoy this, too!
The Gammage Cup, written by Carol Kendall
published in 1959 by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
This 1960 Newbery Honor title was another one of my kids’ favorites.
The Minnipins are a small people who live in an isolated mountain valley to which they fled generations ago. They are a peaceable folk with firmly-established routines in their small thatched villages. Conformity to customs and submission to the ruling family, the Periods, are extremely high values. Only a small handful — Gummy, Curley Green, Walter the Earl, Mingy, and Muggles — flout the conventions, and when it comes time to compete for the Gammage Cup, their individuality becomes so unwelcome, they are banished from town.
Yet the exiles are in just the right place, a place pulsing with grave dangers unrecognized by their fellow villagers, to sound the alarm and lead a monumental battle against their ancient enemies, the Mushrooms. After a gentle opening, the story becomes highly suspenseful, with violence enough for a PG-13 rating. It’s well-crafted and certainly relevant to our current era when authoritarian governance is again at issue.
There are two other volumes of Minnipin tales, a sequel entitled The Whisper of Glocken, and a prequel entitled The Firelings. Ages 10 and up.
The Moorchild, written by Eloise McGraw
published in 1996, Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Here’s another Newberry Honor winner, from 1997 which I found a true joy to read.
The story centers around a young girl who is half-folk, half-human, fitting well in neither the human nor fairy-folk world. Because she could not achieve shape-shifting and instant disappearing — skills vital to the safety of the Folk — she is banished from their world, swapped with a human baby as a Changeling. Her oddness remains with her, though, and throughout her life in this small, insular village, she is taunted, feared, and rejected. As Saaski grows older, memories of her origins begin revealing themselves to her. She comes to understand the loss her human parents experienced when their own child was snatched by the Folk, and determines to right that wrong.
The story is saturated with the atmosphere of the Middle Ages in the British Isles, with fascinating details of setting. Rich characters, well-paced action, and themes of belonging, societal prejudice against outsiders, empathy and self-sacrificial love, all bring a poignant depth to the storytelling. The one piece which does not stand up well to time is the denigrating stereotype of gypsies. Fantastic read-aloud for ages 9 and up. Despite this particular cover image, it is not a “girly” book. Hand it equally to boys! A stout read due to use of dialect.
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, written and illustrated by Chris Riddell
published in 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Pick up a Chris Riddell project and you are always in for a sumptuous treat, packaged in the most enticing way for readers. The Goth Girl series is a prime example.
Open it up and the silver-embossed skullery on the end pages shimmers at you beguilingly. Flip through the book and feel yourself pulled in by the eccentric characters populating Riddell’s brilliant line drawings. Note the wicked metallic purple gleaming at you from the edges of the papers. And what’s this?! A tiny book slipped into a tiny pocket attached to the back cover! A wee, hidden addendum! I dare you to try to put this one back on the shelf at this point.
The story itself is wonderful, a punchy, Gothic spoof featuring copious, sly references to classic literature from Moby Dick to Peter Pan, Frankenstein to the Secret Garden, even a snitch of Beatrix Potter, along with further references to art, history, and mythology. There are far more allusions and puns than most young readers will catch, making it a blast for adult readers as well.
The heroine, one Ada Goth, a clear Ada Byron Lovelace doppleganger, is an intrepid and unfailingly polite resident of Ghastly-Gorm Hall along with her distant, vain, and vapid father, Lord Goth. Ada and her sidekick, a ghost of a mouse named Ishmael, happen upon mysterious and underhanded doings in the mansion, all of which lead to a spine-tingling rescue mission. Monstrous fun for girls and boys ages 8 and up. There are several sequels.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, various illustrators
originally published in 1900
apx. 272 pages
The Oz series — all 14 books! — was a wonder-filled treasure trove for my daughter in her middle grade years. If you’ve got a fantasy fiend in your household, you should not overlook these classic tales.
You don’t even have to start with the first volume, but it’s as good a place as any, and if you think you’ve got the story down pat having seen Judy Garland’s film version, you will definitely be in for some surprises! Hint: no ruby red slippers. You’ll have to read the book to discover what color they really are.
The nice thing about starting with the first book is that for kids slightly allergic to vintage illustration work, there are a boatload of illustrated versions to choose from. For example:
My daughter’s favorite of the series was Ozma of Oz.
It’s a splendid story in which Dorothy Gale (Did you know her last name was Gale? So clever) swooshes off on another fantastical journey, this time to the fairy land of Ev where she bands together with a talkative hen named Bellina, Tiktok the mechanical man, the lovely Princess Ozma of Oz, and some old friends — Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion — to rescue the Queen of Ev and her ten children who have been enchanted by the wicked Nome King.
Brilliant storytelling, with certainly an old-fashioned flavor to the text but nothing particularly off-putting for contemporary readers. Read them aloud to ages 6 and up.