The best young adult books about imaginary worlds

Sylvia Engdahl Author Of This Star Shall Abide: aka Heritage of the Star
By Sylvia Engdahl

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in worlds other than ours, primarily extraterrestrial worlds because I believe expansion into space is vital to the future survival of humankind, but also fantasy worlds that illuminate ideas and feelings that are universal. I’ve written the Newbery Honor book Enchantress from the Stars and ten other science fiction novels, a classification that limits their discovery because they're often liked better by people who read little if any science fiction than by avid fans of that genre. Because they’re set in imaginary worlds distant from Earth—and are not fantasy because they contain no mythical creatures or magic—there is nothing else to call them. I wish books didn’t have to be labeled with categories!

I wrote...

This Star Shall Abide: aka Heritage of the Star

By Sylvia Engdahl,

Book cover of This Star Shall Abide: aka Heritage of the Star

What is my book about?

Noren can see that his world is not as it should beit is wrong that only the Scholars, and their representatives the Technicians, can use metal tools and Machines. It's wrong that only they have access to the impenetrable City, which he has always longed to enter. Above all, it is wrong for the Scholars to have sole power over the distribution of knowledge. Unable to believe in the Prophecy that promises these restrictions will someday end, he declares it to be a fraud and defies the High Lew under which they are enforced. His family and the girl to whom he is betrothed reject him. Yet he cannot turn back from the path that leads him to the mysterious fate awaiting heretics.

The books I picked & why

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A Wizard of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of A Wizard of Earthsea

Why this book?

This, the first full-length fantasy ever written specifically for young adults, remains by far my favorite novel of its kind, both because of the unsurpassed beauty of its style and the depth of the ideas it expresses. I much prefer its conception of magic to that of the Harry Potter series. Magic, in this story, is integral to the world; it is never a mere casual pastime that depends on external paraphernalia. And it has serious consequences, both for the world and for the mage, or student-mage, who employs it unwisely at his peril. Though the story takes place in a vividly-portrayed imaginary world, it is not really about that world but about life, and though this is the aim of all good fantasy, rarely is it so successfully achieved.

The Dragonbards Trilogy: Complete in One Volume

By Shirley Rousseau Murphy,

Book cover of The Dragonbards Trilogy: Complete in One Volume

Why this book?

I don't ordinarily care for stories about dragons or speaking animals, but this book's beautifully written descriptions of them and their world made it compelling, and the singing dragons remained in my memory long after the first time I read it. Moreover, the familiar elements of such fantasy–a hidden prince, animal companions, magical objects, imprisonment in a dungeon, and so forth--are here presented in unique and believable ways. The protagonists are heroic but vulnerable and the villains who seek to enslave the world are truly evil, so that the reader feels that what happens to them really matters. And looking it over recently, I was struck by the realization that in the years since its first publication in the 1980s the timeliness of the story has increased.

Farmer in the Sky

By Robert A. Heinlein,

Book cover of Farmer in the Sky

Why this book?

All of Robert Heinlein's YA novels are good (better, in my opinion, than his adult novels), but this one has special meaning for me because it was the first book I ever read about colonizing an uninhabited world. At the time it was published in 1950 I was sixteen and had been enthusiastic about the possibility of space travel for four years, since long before the general public was familiar with it; but all the space fiction I knew of was about mere adventure, usually adventure focused on fighting. The idea that families could someday settle a new planet--and, despite danger and hardship, accomplish something of immense importance to the future of humankind--made a strong impression on me and became one of my deepest convictions.

Quarter Share: Trader's Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper

By Nathan Lowell,

Book cover of Quarter Share: Trader's Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper

Why this book?

This is the first book in a series for adults that can also be enjoyed by teens. Unlike most space fiction, it's not about heroic exploits but about an ordinary young man coming of age while doing an ordinary job aboard a merchant starship. I like its portrayal of the human-settled part of the universe in the era of travel between stars. No aliens, no space battles–just a culture much like our own offering freedom and opportunity for personal achievement. The specific lifestyle described is anachronistic because cultures change over time; yet it's no further from realism than wildly-imagined changes would be. I believe fiction that shows significant future developments should let readers identify with its characters' experiences rather than depict differences merely for the sake of difference.

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

It may seem superfluous to recommend a book that everyone is already familiar with, yet I don't see how I could omit it from a list of my favorite books about imaginary worlds. After devouring the unauthorized paperbacks sold in 1965 before it became popular, I was thrilled to receive the hardcover set for Christmas. Though it’s intended for adults I would have loved it in my teens, as many teens do today. It was one of the few books that influenced my own writing, through inspiring the archaic language I used in sections of my book, and with references to it in a later novel. This trilogy and the quotable wisdom it contains are timeless, and will be read long after more recent fantasy sagas are forgotten.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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