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A visit to the children’s section of any large bookstore might leave the impression that current fantasy consists almost entirely of lengthy Harry Potter or Percy Jackson clones, entries in a trilogy or longer series. Happily, some deeper digging uncovers a wonderful variety of middle grade, stand-alone fantasy novels which exemplify some of the best qualities and possibilities of the genre. While all fiction faces the challenge of making the reader believe in the authenticity of the story, the bar for writers of fantasy is set even higher. If we are to accept a world that includes the impossible and unexplainable, the writer has to create consistent rules and believable settings, characters and plots that draw us in. Ultimately, for all the importance of the fantastical elements, it is the realism of the characters, the plot, and even the setting that allows readers to make a magical connection. The following selections have been chosen for this quality. Some are steeped deep in fantastical themes or elements, while others bear only a faint brushstroke. You’ll find enough good fantasy here to satisfy not only the confirmed lovers of the genre, but also the skeptics, readers who have yet to experience the lure of dragons and quests, magic and myth.
Fantasy in Our World
APPELT, Kathi. Keeper. illus. by August Hall. S & S/Atheneum. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5060-8; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5061-5; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-0608-7.
Gr 4-7—Ten-year-old Keeper believes that the mother who left her years earlier is a mermaid. On a day when everything goes horribly wrong, Keeper rows out to sea in the hope that her mother will help her. This wistful tale, with a touch of true fantasy in the love story between two boys, unfolds slowly and with sensitivity. Audio version available from S&S Audio.
AVI. The Seer of Shadows. HarperCollins. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-000015-8; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-000016-5; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-000017-2.
Gr 4-6—Horace is the apprentice to an 1870s New York City photographer who intends to defraud a rich client by doctoring a photograph to show the “ghost” of her dead daughter. When Horace learns that the ghost is real and set on revenge, he must solve a mystery and save lives in this spooky historical ghost story. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
BARNHILL, Kelly. The Mostly True Story of Jack. Little, Brown. 2011. Tr ISBN 978-0-316-05670-0; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-316-05672-4; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-316-17523-4.
Gr 4-6—When Jack arrives in a small town in Iowa to live with his unusual aunt and uncle, he expects to go unnoticed. Instead, he discovers supernatural powers as he unravels the mystery of the town’s past, including the disappearance of many children. A creepy and suspenseful unfolding of the story keeps readers guessing. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.
BOORAEM, Ellen. Small Persons with Wings. Dial. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-3471-5; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-1424-2054-6; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-1-1014-7551-5.
Gr 4-6—After Mellie lets slip at school that there’s a fairy in her bedroom, the teasing persists for years. She’s thrilled when her family moves to an old inn inherited from her grandfather but doesn’t expect to find the inn full of fairies. The funny, inventive, fast-moving fantasy melds with themes of friendship and acceptance of life’s imperfections.
CREECH, Sharon. The Unfinished Angel. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler Bks. 2009. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-143095-4; PLB $16.89. ISBN 978-0-06-143096-1; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0061430978; ebook $4.99. ISBN 978-0-06-192426-2.
Gr 3-6—In this gentle tale set in the Swiss Alps, an endearing and flawed angel relates how it meets the girl Zola, and how, at Zola’s insistence, the angel becomes involved in the lives of humans as it helps hungry orphans who sleep in a barn. Creech works magic in the character and language of the angel. Audio version available from Harper Audio.
DICAMILLO, Kate. The Magician’s Elephant. illus. by Yoko Tanaka. Candlewick. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4410-9; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5298-2.
Gr 3-5—An orphan searches for his sister, who he is convinced did not die at birth; a girl dreams of an elephant who will rescue her from the orphanage; and an elephant languishes as an exhibit in a private museum in this lyrical, fablelike tale of hope and redemption. These strands are expertly interwoven in a pitch-perfect read-aloud or read-alone story. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.
LAW, Ingrid. Scumble. Dial. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-3307-7; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-1424-1962-5; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-1-1014-4245-6.
Gr 4-6—Nine years after Mibs’s adventure in Savvy (Dial, 2008), her cousin Ledge comes into his savvy and discovers that he has the power to destroy things. In a lovely nod to adolescent turbulence, Ledge tries in vain to keep it all together at a family gathering. With its down-home conversational style, this stand-alone companion reads like realistic fiction with a dollop of magic. Audio version available from Penguin Audio.
NESBET, Anne. The Cabinet of Earths. HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-196313-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-0619-6319-3; ebook $8.99. ISBN 978-0-06-209919-8.
Gr 4-7—When Maya’s family arrives in Paris as her mother recovers from cancer treatment, Maya finds herself in the middle of a mysterious society’s quest for immortality. When the Cabinet chooses her as its next Keeper, the promise of life for her mother exerts an almost irresistible force. Clever plotting and interesting characters draw readers into this suspenseful story.
O’DELL, Kathleen. The Aviary. Random. 2011. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-375-85605-1; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-375-95605-8; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-375-85226-8; ebook $6.99. ISBN 978-0-375-98935-3.
Gr 4-6—The story of Clara, a servant’s daughter confined because of chronic illness, begins as realistic fiction set in an early-20th-century mansion. But it soon becomes a creepy and fantastical mystery centered round the death and disappearance of the mansion owner’s six children. Offer this to realistic-fiction lovers ready to step out into a new genre.
OLIVER, Lauren. Liesl and Po. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-201451-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-201452-8; ebook $3.99. ISBN 978-0-06-209335-6.
Gr 3-6—With one of the most appealing literary ghosts ever, this gentle but suspenseful tale tells the story of orphan Liesl who escapes from her attic prison and sets in motion a nonstop series of chases, misapprehensions, and conflicts involving her evil stepmother, a hapless apothecary’s assistant, a good-hearted security guard, and, of course, the ghost Po. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
SCHLITZ, Laura Amy. Splendors and Glooms. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5380-4; ebook $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6246-2.
Gr 4-6—In this creepy Dickens-influenced tale of transformation and power, two orphans, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, are assistants to an extraordinary puppet-master. When wealthy Clara disappears after they perform for her birthday party, suspicion falls on them. They’re soon enmeshed in dangerous intrigues and evil magic as they try to find Clara and clear their names. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
SCHMIDT, Gary D. What Came from the Stars. Clarion. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-61213-3; ebook $16.99. 978-0-547-86868-4.
Gr 5-7—Tommy Pepper is still reeling from his mother’s death, while galaxies away Waeglin throws into space the magical chain of the Valorim. Landing in Tommy’s lunchbox, the chain launches him into an extraordinary adventure. Tommy’s story is vintage Schmidt, heartbreaking and funny, while Waeglin’s narrative is told in a heroic style with invented vocabulary. For confident and patient readers.
SKELTON, Matthew. The Story of Cirrus Flux. Delacorte. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-385-73381-6; PLB $20.99. ISBN 978-0-385-90398-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-440-42169-6; ebook $6.99. ISBN 978-0-375-89532-6.
Gr 4-7—Set in London in the late 18th century, this fast-moving, suspenseful adventure tale with touches of fantasy involves an orphan who inherits a magical sphere believed to contain the “Breath of God.” A cast of fascinating and well-developed characters accompanies a twisting, complex plot as Cirrus is pursued by enemies determined to steal the heirloom. Audio version available from Listening Library.
Crossing the Border into Fantasy
DOWELL, Frances O’Roark. Falling In. S & S/Atheneum. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5032-5; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-2205-6; ebook $5.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-9902-7.
Gr 4-6—Isabelle has always felt like an outsider at school. When she opens a closet door, while waiting to be reprimanded by the principal, she tumbles into a world of children on the run from a child-eating witch. Dowell blends fantasy with her trademark feel for the realities of emerging adolescence. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
MELOY, Colin. Wildwood. illus. by Carson Ellis. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-202468-8; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-06-202470-1; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-0-06-209353-0.
Gr 4-6—When crows abduct her baby brother, Prue ventures into the Impassable Wilderness outside Portland, Oregon, to rescue him. She and her neighbor Curtis enter a fully realized, quirky world of coyote soldiers, an evil Dowager Governess, and more. An intricate plot, rich characterization, and scene-setting drawings make this a good choice for more adventurous readers. Audio version available from Harper Audio.
OLIVER, Lauren. Spindlers. HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-197808-1; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-06-219025-3.
Gr 4-6—When Liza wakes one morning, she knows that her brother’s soul has been stolen by spindlers, spiderlike predators with human hands. As she ventures below to rescue him, she encounters a bewildering array of beings while knowing that if she fails, her soul too will be forfeited. Audio version available from Harper Audio.
OKORAFOR, Nnedi. Akata Witch. Viking. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-6700-1196-4; ebook $14.99. ISBN 978-1-1015-1379-8.
Gr 5-7—Twelve-year-old Sunny, feisty and unique, is an outsider. She lives in Nigeria but was born in America to Nigerian parents and, although her features are African, her skin is albino pale. Discovering that she has magical powers, Sunny learns to navigate an alternate magical reality and joins three other “free agents” to outwit Okotoko, a serial child-killer.
URSU, Anne. Breadcrumbs. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-201505-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-201506-8; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-06-204924-7.
Gr 4-6—In this modern-day version of Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” outsider Hazel searches for her best friend, Jack, who has gone missing in the snowy forest. Ursu’s atmospheric descriptions create an almost Kafka-esque feeling of threat as Hazel confronts fairy tale characters and story elements, and eventually comes face-to-face with Jack, who doesn’t want to be rescued. Audio version available from Listening Library.
Inside the Fantasy World
BARNHILL, Kelly. Iron Hearted Violet. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Little, Brown. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-05673-1; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-316-21558-9.
Gr 4-6—A rousing adventure fantasy brimming with metaphorical possibilities, this story tells of a feisty princess who wants desperately to look beautiful and is duped by an evil demon. With the help of her friend Demetrius and the storyteller-narrator Cassius as well as a scarred and weakened dragon, the princess emerges to fight a battle for survival.
BRUCHAC, Joseph. Dragon Castle. Dial. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-3376-3; ebook $13.99. ISBN 978-1-1015-1603-4.
Gr 4-7—Drawing here on the Slovakian side of his heritage, Bruchac tells the story of Rashko, a 15-year-old prince. When Rashko is called on to defend the castle from a hostile takeover while his parents are away, he draws upon old legends for magical and non-magical help while being forced to reevaluate his lofty opinion of himself.
GAIMAN, Neil. Odd and the Frost Giants. HarperCollins. 2009. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-06-167173-9; ebook. $9.99. ISBN 978-0-06-196487-9.
Gr 3-5—In this novella set firmly in the world of Norse mythology, 12-year-old Odd is an unlucky hero. His father has died; he’s suffered a crippling injury, and his stepfather is cruel. Leaving home sets Odd on an unlikely adventure involving gods and the Frost Giants. Gaiman shines here with humor, clever plotting, and deft characterization. Audio version available from Harper Audio.
GEORGE, Jessica Day. Tuesdays at the Castle. Bloomsbury. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-599-90644-7; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1-599-90917-2; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-1-599-90731-4.
Gr 3-5—The king and queen have been lured away, and usurpers stage a takeover while the royal couple’s four children are in charge. With the feel of an old-fashioned “children vs. adults” adventure, the machinations of the bad guys are matched by the children’s ingenuity and courage, helped along by a truly magical castle.
GIDWITZ, Adam. In a Glass Grimmly. Dutton. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-525-42581-6; ebook $10.99. ISBN 978-1-10159161-1.
Gr 4-6—Jack and Jill are the through-line characters in this romp through numerous Jack folktales and nursery rhymes. He breaks his crown, of course, and they plant the magic bean, kill a giant, and much more. With humorous asides and the grosser elements front and center, this fun read is a crowd-pleaser.
HALE, Shannon. Book of a Thousand Days. Bloomsbury. 2007. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-599-90051-3; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-59990378-1; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-599-90411-5.
Gr 5-7—Based on a Grimm fairy tale, this is the story of a maid, Dashti, and her mistress, Saren, who are bricked into a tower for years before Dashti contrives their escape. Set on the steppes of Central Asia and narrated by Dashti through the diary she kept while imprisoned, this tale offers romance, excitement, and well-developed characters. Audio version available from Full Cast Audio.
IBBOTSON, Eva. The Ogre of Oglefort. Dutton. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0525-42382-9; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-1424-2135-2; ebook $6.99. ISBN 978-1-1015-6351-9.
Gr 3-5—Ibbotson uses her signature elements to create a funny and appealing story of Ivo, a boy desperate to escape the orphanage. Ivo volunteers as the familiar for the Hag of the Dribble as the Hag and the ragtag bunch from her London boardinghouse receive their summer assignment: rescuing a princess from the notorious Ogre of Oglefort. Audio version available from Macmillan Digital Audio.
JONELL, Lynne. The Secret of Zoom. Holt. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-805-08856-4; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-312-65933-2; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-1-429-95153-1.
Gr 3-5—In a breakneck-paced adventure with just a touch of fantasy, Christina escapes the suffocating protections established by her father after her mother’s death. She uses her new-found courage and her gift of perfect pitch to thwart the villainous Lenny Loompski, save the captive orphans at Loompski’s mine, and solve the mystery of her mother’s fate.
LIN, Grace. Starry River of the Sky. Little, Brown. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-316-12595-6; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-316-21553-4.
Gr 3-5—Lin draws on Chinese folklore in this gorgeously written story of Rendi, a runaway who becomes stranded in a remote village where the moon no longer shines. In this mythical setting, the lives of Rendi and the villagers are transformed by the stories told by a mysterious guest at the inn. A powerful read-aloud or read-alone. Audio version available from Hachette for AudioGo.
NIELSEN, Jennifer A. The False Prince. Scholastic. 2012. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-28413-4.
Gr 4-7—When 15-year-old orphan Sage is purchased by the recently dead king of Carthya’s regent, he becomes embroiled in a deadly contest with two other orphans. Sage is a successful narrator in a humorous and devilishly clever adventure, chock-full of plot twists and intrigue. Although first in a planned trilogy, this reads as a satisfying stand-alone novel. Audio version available from Scholastic Audio.
REEVE, Philip. No Such Thing as Dragons. Scholastic. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-545-22224-2; pap $6.99. ISBN 978-0-545-22225-9.
Gr 4-6—Ansel, mute since his mother’s death, is sold by his father to a false dragon hunter. On a “mission,” they meet a young girl left as a sacrifice, and the truth is more complicated and dangerous than expected. While Reeve offers a quiet exploration of courage, the flesh-and-blood encounter with the dragon thrills.
Sue Giffard is a librarian at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, New York City.
ON THE WEB
Booklist Online. www.booklistonline.com. Booklist. (Accessed 9/24/12).
For a reliable and regularly updated source of new fantasy books, try this site, with or without a subscription. Search fantasy as a keyword within Books for Youth to access reviews in the genre with the most recent listed first.
Charlotte’s Library: Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Kids and Teenagers. charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com. (Accessed 9/24/12).
A longtime blogger and member of Kidlitosphere, the author is “an archaeologist by day, president of the Friends of a small New England library by night.” She reviews children’s and teen fantasy and sci-fi almost exclusively and writes detailed reviews, negative as well as positive.
The Cybils 2012: Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards. www.cybils.com. (Accessed 9/24/12). Initiated in 2006, the Cybils are awarded in genre categories “by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles.” Current and past finalists and winners in fantasy for middle and elementary grades are listed.
The Enchanted Inkpot. enchantedinkpot.blogspot.com. (Accessed 9/24/12).
The impressive “Member Bios” page of this “community for writers and readers of middle grade and young adult fantasy” reads like a who’s who of current children’s and YA fantasy authors. Posts include author interviews, publishing news, and comments about fantasy books for young people.
Novelist K-8. www.ebscohost.com/public/novelist-k-8. EBSCO Publishing. (Accessed 9/24/12).
A highly sophisticated, flexible search engine and display interface, along with enriched records which include appeal terms, levels, and dates, make this a unique and invaluable resource for collection building and reader guidance. Subscription required.