My favourite fantasy novels for children and young adults

I read widely as a child. I loved everything from quiet stories about friendship, schools or animals, to wild adventures, classics, ghost stories, circus stories, books about plants or human biology, encyclopaedias, fairy tales and stories spun with nonsensical, zany humour. But whenever I was asked to name my favourite genre, I always chose fantasy.

Something I’ve realised about the books I’ve chosen for this piece is that many of them feature female characters who inspired me or showed me how strength can manifest in multiple ways – not just the sort of strength expected when traditional values are imposed. I hope I’ve also created some inspiring female characters. One of the characters I most admire in Sea (The Huntress Trilogy) is Grandma. Grandma has seen a lot in her time. She’s active, empowered, loving, physically fit and strong, she pursues her interests and never suffers fools. She knows the sea intimately and respects nature. She also has a roaring sense of humour and a fierce tongue. Her namesake animal is Wren and her favourite pastime is shutting herself away in her medsin-lab to innovate new potions.

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So here are a few of my top fantasy picks – a mixture of beloved childhood favourites and titles I discovered a touch later on.

His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman (9+)

‘Her daemon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the shape of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.’

I wish I could say I read Northern Lights as a younger child, when it was first published, but somehow I only discovered it as a teen. Nonetheless, I was completely hooked on the richly layered world of the trilogy, and its diverse characters. The originality and exquisite writing style told me that I’d found something very different to anything I’d read before. I loved Lyra’s strong voice, her mud-streaked fierceness and the beautifully evoked relationship between her and Pan. I’ve still never read a scene so appallingly wrenching as the one in The Amber Spyglass when Lyra has to travel to the land of the dead.
I loved that Lyra had a sense of justice and compassion so strong that it gave her more courage than any adult. Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey daemon, and the hidden horrors of Bolvangar still make me shudder. The Amber Spyglass is the first book I remember making me properly cry. These books have everything: raw emotion, the mystery of the truth-telling alethiometer, witches with exotic names, armoured bears who oil their armour with seal blubber and a complex plot that slips down as smoothly as hot chocolatl.
To say that I’m greatly anticipating this year’s release of The Book of Dust would be a mere speck in the realms of understatement.

The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien (9+)

‘Bilbo rushed along the passage, very angry, and altogether bewildered and bewuthered – this was the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered.’

I was introduced to this by my year seven English teacher, and was immediately captivated by its rich, mystical atmosphere. I delighted in my terror of Gollum and the riddles in the darkness of his gloopy, fishy lair. I was totally absorbed in Bilbo’s inner world and his grumpy, homebody ways. As a child who loved being at home, but who also had a bubbling sense of curiosity, he was the perfect companion for an adventure. I adored the many glorious descriptions of food, the sightings of elves between the trees, the goblins at the campfire and the friends met along the way (especially because that usually meant more food when supplies were running low). I strongly related to how Bilbo was pushed out of his comfort zone. I felt like that was happening to me every day, when I went to school. What better way to grow in courage than being by Bilbo’s side as ‘something Tookish’ wakes up in him.

The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy (7+)

‘After only two days at the school she crashed her broomstick into the yard wall, breaking the broomstick in half and bending her hat.’

As a child, I was a fan of boarding school stories, so the addition of magic made Jill Murphy’s warm, funny, exciting stories, set in Miss Cackle’s academy for witches, a must-read. I loved how the main character – gangly, clumsy Mildred Hubble – wasn’t the cleverest, the prettiest, the most privileged or the best behaved. I liked that she was different, with her distinctive tabby cat in a sea of regulation witch-black. Relatably imperfect, with long, flapping plaits and trailing shoelaces, Mildred got into trouble constantly. I loved the cosy details throughout the book, like the three bats nesting in Mildred’s room, how she and bestie Maud Moonshine hung out after light’s out and the excitement leading up to the presentation of the kittens.

Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver (9+)

‘Evil exists in us all, Torak. Some fight it. Some feed it. That’s how it’s always been.’

I read this one as an adult, when a friend recommended it to me, and I was hooked into Torak’s elemental world from the very first page. Deeply atmospheric and famously well-researched, this book plunges you into a fantastical version of an epic, prehistoric European forest complete with wolves, magic, spirits and bears. The setting is evocatively described and the urgency of the plot makes this a gripping, pacy read. I also felt like I’d been offered a magic mirror to look back thousands of years.

Spellhorn, by Berlie Doherty (9+)

‘The moon that night was like water, draining down into a misty sky.’

I recommend this story often, as I loved it so much as a child. I retrospect I think the emotive, idiosyncratic language of the Wild Ones influenced my characters’ use of language in The Huntress Trilogy. The book tells the story of Laura, a child with a visual impairment who rides the unicorn Spellhorn into the magical world of the Wild Ones. It was written with the help of four children also experiencing visual loss – the author credits them for helping her to see with her ‘mind’s eye’. I spent at least one summer holiday thinking and talking in the ‘wordspeak’ of the Wild Ones.

Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh (7+)

‘The old woman chuckled. ‘He’s a deep one, he is!’’

A fun and comforting book that I adored as a child, as a fan of cats and magical stories. I borrowed it repeatedly from my school and local library, but because I didn’t own a copy, over the years I forgot about it. So when I re-discovered it at an independent bookshop many years later, the find felt like an explosion of recognition and joy. The book follows the adventures of Rosemary, who wants to help her struggling mother to make ends meet by doing chores during the summer holidays. But when she buys a cheap broom, it comes complete with a curt, indignant talking cat called Carbonel, who is under a witch’s spell. Can Rosemary free him?

The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis (9+)

‘This wood was very much alive…it was a rich place: as rich as plumcake.’

This list couldn’t possibly be complete without a mention of these classics, which obsessed me around the age of ten. I loved both the books and the spooky BBC mini-series of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I first started reading the chronicles curled up on the sofa with my mum, both of us hopelessly lost in a magical world. In The Magician’s Nephew, I loved the descriptions of hidden places where children could have secret adventures, the enticing yellow and green rings, and the eerie ‘wood between the worlds’, with its pools of water serving as portals to other realms. I was interested in exploring the idea of other realms or spaces ‘in between’ when I wrote Sea. Mouse’s ability to dream-dance frequently takes her to the space between sleeping and waking, and also sometimes shows her different points in time, like when she revisits the birth of her brother, Sparrow.

You can hear more from Sarah Driver at her blog, or by following her on Twitter.

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