If you’re reading this article, odds are good you know who Neil Gaiman is and that he’s written multiple books for younger readers, including the wildly-successful Coraline* and the newer The Graveyard Book. You probably know that Terry Pratchett has written several middle-grade novels, and you’re probably aware of both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.
But if you’re looking for some lesser-known kid-focused books that have genre elements, here are six of the best that might help you find new ways to share your love for sci-fi and fantasy with your kids:
6. The Giver series, by Lois Lowry — My mom suggested this one to me, not for the first book, but for the sequels… which most of us haven’t read. I certainly haven’t. Except maybe the second one, which I don’t remember. But The Giver is definitely science-fiction — a future world with no color, where everyone is sorted by what they’re good at? It may not be pitched to elementary- and middle-schoolers as sci-fi, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it is.
5. The Maximum Ride series, by James Patterson — These books aren’t necessarily lesser-known — nothing written by James Patterson is “lesser known” these days — but even though I was aware of them by virtue of them being on my parents’ shelves, I didn’t know there was a genre element. Apparently the kids in the books are only 98 percent human.
Here, let my mom tell you about them:
The Maximum Ride books are aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 14). They’re fantasy; the primary characters in the book have wings and other “super” abilities — physically strong, smart, and at least one of them can read minds and talk to animals. The characters grow throughout the series, staying believable and relating to each other as a family. There are no parents — in fact, their father is actually one of the bad guys, and they have to work together to figure out what they’re supposed to do (and save the world). Max and Fang, the oldest, take on surrogate parent roles (like the Emmy Rossum character in Shameless).
The books are written in first-person by Max, a girl who’s the leader of the group. They have short chapters and quick pacing, like regular Patterson books. They kept my interest even though I haven’t had a middle grader in my house since 1995.
4. Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele — About a year and a half ago, I reviewed this book for Escape Pod. Steele is better known for his Coyote series, and this book is a little more YA than MG (there’s lots more violence than in your average MG novel), but it’s well-plotted and fast-paced. Check out the review to learn more.
3. The Planet Builders series, by Robyn Tallis — I first came across these in the library back when I was growing up in southern Florida. They only had the first two, but over time more were released and more showed up on the shelves. I ended up reading all of them, and buying the first two (the only ones I could find at the bookstore at the time). I lost the second but ended up with the first for a long, long time. Eventually, almost ten years ago, I bought the rest of them on Amazon. They’re definitely juveniles, definitely aimed at a younger audience, and the writing is sometimes simplistic — and two or three of the books really didn’t need to be part of the series — but they’re generally good and there’s an overarching plot winding through all ten books.
Fun fact: Robyn Tallis is a pseudonym. Several authors wrote the Planet Builders books, including Sherwood Smith and one of my favorite writer duos, Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald (the first d is not capitalized on purpose). Macdonald says the books were pitched as “Sweet Valley High in space”, but having never read or seen SVH, I’ll have to take it on faith.
2. The Judge Benjamin series, by Judith Whitelock McInerney, illustrated by Leslie Morrill — I think my mom bought me the first one of these, about an Irish Catholic family living in suburban Illinois in the late 1970s, as told from the point of view of their Saint Bernard, Judge Benjamin. I adored the book, read it a zillion times… and then I got the second one, which was even funnier (especially when the Judge tries to figure out how to hide in the family’s new camper — I literally laughed out loud the first time I read it). Over the next four years, I bugged the hell out of my school’s librarian until finally all five books had been released. I later bought them on Amazon as well. They’re not traditionally fantasy; they’re more magical realism. The dog does things that a dog could conceivably do, but dogs simply cannot form the kinds of concepts that the Judge does. That makes it fantasy in and of itself. I’ve read them all to my kid and she enjoyed them greatly.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster — This is probably my favorite kids’ book ever, and, as with Maximum Ride, it’s rather well-known. The thing is, even though when I first read this book I was already reading adult-level sci-fi and fantasy… and I still didn’t make the connection that this was a fantasy novel. Because it totally is: Milo goes into a magical world with strange creatures and follows a relatively-standard Hero’s Journey until he returns to the real world. It’s a great book, and my daughter has loved it since I first read it to her almost two years ago. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend that you do. It should only take a few hours. I reviewed both the book and the film over at Escape Pod.
In researching this article, I came across a book called My Monster Farts. Farts plus literature? Always a winner.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.