The best children’s fantasy books deeply grounded in our world, but with a twist

The Books I Picked & Why

The Thief

By Megan Whalen Turner

Book cover of The Thief

Why this book?

I still remember the first time I read The Thief. I was twelve or thirteen, and I could tell right away that this would be a lush historical novel set in a Greco-inspired ancient world of megarons and olive groves. The first part had plenty of conversations about the gods, but I didn’t think they would actually show up in the story. 

Until they did. 

The Thief opened up a window of possibilities in my young authorial soul. I realized that my very favorite stories pulled back the rug of this world and let you see the magical foundation underneath. This magic was not sprinkled on top, it was ingrained. It made everything feel at once more real, and more frightening. When gods walk the earth, anything can happen.

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Wildwood Dancing

By Juliet Marillier

Book cover of Wildwood Dancing

Why this book?

This is another childhood story that convinced me to look for the deeper magic beneath the surface, a magic tapped into through myths and legends. The world of Wildwood Dancing is filled with vampires (not the sparkly kind), Iele, and Draguta, the witch of the woods. Based on the fairytale of the twelve dancing princesses, the story is set in the mountains of Transylvania, but with the added twist of a place called the Other Kingdom, where the five sisters go every Full Moon. The descriptions are rich and vivid, and the incorporation of Romanian folklore makes it feel even more authentic. I was inspired to weave mythology and fairytale elements into my books too, because those stories have stood the test of time. They make a fantasy world feel lived in. 

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The Scorpio Races

By Maggie Stiefvater

Book cover of The Scorpio Races

Why this book?

If you loved reading about the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, and you like books set on vaguely Irish/British/Scottish islands, then The Scorpio Races is the book for you. Here’s the twist. The ponies that the islanders race in Stiefvater’s book are carnivorous. Yes, you read that right. Based on the Irish mythological capaill uisce, these unpredictable water horses will either help you win the race, or kill you. Stiefvater does such an incredible job of making Thisby Island feel authentic and true that these terrifying creatures felt real, too. In fact, if I’m ever on a ferry to a cold, Northern Island, I will be keeping an eye out for murderous water horses. 

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The Perilous Gard

By Elizabeth Marie Pope, Richard Cuffari, Cynthia von Buhler

Book cover of The Perilous Gard

Why this book?

I picked this up as an adult thinking it was straight historical fiction. After all, we meet the imprisoned Princess Elizabeth of England in the first chapter. However, when the main character is relocated to a remote castle and discovers the underground world of the fairy folk, the story takes a delightful turn into the realm of myth and legend. It pays homage to the Scottish myth of Tam Lin, the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, and several Arthurian legends, while remaining firmly grounded in Elizabethan England. The added twist of the fairy realm was so deftly accomplished that I finished the book thinking that perhaps, if I lived in Elizabethan England, I too might have stumbled upon the land of the Fairy Folk. 

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Spinning Silver

By Naomi Novik

Book cover of Spinning Silver

Why this book?

Spinning Silver is a loose reimagining of the tale of Rumpelstiltskin and is meant for older readers (Young Adult/Adult). Novik crafts an Old Russian/Slavic-inspired world of Tsars and kopeks and moneylenders. She’s clearly done extensive research on the clothing and food and politics of the time, which makes the setting feel effortlessly real. Then, she adds in a fairy race made of ice known as the Staryk. Also, the fire demon Chernobog (surprise!). The world of Spinning Silver feels so rich and old and familiar that it makes room for the fantastic to enter in without us hardly noticing. It’s written in multiple points of view, each one fully distinct, and the story only gets better with a re-read.  

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