Should children read fantasy books? C.S. Lewis wrote, "Fairy land arouses a longing for [the child] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted."
Here are six good fantasy novels from the past year:
Scumble (Dial, Middle Grade)-Ingrid Law's follow-up to her Newbery Award winner Savvy is less a sequel than a companion story, but every bit as fun. Like his cousin Mibs before him, Ledger Kale must learn to manage his "savvy" (a supernatural ability that develops in everyone in his family at age 13), which means figuring out how breaking things with his mind can ever be of any use to anybody. Law's own savvy with language makes her a joy to read, but her clear affection for down-home Americana will thrill kids while delighting parents weary of veiled political messaging.
Reckless (Little, Brown, Young Adult)-Cornelia Funke has proved over the years that engaging fantasy need not consist of solely strung-together battle scenes. With this tale of the Reckless brothers' adventures in Mirrorworld-a dangerous land of dwarves, shapeshifters, and malevolent fairies-she indulges her action side but still shows her flair for creative characters.
The Emerald Atlas (Knopf, Middle Grade)-A glance at the children's bestseller lists over the last year shows that high-action, low-skill tales of magic of the Percy Jackson variety still reign supreme. While John Stephens' story of three orphans who must travel through time to harness the power of a magical atlas and defeat an evil countess appeals to the same demographic, he's far more clever in his use of fantasy tropes. His intelligent plotting and hilariously Dickensian characterizations demand more from a child's imagination than certain mediocre adventures in Greek myth.
I Shall Wear Midnight (Harper Collins, Young Adult)-Terry Pratchett, Britain's second-best-loved fantasy author (some person named J.K. is first) isn't nearly as well-known on these shores, but he should be. Like his first three books concerning Tiffany Aching, apprentice witch, this final book involves magic of the broomstick-flying and monster-battling variety. Pratchett brings to the genre not only scathing wit and screwball humor but an appreciation for real-world values. Tiffany is not important because she possesses amazing abilities but because she serves others, acting as midwife, nurse, and advocate for the sick, old, and poor. In Pratchett's world, good, old-fashioned hard work is always more honorable (and useful) than flashy action with a wand. Unlike his fellow British atheist Philip Pullman, Pratchett writes to entertain teenage readers, not indoctrinate them.
Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick Press, Young Adult)-The great children's fantasist Lloyd Alexander once said that fantasy is a way of understanding reality. That is certainly true with Melina Marchetta's medieval-esque story of genocide and diaspora. Unlike most protagonists of the genre, 19-year-old Finnikin, who takes up the quest to lead a group of refugees home, is far more than a knight in shining armor. Backbiting, jealousy, and suspicion are common among his companions, and the evil they confront all the more chilling for its realism. That Marchetta invents a polytheistic religion for her world may concern some parents, but teens who are grounded in a Christian worldview will likely find a story that incorporates questions of faith far more satisfying than sword-slinging epics that ignore the highest questions of life altogether.
The Rogue Crew (Ace, Middle Grade)-Beloved children's author Brian Jacques died in February, so this story about Long Patrol hares and a crew of swashbuckling otters banding together against a new threat is the last in the wonderful Redwall series. Jacques again focuses on Redwall Abbey monks, warriors, and village folk who show sacrifice, courage, and mercy within this charming medieval world. What sets Redwall apart from other children's fantasy is that beyond the talking animals, there is no magic in it-except the magic of Jacques' evocative writing.
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