I love a good middle grade fantasy. In fact, I sometimes prefer reading children’s books. They can be fun and humorous and don’t demand much and – best of all – I can discuss them with the kids. In fact, a couple of years ago, I wrote the first draft of a middle grade fantasy novel with (for me) surprising speed, in response to their demand for a new chapter every night. More on that later.
Anyway, I have been catching up on some delightful middle grade reading. Take this list as a recommendation for 8-12-year olds, or for jaded adults whose hearts need soothing. I would start with Harry Potter, my all time favorite series, except I don’t need to. Everyone has already read it! (If not, you must be an alien…)
Percy Jackson & the Olympians by Rick Riordan
I’m actually shocked I didn’t read these before – they’ve been around for over a decade. The original pentalogy is excellent – funny and action-packed and really well-written. Highly recommended. Features a likable hero, a strong and wise girl, and the most hilarious sidekick in the form of a satyr. Much better than the movies. You just have to wrap your head around the ridiculous notions that a) the Greek gods follow the light of western civilization and b) America is that beacon now. This was probably truer under Obama than it is now, of course…
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This is an older, award-winning series, dating to the 1960s. Another pentalogy – what is it with fives? It includes this gem from the author’s note: “We are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart”. The books follow the adventures of young Taran, who dreams of being a hero, but whose most important task, at least in the beginning, is taking care of an oracular pig. Inspired by Welsh mythology, much as Percy Jackson is inspired by Greek.
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Oh Artemis, I really don’t like you much. You’re a 12-year old criminal mastermind! Who tries to steal and trick his way into fortune! Why does my son love you so much? Actually, it’s not hard to see why. This 8-book series is inventive and funny, and the first four books are truly amazing – even I loved them. After that, it seemed a tad repetitive to me. But really, the first few are worth reading, if you fancy technological fairies, kleptomaniacal dwarves, and smug centaurs.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
One of my favorites, this award-winning trilogy follows the adventures of Lyra and Will in different worlds as they try to solve the mystery of Dust. One of the coolest things in these books is how people’s souls or hearts manifest as spirits called ‘daemons’ – the shape changing constantly for young children, but gradually settling on one shape as they grow older. It’s like having a fantastic version of yourself to talk with. Underpinning the superficial narrative, however, are philosophical and theological questions, which gives this series a depth and seriousness lacking in most other children’s books. Recommended for older children.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
This, sadly, is a stand-alone book. Sadly because we would have loved to read more about Milo, the bored boy whose life changes when a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room. He drives through it in his toy car – because why not? There’s nothing better to do. On the other side, of course, is a different world, and what a fantastic one it is. Words and numbers come to life, with characters such as Rhyme and Reason, Tock the watchdog, a Which (not a witch!) and a Humbug.
Next up for us is The Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings by Elizabeth Laird, a retelling of Iran’s most famous epic poem, filled with kings, heroes, princesses, magical animals and demons. Sounds like fun!