I don’t know about you, but I used to love science fiction and fantasy growing up. Tell me a story about someone who doesn’t realize they have magic until a crazy, unexplained event happens…and I am all in. Tell me about weird futuristic worlds with new rules and new technology…and I will read that story 20 more times. Here are some of my favorites from when I was younger (okay, and some I read more recently), in no particular order.
- The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones
There are two books in this series, and I loved them both. In The Lives of Christopher Chant, Christopher has a strange power to visit other worlds at night. He uses it to help his uncle with some…business transactions. When everyone realizes Christopher has multiple lives, he’s sent to be trained as the next Chrestomanci. It’s a strange take on the way magic works, without going into too much detail for a young reader.
In Charmed Life, Christopher Chant is now the Chrestomanci (the connection between the stories blew my mind when I was ten), and he takes in siblings Gwendolyn and Cat. Gwen has all sorts of strange, magical powers, and her little brother Cat is in awe, even though she treats him terribly. When life with the Chrestomanci isn’t everything Gwen wanted, she disappears. And we get to learn secrets about Cat, his sister, and his sister’s very lofty goals. It’s a great story for anyone with a sibling who annoys or astounds them, and for anyone who likes stories of magicians living in heavily decorated castles with annoying friends and intimidating adults.
2. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
Long before the movie came out, I was obsessed with Madeleine L’Engle’s stories about the Murry family, and particularly this one centered on their daughter Meg. If you asked me what it was about right now, I wouldn’t remember very well. But particular scenes stayed with me and I can picture them now like I just read them. For example:
A block full of identical houses. Children come out of the houses at the exact same time, playing with a ball. They bounce the balls at the same time, the bounces synchronized perfectly. One boy almost drops his, and someone comes and yells at him.
Or: a principal in a schoolyard yelling at students. Meg’s father trapped in a prism of light, unreachable. Calvin, Meg’s friend and one of my first crushes.
Many of the books I read growing up featured male protagonists. I think part of why I liked this one so much was that first, Meg saves the day. Meg! And second, she doesn’t do it with superpowers. She does it by being her awkward self and summoning up an extra ounce of courage that she perhaps didn’t know she had.
3. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
This was another book where I read it 20+ years ago and only remembered bits and pieces. A man who held all the knowledge of the past. A boy who is assigned to replace him. An apple that he sees as red – not “red”, but actual red. Sliding down a snowy hill into an unknown future.
This book was my first foray into dystopian science fiction. It was the first time I saw a vision for a possible future and a person who wanted to change everything once his eyes were finally opened. It’s probably why I love dystopian fiction so much right now.
4. The Girl with the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts
This is another book I read again and again. The main character, like me, was a bit shy and loved to read. But! She also had a super power: telekinesis. I remember being little and loving this word – first, because how cool was it that I knew a word like that, and second, how cool is that as a power?
There’s something about reading a character, when you’re 10, who just can’t fit in, who even has a power that makes it impossible for her to fit in, that puts your own social crises in perspective. Middle school was rough, wasn’t it?
5. Bright Shadow, by Avi
A twelve-year-old girl gets a gift from a dying stranger – five wishes. She isn’t sure what she’s supposed to do with them, and doesn’t know how and when to use them. The struggle between selfishness and selflessness is a tough one.
I always liked this idea of five “wishes” when I reread this book. These Things that existed, in the air or in someone’s head, and when spoken, they could make anything come true. As the story progresses and the girl can’t avoid using the wishes, she saves her friend and her kingdom, but is left with a heavy burden. Now she’s the bearer of exactly one wish, the last one that exists in the world. I can’t think about this book without imagining the final image of the girl walking alone in the forest, jumping across rocks in a stream, about to live a life separate from society. It haunts me to think about it even now.
6. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Is this book a fantasy? I mean, there’s a big talking Watchdog, and a man who is born at the height he’ll be when he’s an adult and grows downward over time. There’s an island called Conclusions that you leap to sometimes. There’s a cave where people mine for numbers. There are two princesses that the boy Milo needs to save, but do they really need saving?
I read this book until the spine fell into pieces. I still have that version. The story is sweet and the puns flow like crazy. The wordplay alone…amazing. I still think about some of the mini-adventures to this day. A town noise. The only way Milo can help get the sounds back is by visiting the thief, who has stolen all the sounds, and catching a word on the tip of his tongue. A man with no face who gives each of the travelers an unnecessarily complicated task, like transferring a pile of sand with tweezers from one spot to another, only the man is so charming they all agree to it. Milo accidentally orchestrating the sunrises too quickly and weeks going by while people sleep.
Really. You need to read this now.
7. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
This book is listed at 12+, but when I read it at around that age, it was way too scary. I mean, let’s be honest, I’m a wimp. But the stories haunted me. I had nightmares. I still read some of them again and again. It was the only “scary” book I read the whole way through, and the only one I read more than once.
Look, you can read this one. Go ahead. It’s great. But I’m not going to sit here and summarize any parts of it to you, because it still creeps me out to this day. Okay?
8. Matched, by Allie Condie
This is one of the young adult sci-fi trilogies I read more recently. It’s set in a dystopian (obvs) future where the government assigns jobs, assigns mates, assigns everything. Of course, our heroine is assigned to a great match, perfect for her. And then, of course, she realizes she’d rather be with someone else.
Like so many other dystopian sci-fis, what starts as one person questioning the way things work turns into an unraveling of the secrets the government hides below the surface. What seems like a utopia is anything but.
9. Sabriel, by Garth Nix
I’m a huge fan of Katniss Everdeen, among others, but I can’t think of a single female character as tough and badass as Sabriel, daughter of the Abhorsen. It’s one of the darker books on this list (don’t get me thinking about The Martian Chronicles again, ok?) and there’s at least one scene that is legitimately terrifying. Where a talking cat turns into…oh man. So scary.
But mostly, this book as about a land of magic where Sabriel searches for her missing father, the Abhorsen. The Abhorsen’s sacred duty is to make sure the dead stay dead, and Sabriel’s father has trained her in the craft so one day she can take his place. Garth Nix does some incredible worldbuilding. The magical realms he describes, both the underworld and the magical part of the real world, are truly original. Sabriel uses a variety of bells rung in a variety of ways to calm the awakened dead and send them back where they belong. You also shouldn’t miss the next two books in the series: Lirael and Abhorsen.
10. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
This is another very recent one, but one I know I would have loved as a kid. And it’s hard to describe without ruining too much. The main character, Miranda, starts to receive strange notes about future events. At the same time, her mom is preparing to be on a big game show and wants to take home the big prize. And her best friend Sal stops talking to her.
Whatever age you are, check this one out. It’s an easy read: it’s short, it’s easy to follow, and the science fiction aspects are integrated seamlessly into a coming-of-age tale.
How about you? What are some of your favorite sci-fi/fantasy books for children and young adults?