Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Ever since the Victorians, fantasy fiction has been a huge part of children’s literature. Indeed, classic fantasy novels for children actually emerged some time before serious fantasy literature for adults – modern fantasy, at least – became popular. In this post, we introduce 12 must-read fantasy novels for children and younger readers. Which classic novels have we missed off the list?
1. Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies.
Published in 1863, this is a children’s novel, but a rather unusual one, which is at once a children’s classic, a moral fable, a response to the theory of evolution, and a satire on Victorian attitudes to child labour and religion.
The book tells the story of the boy chimney-sweep, Tom, who goes beneath the water and becomes a ‘water-baby’. In many ways the tale of a child slipping underwater into an alternate world of fantasy, where the Victorian world is curiously inverted, foreshadows the next book on our pick of classic children’s fantasy books …
Recommended edition: The Water -Babies (Oxford World’s Classics)
2. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Published just two years after The Water-Babies, this 1865 book of nonsense literature actually had its origins in a boat trip taken by the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) with the children of the Liddell family on 4 July 1862.
During the course of the boat ride, Dodgson regaled the children – who included Alice, the model for his protagonist – with a story in which Alice follows the White Rabbit underground into a world of strange creatures and magic potions, among much else. The Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, and many other characters have become firm fixtures of countless childhood memories.
Recommended edition: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Penguin Classics)
3. George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin.
MacDonald, when he wasn’t trying to write the shortest poem in the language (just two words: ‘Come / Home’), was a pioneering fantasy author whose work would go on to influence Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The Princess and the Goblin (1872) isn’t his most famous novel, but it’s one of the most overtly ‘fantastical’, featuring castles, princesses, goblins, underground mines, a cat, and much else! MacDonald produced a sequel, The Princess and Curdie, in 1883.
Recommended edition: The Princess and the Goblin & The Princess and Curdie (Wordsworth Children’s Classics)
4. E. Nesbit, Five Children and It.
A considerable influence on later writers like C. S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was also a poet and author of supernatural fiction for adults, as well as being an influential political figure at the turn of the century (she co-founded the Fabian Society). But it is for her brilliantly inventive children’s fiction that she is now best remembered, and Five Children and It (1902) is our choice of the best. A group of children move from London to the countryside and discover a sand-fairy, the Psammead, who has the ability to grant wishes. It spawned two sequels.
Recommended edition: Five Children and It (The Psammead Series)
5. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.
A classic novel, which began with a single opening line which Tolkien – in a moment of inspiration – scribbled down on the blank page of a student’s exam paper at Oxford. This tale, in which a group of dwarves insist the help of the ‘hobbit’, Bilbo Baggins, as they seek to recover treasure from the dragon, Smaug, was published in 1937 and is reckoned to be one of the biggest-selling novels in the world.
Recommended edition: The Hobbit
6. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The first book of an eventual seven-part series to be published, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe appeared in 1950 and has been delighting generations of children ever since. Although Lewis denied that the books were Christian ‘allegory’ in the strictest sense of the word, they have strong echoes of the Biblical story of Jesus, which may either strengthen or lessen their appeal, depending on your personal tastes. But this tale of magical portals into snow-covered lands, fauns by lampposts, and evil witches bearing Turkish delight has become a classic in children’s fantasy literature.
Recommended edition: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia)
7. T. H. White, The Once and Future King.
One of the best-loved versions of the Arthurian story, this tetralogy of books focuses on the young Arthur’s growing to maturity, from the underdog living as ‘the Wart’ with his foster father, Sir Ector, to the king of legend. Published over two decades, this four-volume novel rivals The Lord of the Rings as one of the great fantasy achievements of the mid-twentieth century, and is enormous fun, thanks largely to White’s colloquial narrative style and his characterisation of Merlyn (who, unlike everyone else, is living through time backwards).
Recommended edition: The Once and Future King
8. Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Published in 1960, this novel sees two children, Colin and Susan, being plunged into the battle between good and evil after they meet a wizard and become involved in the search for the missing Weirdstone, a jewel containing magic powers. Garner was inspired by the local folklore of Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, after he moved into the medieval house Toad Hall (no relation to Kenneth Grahame or A. A. Milne) nearby. The twentysomething Garner bought the house for just £670 (!) and could trace his lineage several centuries back through a series of local Garners in Cheshire. This novel takes the local folklore and creates a fast-moving and thrilling adventure novel out of this raw material.
Recommended edition: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
9. Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising.
Published in five volumes between 1965-77, this sequence might be regarded, like The Once and Future King, as one big novel, and many reissues of the sequence publish all five short novels together in one volume.
On his 11th birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is an ‘Old One’ (a mystical being with magic powers) and must join the battle against the Dark (i.e. forces of evil). Over the course of the quintet of novels, we encounter a Grail Quest, Welsh folklore, Arthurian legend, and much else. Curiously, the first volume in the sequence was written as part of a contest designed to honour the memory of E. Nesbit.
Recommended edition: The Dark is Rising (Vintage Childrens Classics)
10. Jill Murphy, The Worst Witch.
Published in 1974 when Murphy was just 24, The Worst Witch, and its seven sequels, have sold around 5 million copies and become a firm favourite with young readers. The books follow the accident prone Mildred Hubble (the ‘worst witch’), a young girl at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches.
Murphy was inspired to create a fictional school for witches after she and her schoolfriends arrived home from school one day and her mother remarked that they were so messy they looked like the Three Witches. An idea was born, and Murphy drafted the novel when she was just 15 years old!
Recommended edition: The Worst Witch
11. Philip Pullman, Northern Lights.
This novel is the first volume in Pullman’s hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy, which takes its title from Milton’s Paradise Lost and takes in ideas of quantum physics among other things. Conceived as a pointed response to Lewis’s Narnia books, which Pullman regards as Christian propaganda, the series follows the girl Lyra Belacqua as she gets caught up in a strange world – or rather, several worlds – after her friend Roger is kidnapped by ‘Gobblers’. Learned, thought-provoking, and very compelling, the whole trilogy is worth reading.
Recommended edition: Northern Lights: His Dark Materials 1
12. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
By now, this bestselling novel and its six sequels require no introduction, and the story of how the struggling single mother Joanne Rowling finally got her novel published – after numerous rejections from publishers and agents – is well-known. Since its publication in 1997, the story of young wizard Harry Potter and his adventures at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has become world-famous, and the series of film adaptations have helped to cement the novels in the popular psyche. We have collected some of our favourite interesting facts about Rowling’s creation here.
Recommended edition: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: 1/7 (Harry Potter 1)
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CS Lewis was fond of denying allegory in his novels, for example, also with reference to his adult fantasy ‘Perelandra’, which seems clearly a Garden of Eden story. I don’t think I believe him.
what about ‘The Box of Delights” – Masefield?
I never got the Narnia religious allegory thing as a kid! I can see it now, but, when I first read the books, I just read it as a magic lion coming back to life, like a pumpkin turning into a coach or a frog turning into a prince!