Fantasy. There isn’t a kid alive who hasn’t wished for some fantastic magic in their world. It isn’t a wonder that fantasy is one of the most popular genres of fiction across the board. But if you can’t escape into magic in reality, why not do so through a good book? Children’s fiction offers so many wonderful fantasy stories, but here are just my top five picks.
If there’s any book better suited to introduce children to the genre of fantasy, I do not know it. Many people think of J.R.R. Tolkien and their mind goes to his other incredibly in-depth works on Middle Earth. Not exactly the stuff for young readers. The Hobbit, however, was specifically geared towards children and in many ways operates as a bedtime story from Tolkien to his younger readers.
Since this book comes from the father of modern fantasy himself, it ticks all the boxes you could hope for in the genre and then some. Wizards, dwarves, dragons, magic, large scale battles (why have two armies fighting when you can have five?), and one little hobbit who is completely out of his depth. Bilbo’s adventure is known by many and beloved by any who have read it.
What many may not consider is that this book does not have to be just for older kids with ambitious reading tendencies. The hobbit is structured in such a conversational style that it’s incredibly accessible to younger kids as well if read aloud. The story is well marked in its beats and chapters and can be easily broken up to read in pieces over a longer course of time.
The Chronicles of Narnia
In the same vein as The Hobbit, it’s impossible to make a list of top tier children’s fantasy without talking about The Chronicles of Narnia. While there are more books to the world of Narnia, they are also a little more straightforward than Tolkien’s work. This fact was actually a point of contention between Tolkien and Lewis.
The stories center on children from our world finding bridges into the magical world of Narnia. Narnia is a world filled with wonder, creatures of your greatest imagination, but also peril and hardship in need of restoration. Guided by the regal and lordly lion Aslan, the children go on incredible journeys to save not just Narnia, but themselves as well.
The real magic of the Narnia books is the way C.S. Lewis somehow manages to speak to anyone no matter their age. His books invite readers to put down their own world with its imperfections and struggles and pick up a world of wonder and magic instead. What’s more, his writing style is absolutely unparalleled. Lewis has a conversational style to his writing that makes any child feel like they’re sitting at the feet of the great writer and that he has more than enough time to spend with him. It’s impossible not to get lost in the world of Narnia and the honest way Lewis unfolds it before you.
The Wizards of Once
Children’s fantasy isn't outdated by any stretch of the imagination. New books in the genre are turning out all the time and for a particularly quality read one need look no further than Cressida Cowell’s new series The Wizards of Once.
Wizards, magic spells, ancient creatures, potions, enchanted swords. This book has it all and then some. The story centers around two warring tribes, one of wizards, the other of warriors, and the terror of witches that threatens both their worlds. A rebellious wizard boy and a blithely unconcerned warrior girl team up against the returning witches, but soon find out that much larger forces are at play. Forces that are unfortunately zeroed in on them.
In her usual style, Cressida Cowell manages to balance her thorough fantasy storytelling with sweet and light-hearted humor. Cowell is absolutely masterful at dealing with relatable, difficult topics while somehow keeping her writing cheerful enough to stay accessible to young readers. It’s a delicate dance, knowing how to deal out toil and struggle with one hand and well-timed jokes with another, but Wizards of Once does exactly that. So even as a young reader watches the main characters fight and even sometimes lose, the narrative never becomes bogged down in hopelessness.
Beware, though, this is an ongoing series so proceed at your own peril. If you read too quickly, you will find yourself in the same unlucky position I’m in, desperately needing answers but forced to wait for the release of the next book. It’s just a risk you run with truly good fiction.
This book very much feels off the beaten path of children’s fantasy and it’s an absolute gem. Eager’s writing style feels like a kindred spirit to the sweet, quaint, and quirky style of Roald Dahl. So pairing that writing style with the genre of fantasy makes for a fun, campy ride.
When Roger finds himself able to wish himself into the world of play figurines, he, his sister Ann, and their two cousins find themselves slipping into not just a world of wonder, but the plot of Ivanhoe itself. The problem? None of them can quite figure out how to join the plot without changing everything. Soon the story of Ivanhoe is filled with modern devices, local giants, and characters almost unrecognizable to each other. It’s up to the four children to fix the mistakes they have made and undo the trouble they’ve created in the story.
In many ways, this book also acts as a great conversation starter for kids on classic literature as the bulk of the plot focuses on the story elements of Ivanhoe. It’s not just a retelling of the Ivanhoe story, but a look at all that makes a story shine. Each of the four young main characters bring all their own uniqueness to the story and it shows in how the story changes. They learn what’s important to each other and what makes a story exciting for them while also learning to put others before themselves and let things be. Knight’s Tale is a charming story and an enchanting romp through a fantastic piece of English literature.
You wouldn’t think that medieval woodland creatures, swords shrouded in destiny, vicious armies of rodents, and a snake that feels straight out of a horror flick would make for great children’s fiction, but you’d be wrong. Redwall is a masterpiece of epic storytelling.
Redwall is one piece in the vast universe of Brian Jacques. The story centers around a young novice monk mouse named Matthias living in the Redwall Abbey. Our hero tries to dutifully complete his work, but he dreams of greater adventures beyond his simple life. As fate would have it, adventure comes to him in the form of the terrifying Cluny the Scourge, a mercenary rat with an army bent on destruction. In the Abbey’s hour of desperation, Matthias becomes the hope for them all, but only if he finds an ancient sword in time.
Brian Jacques doesn’t pull any punches in his writing. Similarly to Tolkien, Jacques tackles big struggles and dark forces relentlessly, trusting his readers to follow his lead in the narrative. He’s unhurried in his telling and lets the book build with rising intensity until seemingly innocuous characters become critical fixtures that you’re anxiously reading about to discover their fate. Books like Redwall are rare in their temerity, but the payoff for such a read is tremendous.