20 Books for Fans of Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Fantastical Creatures

These 20 titles for picture and chapter book readers feature creatures who ask children, "What if the world were different?"

What is a fantastical creature, exactly? There are those found in high fantasy: dragons, unicorns, mermaids, phoenixes, and gryphons. There are creatures of urban (and rural) legends, such as chupacabras and Sasquatch. There are creatures of pure imagination, such as the Gruffalo and Beekle, and a certain imaginary elephant belonging to the new girl next door.

But there are also the fantastical creatures of low fantasy, closer to home, those that could almost exist in the world as we know it: a real live dust bunny searching for friends, a girl with a tail, a turtle without a shell. These creatures, too, ask insistently:

What if the world were different?

Finally, there are real creatures that seem fantastic, like narwhals, aka the unicorns of the sea. (In fact, I have met more than one adult human who believed that narwhals were, indeed, mythical. And really, who can blame them?)

Often, and ironically, fantastical creatures only want to be like everyone else, or to simply be accepted for who they are. Sometimes they are misunderstood; sometimes, it is the humans who are the true monsters. Fantastical creatures wreak havoc; they change the world and the way we see it; they ask us to imagine bigger and better, outside the box. They go on adventures, and take us with them; they burn through the pages; they remain in our hearts and minds and keep us asking...what if?

Picture Books

Bright, Rachel. The Worrysaurus. illus by Chris Chatterton. Scholastic/Orchard. 2019. ISBN 9781408356135.
PreS-Gr 2 –A cute little red dino packs up a picnic for a day out, but the worries soon creep in and he begins to spiral. Before they completely immobilize him, he remembers his mother’s words: “Don’t you worry now, my lovely,/ you must try not to fret./ If it’s not a happy ending,/ then it hasn’t ended yet.” He takes out a little bag of comfort objects and is able to restore his mood and enjoy the day. Rhyming text is enjoyable to read aloud, and the social emotional message is clear but not overpowering.

De Sève, Randall. Zola’s Elephant. illus. by Pamela Zagarenski. Harper/Clarion. 2018. ISBN 9781328886293.
PreS-Gr 2 –A lonely narrator covers for her shyness by explaining that the new girl next door, Zola, probably already has a best friend—an elephant. The shy girl imagines the two of them eating toast, taking a bath, and building a clubhouse. At last, it is the narrator’s own tantalizing imagination that gives her the courage to go next door and knock. Caldecott Honor–winning Zagarenski’s mixed media illustrations elevate this story to magical heights, full of dreamy colors, bubbles, and stars—and, of course, (imaginary) elephants.

Donaldson, Julia. The Gruffalo. illus. by Axel Scheffler. Puffin. 2006. ISBN 9780142403877.
PreS-Gr 2 –In this classic picture book with rhyming text, a clever mouse talks his way out of trouble by inventing a creature to terrify his would-be predators. But when the Gruffalo turns out to be real, the mouse has to think fast to make his way out of the “deep dark wood” alive. The Gruffalo has the familiar feel of a trickster tale—the kind of story that has been sending satisfying shivers down backs for centuries—and readers will root for the wily little mouse over and over again.

Dyckman, Ame. You Don’t Want a Dragon. illus. by Liz Climo. Little, Brown. 2020. ISBN 9780316535809.
PreS-Gr 1 –In a funny pair of books that includes You Don’t Want a Unicorn, a wise narrator explains that while it might seem like a great idea to have a dragon for a pet, it really, really isn’t! Full of gross and hilarious details (dragons poop coal, while in the other book, unicorns burp rainbows and poop cupcakes), these are “be careful what you wish for” books. Bright, silly illustrations amp up the humor.

Eliopoulos, Christopher. The Yawns Are Coming! illus. by author. Dial. 2020. ISBN 9781984816306.
PreS-Gr 2 –The narrator and his best friend, Noodles, have big plans for their sleepover. Nothing can stop them from staying up all night and getting through their long list of fun things to do. Nothing, except, possibly, the most adorable anthropomorphized Yawns; a big, droopy Doze; a flock of tiny winged Snores; and at last, a large, cozy Sleepie. The narrator and Noodles succumb, but they awake bright and early and they’re going to have “so much fun!” Maybe even as much fun as this book, which would be truly perfect for a pajama story time.

Fletcher, Tom. There’s a Dragon in Your Book. illus. by Greg Abbott. Random. 2018. ISBN 9780141376127.
PreS-Gr 1 –Along with other installments in the series (There’s a Monster in Your Book, etc.), this interactive, high-energy, fourth wall–breaking book invites readers to shake, tip, spin, and wiggle the book. In short, it invites participation that works equally well for reading one-on-one or to a story time crowd. The cartoony, large-eyed creatures are adorable and mischievous rather than frightening, and the backgrounds make them pop.

Hale, Shannon. Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn. illus. by LeUyen Pham. Abrams. 2021. ISBN 9781419750915
PreS-Gr 3 –Kitty believes she is a unicorn; her friends Gecko and Parakeet present evidence to the contrary. When a real, live unicorn shows up, Kitty is overjoyed—doubly so, because the unicorn admires her as much as she admires it. Kitty puts on a unicorn horn, the unicorn puts on a pair of fuzzy pink ears, and they look into each other’s eyes and say, “I see you.” When they curl up together, their shadows form a heart. This is a sparkly, feel-good magic tale that triumphs over pesky reality.

Hevron, Amy. Dust Bunny Wants a Friend. illus. by author. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2019. ISBN 9781524765699.
PreS-Gr 2 –Dust Bunny’s poignant search for a friend contains only the words “hi” and “bye,” allowing the illustrations (digital collage of acrylic and marker on wood) to tell the story. An adorable dust bunny with wide-set eyes, surrounded by scribbles, searches through the house for companions. Dust Bunny encounters a beetle, ants, a cat, a teddy bear, and finally, a broom: but the moment of danger has a happy ending when Dust Bunny is swept under a piece of furniture, and discovers a whole welcoming warren of rabbits. Hevron takes a funny phrase and imagines a secret, hidden world inside our own households.

Hood, Morag. Sophie Johnson, Unicorn Expert. illus. by Ella Okstad. S. & S./Aladdin. 2018. ISBN 9781534431614.
PreS-Gr 1 –Unicorn-obsessed, self-declared expert Sophie is too busy affixing tiny horns to every stuffed animal, pet, and younger brother she can get her hands on to notice when a real unicorn wanders into the picture. Text and illustrations create a playful juxtaposition so that observant readers will delight in their own cleverness as they notice what Sophie does not (but are we, like Sophie, oblivious to the true wonders around us?). The humor is amped up even more by the rather inelegant unicorn: short, round, and startled-looking.

Roeder, Vanessa. The Box Turtle. illus. by author. Dial. 2020. ISBN 9780735230507.
PreS-Gr 2 –Like the spotless guinea fowl in Helen Ward’s Spots in a Box, the titular box turtle is somewhat different from the other turtles: Terrance is born without a shell. His loving parents provide him with “a name and a shell, both of which fit just right,” and rosy-cheeked Terrance toddles off topped with a cardboard box. When some other turtles make fun of him, he searches for a just-right replacement, but finally comes full circle to embrace his difference. Cute, clever, wise, and out of the ordinary, The Box Turtle is quietly fantastic.

Santat, Dan. The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2014. ISBN 9780316199988.
PreS-Gr 2 –Imaginary friends are a vivid presence in many childhoods, but they’re usually more sidekick than hero. Born on an island far away “where imaginary friends were created,” Beekle gets tired of waiting for his friend to imagine him, and does “the unimaginable:” he goes in search of his friend instead. Small, marshmallowy Beekle is out of place in “the real world,” but he succeeds in finding Alice.

Shea, Bob. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2013. ISBN 9781423159520.
PreS-Gr 2 –Goat and Unicorn are unlikely friends: Goat resents the newcomer’s attention-stealing sparkle, but Unicorn disarms Goat by being genuinely friendly, and admiring the ways they are different. Once he’s come around, Goat can’t quite admit he was wrong about Unicorn in the beginning: “I had a feeling we’d be friends.” In the second book, it’s Unicorn who’s pushed out of the spotlight on the first day of school; everyone is too fascinated by rubber bands shaped like other things to pay attention to him. He makes himself into a “New-nicorn” and thoroughly irritates everyone—but annoying behavior isn’t enough to ruin a friendship.

Sima, Jessie. Not Quite Narwhal. illus. by author. S. & S. 2017. 9781481469098.
PreS-Gr 2 –Young Kelp isn’t like the other narwhals. Born underwater and drawn with a bubble around his head, Kelp doesn’t realize what he is until the day he sees some unicorns (“land narwhals!”). Kelp has to reckon with his identity and decide where he truly belongs (the happy answer: both!). This is a common struggle; many of us have a foot—or a fin—in each world, and feel forced to choose. Kelp sets a good example, and the narwhal and unicorn communities are comfortingly accepting.

Smith, Briony May. Margaret’s Unicorn. illus. by author. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2020. ISBN 978198489653.
PreS-Gr 3 –Nothing softens a move to a new place like discovering a lost baby unicorn to care for, and that’s just what Margaret does (and her grandma doesn’t bat an eye). Her family incorporates the baby seamlessly into their lives until the unicorn herd returns the following year, when the baby reunites with its mother. Margaret is sad, of course, but by the time her unicorn visits her again, she is playing with a human friend. The expressive illustrations suggest the Scottish Highlands, with brown and green grasses, heather, and Margaret’s Fair Isle sweater, in this sweetly old-fashioned tale.

Vernick, Audrey. Scarlet’s Tale. illus by Peter Jarvis. Little, Brown. 2021. ISBN 9781368043083.
PreS-Gr 2 –Scarlet is born with a tail. Her parents are wonderfully accepting and make the necessary adjustments (imagine a toddler with a tail!), and Scarlet’s tail helps her show how she’s feeling. All is well until preschool begins; Scarlet is self-conscious when other kids stare. But soon the kids accept (and imitate) her too; preschool becomes a waggy place! Then Scarlet’s parents tell her they’re having a baby—what will it be? Readers of all ages will delight in the surprise ending.

Woollvin, Bethan. Bo the Brave. illus. by author. Peachtree. 2020. ISBN 9781682631829.
K-Gr 3 –Bo’s older brothers won’t let her come monster-hunting with them, so she goes by herself. But when she meets the monsters—a griffin, a kraken, and a dragon—she ends up befriending them. When she hears their side of the story, Bo realizes that it might be her brothers who are the real monsters, and she works to set things right. Woollvin’s original tale is even better than her fractured fairy tales, and her unique illustrations in a limited color palette (teal, orange, pink, black, and white) are striking.

Yaccarino, Dan. Giant Tess. illus. by author. HarperCollins. 2019. ISBN 9780062670274.
PreS-Gr 2 –“Welcome to Myth-hattan” proclaim the endpapers, over a map showing “Monster Square Garden,” “Centaur Park,” and “The Lower Beast Side.” The city is full to the brim with mythical creatures, including Tess herself, who “wanted more than anything” to “be like everyone else.” The irony is clear from the illustrations: no one in Myth-hattan is like anyone else. Tess and her new dragon friend save the day, and Tess feels that she is just the right size after all. The message is clear, but the story and illustrations are so playful and fun that it doesn’t feel a bit didactic.

Chapter Books

Citro, Asia. Dragons & Marshmallows. illus. by Marion Lindsay. (Zoey and Sassafras, Bk. 1). Innovation. 2017. ISBN 9781943147090.
K-Gr 4 –The only thing Zoey loves more than science is magic, so she’s thrilled when her scientist mom reveals that the forest behind their house is home to magical creatures who come to their barn when they need help. Zoey keeps a journal and sets up experiments using the scientific method to diagnose and treat dragons, monsters, merhorses, caterflies, unicorns, and more.

Gidwitz, Adam. The Creature of the Pines. illus by Hatem Aly. (Unicorn Rescue Society, Bk. 1). Dutton. 2018 ISBN 9780735231702.
Gr 2-4 –Elliot likes books and routine, so when he has to start a new school three weeks into the year on a field trip day, he’s ready to turn around and go home. Then he meets adventure-loving Uchenna, who drags him off the trail in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where they find an actual Jersey devil. “Jersey” follows them home, so they go to eccentric Professor Fauna for help, and he inducts them into the Unicorn Rescue Society (motto: Defende Fabulosa! Protege Mythica!). On further adventures, the trio encounters a dragon, a Sasquatch family, chupacabras, and la madre de agua. Sly humor, environmental and social justice themes, varied settings, and a good-vs-evil conflict characterize this fantastic chapter book series.

Marcero, Deborah. A Tale of Cosmic Friendship. illus. by author. (Haylee and Comet, Bk. 1). Roaring Brook. 2021. ISBN 9781250774392
Gr 2-4– When a little girl and a comet make the same wish at the same time, their wish is granted, and they become friends. A best friend falling out of the sky surely falls into the “fantastic” category, and Marcero’s blue and yellow characters are tender, kind, and a little bit funny. This graphic novel chapter book goes straight to the heart.

Jenny Arch is a middle school librarian in Western Massachusetts.

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