The best classics of children’s fantasy for readers of any age

Who am I?

I discovered the San Francisco library when I was seven and fell in love. When I was ten, I would spread my armload of books out on the floor and decide which to read first. I can still recall that feeling of wonder, of both anticipation and homecoming as I surveyed the array – not of books – but of worlds that awaited me. Children’s books are not just for children, although we will never again experience the world with the raw clarity and power of childhood. Now, I write books for the child in everyone. I’ve won some awards, but it’s still taking the journey that makes my heart sing. 


I wrote...

Vasilisa

By Julie Mathison,

Book cover of Vasilisa

What is my book about?

In this 2021 BookLife Prize Semifinalist, fairy tales sometimes come true. It’s 1919, but in Edenfall, Pennsylvania, the war is not over—for Vasilisa. Papa is presumed dead on the fields of Flanders, Mama is being courted by an absolute ogre, and even Babka has had a bad spell. Or has she fallen under one? Only the Russian fables of Vasilisa’s youth offer any counsel. But what if they are more than tales?

Enter Ivan, who jumps a train at midnight and finds Vasilisa in a fix. Old Rus is calling them across time and space to the ancient forest where Baba Yaga and Koschei are at war. It’s a fairy tale of their own making, a tale whose happy ending is ever in doubt.

The books I picked & why

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Howl's Moving Castle

By Diana Wynne Jones,

Book cover of Howl's Moving Castle

Why this book?

This classic 1986 novel is delivered with a pitch-perfect note of wry humor, never too precious, and never demeaning. Wynne Jones did it all first: the fairy tale mash-up that has become standard fare in recent decades. She calls on the familiar tropes – castles and wizards and parallel worlds – but with a freshness and originality that genuinely delights. But the real genius of the novel is in its characters, effortlessly drawn, brilliantly unique. They leap off the page and straight into your heart. I was seventeen when this book came out, so I missed reading it as a kid and only discovered it as an adult when my literary agent recommended it as an example of writing craft. It’s been a favorite ever since – both for reading pleasure and for study into the intricacies of craft.  


The Diamond in the Window

By Jane Langton, Erik Blegvad (illustrator),

Book cover of The Diamond in the Window

Why this book?

First published in 1962, I read this book in the late 70s when I was about ten years old. Not quite as iconic as The House with the Clock in its Walls (another favorite), this novel is equally evocative and strange, with its rambling, Victorian house, mysteries unfolding in the attic, and just the right hint of menace. Secrets lurk behind doors and in dreams, but the daylight world of the book is just as compelling. I recall as a child being swept away by the charm and pedigree of historic Massachusetts with all its transcendental mystique (replete with busts in the hallway of Emerson and Thoreau). Filled to the brim with what we might now call magical realism, this book is seared into my DNA – a must-read.


The White Mountains

By John Christopher,

Book cover of The White Mountains

Why this book?

A young adult novel from 1968 (before they called them that) this book kept me up most of the night reading when I was ten or eleven years old, running (in my mind) from the great tripod creatures that threatened to take over the world. I was rapt. Christopher drew me so thoroughly into his world that my heart literally raced, and the scenes I witnessed as I fled across the White Mountains are with me still. I read it again as an adult, and only then did I fully appreciate it as a true classic of science fiction, an incisive examination of conformity, risk, and the genius of childhood. Like so many classics of children’s literature, this truly is a book for readers of any age. 


Half Magic, 1

By Edward Eager,

Book cover of Half Magic, 1

Why this book?

Edward Eager will never go out of style. Every generation of children, no matter how technologically sophisticated, discovers his books and delights in them. Half Magic, the first of Eager’s “daily magic series” (there are seven in all), is a portal book in which four siblings are transported to other places and times by means of a talisman. And yet the reader is transported to a parallel universe in another respect as well – one inhabited, shaped, and determined solely by kids, outside the orbit of adults. And isn’t that just how childhood feels? Published in 1954, set in the 1920s (the author was clearly an E. Nesbit fan), Eager’s timeless grasp of childhood infuses this book with all the wonder, fun, and sheer, ridiculous delight of those magical years. Want to become a kid again for one day? Read Half Magic and remember. 


A Wizard of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of A Wizard of Earthsea

Why this book?

Some “children’s books” are so sophisticated that they can hardly be categorized so narrowly. This classic, published in 1968, is widely recognized as a masterpiece of fantasy, a coming-of-age tale, but also a dissertation on death, power, and the humility that defines one’s true calling. It belonged to a whole generation of children, yet spoke just to me, or so it seemed, as if LeGuin had led me by the hand into the deepest caverns of experience. I understood, in the way that only a child can understand, the true horror of being hunted. So often we underestimate the child reader, forgetting what is lost in our comprehension as we become adults. LeGuin makes no such mistake, and although we adults are less equipped to fully assimilate her message, the child in each of us will respond to this book.  


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