It is a lovely time, an absolutely splendid time, to be a reader of fantasy and science fiction books for kids, and you don’t have to be a 9 to 12 year old (the “middle grade” years) to be one of those readers.
Fantasy books for kids are often “first time” books for their young readers–the first time visiting a world that’s truly strange, the first time meeting the talking animals who come to the aid of the hero, the first time the magic sword is found, or the monster slain. And most often it’s the first time for the characters within the books too. Like the target audience, the protagonists of middle grade stories are faced with new, strange challenges that rock the foundations of their worlds, and their stories involve growing up, figuring out who they are, and how to be strong and keep going when hope seems far away. YA books are often more focused on the internal life of their protagonists, whereas middle grade books look outward to the journey; this makes it easier for readers of middle grade stories to be right there relating strongly to the hero (with no distractions of luv).
It’s a tremendously exciting thing to be a young reader of fantasy, able to geek out over the wonder of it all with an enthusiasm undimmed by grown-up cynicism. But happily, the best middle grade books deliver complex world building, great characters, and heartfelt emotion enough to satisfy even the veteran fan-girl.
Here’s a list I made of books from the past few years showcasing the diversity of middle grade speculative fiction (it’s not just boys with swords and princess girls). These are books I’d recommend to any reader older than 9 or 10; in a fangirl spirit, I focused on books with girls as central characters.
For the fangirl who loves supernatural excitement:
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood and Co. Book 1), by Jonathan Stroud (Disney-Hyperion, September 2014)
In an alternate England, filled with ghosts who kill, three kids form their own ghost-hunting agency. But when they set off to tackle the most haunted house in all of England, they might just end up adding themselves to the ranks of its restless un-dead… It’s a beautiful complicated world, and the three kids are fascinating characters, and the ghosts are scary as all get out! The sequel, The Whispering Skull, comes out this September and I cannot wait. This is a truly excellent book.
For the fangirl who wants adventure with a marvelously imaginative premise:
The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove (Viking, June 2014)
This is one that is just geeky and quirky as all get out. In a world that fractured into different time periods, a young girl must travel across the boarders of an alternate North America to search for her kidnapped uncle. Just when you think there can’t be more to marvel at, there is, including the best magical maps I’ve ever read about! Plus it’s substantial enough, clocking in at 512 pages, to keep even the fast reader happy for a nice long time!
For the fangirl who loves unforgettable characters who find themselves in grim situations:
Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown, April 2012)
This is classic middle grade-ness at its best in terms of plot–it’s the story of a brave girl who must struggle to survive when disaster (Hurricane Katrina) devastates her community. The power of its writing makes it one for all ages, and the world building and characterization make for lovely, deeply moving, reading. The magical and the supernatural are blended beautifully with the real world.
For the fangirl who loves magical reimaginings of the past, full of mystery and adventure:
Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2012)
At the very end of The Coming of the Dragon (2011), a retelling of the story of Beowulf, a high-ranking girl, Hild, arrived from a neighboring kingdom to wed the new king of the Geats. I was thrilled when Hild got her own story in Peaceweaver. It tells of her journey to her marriage, during which she must master the supernatural gift that seizes hold of her when there is danger threatens…and there is plenty of it, for Grendal and his mother were not the only monsters. The fantastical elements (the monsters, the intervention of deities, Hild’s strange gift) don’t in the least make the book feel less truly set in the dark ages of Europe; the world-building happens organically and convincingly, with lots of details woven into the story. Peaceweaver can perfectly well be read on its own, but since it includes spoilers for The Coming of the Dragon, that one really should be read first.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, by Chris Moriarty (HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2011)
In an alternate late 19th-century New York, the tenements are packed with magic-using immigrants. But practicing magic is against the law, and so the NYPD includes Inquisitors whose job it is to solve magical crimes. When a boy named Sacha reveals that he can see it when people work magic, he becomes an apprentice Inquisitor. Now Sacha and fellow apprentice Lily Astral (of the fabulously wealthy Astral family), are following their charismatic mentor Inspector Wolf through the city as he tries to solve what could be his most important case yet. Someone is trying to kill Thomas Edison….and there are even darker machinations at work, as capitalism and magic clash!
The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell (HarperCollins, May 2014)
In a medieval fantasy France, there is a castle behind thorns…and the son of the village smith is about to wake its magic. The catch–he’s trapped inside the castle, the only living thing among its shattered wreckage. Until, that is, he starts to mend all that’s been broken. Including the princess…This is one for those who love small unfoldings of mundane details mixed with far from mundane enchantments.
Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury, October 2011, with the second and third books out in 2013 and 2014
This is one on the younger range of middle grade (great for nine and ten year olds), but it is So Much Fun I had to include it. Castle Glower is the most magically wonderful castle ever–every Tuesday it changes itself, adding new rooms or swapping passageways for towers. And when Princess Celie and her siblings have to fend off an enemy bent on taking over their kingdom, it is the castle’s magic that saves the day.
For the fangirl who wants to swap everyday life for something more magical
Seven Wild Sisters, by Charles De Lint (Little, Brown, February 2014)
Up in the Appalachians, young Sarah Jane finds herself right in the middle of two feuding factions of fairy folk (not your typical Celtic sort of fairies, but more nature-based). It’s not a comfortable place to be, especially when your sisters are kidnapped and held hostage. The stakes are high…but old Aunt Lillian has friends in strange places, and brave hearts and sharp wits are powerful weapons on their own account. It’s a magical, fun story, and the book itself, with its full page illustrations and smaller pictures throughout, is a lovely thing too!
The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, by Jen Swann Downey (Sourcebooks Jaberwocky, April 2014)
There is a secret society of time traveling librarians (aka Lybrarians) who combine their mad shelving skills and mad sword fighting skills to carry out their mission of keeping history on track! Two kids stumble into their headquarters in Petrarch’s time-hidden library… and find that they have a skill that can make them part of the Lybrarian team. This one is pure fun–suspension of disbelief is required, but the lovely library and the adventures therein are well worth it!
For the fangirl who thinks it might be fun to swap mundane life for a stint as Dark Queen
Dark Lord: School’s Out, by Jamie Thomson (Walker Childrens, February 2014 in the US)
This is the sequel to Dark Lord, but can stand alone! Dirk, the evil Dark Lord of a fantasy realm, ended up in our world as a powerless boy. Despite his evil ways, he made friends…one of whom is a Goth Girl named Sooz. An effort to restore Dirk to the Dark Lands at the end of Book 1 went wrong, and Sooz found herself there instead, expected by Dirk’s erstwhile minions to assume the mantle of evil and the throne of evil etc. So she finds Dirk’s Dark Tower, gathers together his minions, and sets herself up as a Dark Queen. Only, because she’d not actually evil, things rapidly become rather complicated… So much fun!!!
And for the superhero geek fangirl, there is no better middle grade book than Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung (Arthur A. Levine, October 2012) — it delivers what the title promises, and more!
When a Stupendous Alert sounds in Copperplate City, Vincent Wu is thrilled to get the chance to see the brave Captain battling Professor Mayhem’s giant monster robot. But something seems off about the great superhero….And indeed, there is. Polly Winnicott-Lee, the very girl Vincent has a crush on, has unwillingly assumed the superhero mantle. She isn’t interested in fighting bad guys, doesn’t know how to use her new abilities to their best advantage, and finds the idea of slipping into the role of muscular, male superhero rather distasteful. When Vincent discovers her secret, he and his friends decide they can help Polly be the Captain Stupendous she was meant to be, and the hero their city needs. Because the giant robot is still out there, threatening ultimate destruction!
And finally, there are the middle grade fantasy graphic novels, just full of geeky goodness! Here’s a sample.
Zita the Space Girl, by Ben Hatke (FirstSecond, 2011-2014)
I have yet to meet the young reader of graphic novels who is immune to the charms of Zita the Space Girl. The third book in the intergalactic adventures of a young girl from Earth, whisked through a portal into universe of danger and adventure, has just come out (Return of Zita the Space Girl), and it is just as charming, moving, and exciting as the first two! Zita is a heroine to love, and Hatke’s wonderful illustrations of his wild and whacky cast of characters are a delight.
Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley, by Jeff Weigel (Andrews McMeel Publishing, June 2014)
Anyone who’s ever wanted a baby dragon of their own should love this book! It tells how a girl named Alanna finds a dragon hatching ground, becoming to the surrogate mother to one of the babies after the mother is killed by a knight determined to rid the world of the “scourge” of dragonkind. The pictures and the text work together just beautifully here, and there’s a steampunk dirigible adding a nice dollop of geeky goodness.
Cleopatra in Space, by Mike Maihack (GRAPHIX, April 2014)
A young Cleopatra inadvertently travels through time and space to an alien planet where she finds herself hailed as the savior of the Nile Galaxy, under attack from interstellar enemies. She’ll have to learn the ways of the future quickly to survive–let alone fulfill a destiny she’s not at all certain was really meant for her. Fortunately, she has mad fighting skills, lots of pluck, and some good friends! (She also has a sphinx bike that can travel through space.)
Here’s a rule of thumb that will help you navigate the world of middle grade books– often the covers will give a good indication of whether a book will work for a reader older than the target audience. The books I’ve mentioned here don’t scream “I am a book written for children who like princesses and sparkle unicorns” and you can read them in public without anxiety. Or you can just say to heck with what people think, and unashamedly enjoy geeking out over the magical fun and emotional zingers that make middle grade fantasy so great!
It was extraordinarily hard to limit this list to these titles. For more great titles, check out the lists of books shortlisted for the Cybils Awards in Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, or visit my blog, Charlotte’s Library, where every Sunday I gather together a list of all the Middle Grade science fiction and fantasy blog reviews I found the previous week.