Hello, all 🙂 Today’s #WyrdandWonder prompt is Under-Rated. If this is your first time reading about Wyrd and Wonder, check out this amazing initiative by Imryl, Jorie, and Lisa which celebrates our beloved fantasy genre. You can find the community engaging in this May event on twitter as well.
I was wrecking my head about how to approach this prompt and decided to discuss something close to my heart.
I began my bookwyrm journey as a kid, just like so many of you reading this now. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a house where reading was free rein. We’ve had our own ever-growing personal library for ages and both my grandparents and my parents fostered reading not only as a necessity but as a fun hobby.
I loved reading just about anything, from the best non-fiction, the Horrible Science series (the books that got me into science!), to my favorite fictional worlds, such as The Spiderwick Chronicles. I read constantly and variedly, MG, YA, and even braved books branded as adult. I loved the worlds of The Hobbit and Sevenwaters as much as I loved reading about that family of kids who inherited a world of fairytale creatures from their uncle.
I wonder often if I would be the same now, as passionate about SFF (and every other genre), if I hadn’t read what I did as a kid, and as much as I did. I’m sure all of you think of the same.
Yet, as I now, as an adult (I like to think) or at least a world-braver with a full-grown body (though I also like to think I still have a few cms to grow…) engage more freely with the book community, I find that there is little admiration for kidlit, little respect for the books that influenced us so much, the stories that, in each particular way, build us.
I’ve read often that books with under 50 pages shouldn’t be counted towards challenges, that MG books are inferior to adult reads, that kidlit is fine, IF you’re a kid, but nose-twisting if you’re an adult. Because if you’re an adult, you should be reading more mature books, right?
To me, such discourse goes against everything we bookworms stand for, because, when did reading become about quantity? When did our passion for discovering and sharing new worlds become a competition?
You can read an adult book with over 500 pages and come out on the other side none changed. You can read a 30 page illustrated book that ignites your heart with a message so powerful it changes your life. Or vice-versa.
We should only remember that reading is like the universe: a multitude devoid of ranking.
To me, books and reading are that, powerful life-changing messages. No matter the size. No matter the age group. It’s not that every book should be mind-blowing or a favorite. But every book that teaches you something at its end is worth valuing.
In fact, I dare say that books for younger audiences should be more often read by adults.
Too often, as adults, we grow into a sense of dismissal. A belief we have outgrown ourselves. We are no longer that naive little kid holding on to unimaginable worlds. Except, if we stop to think for a minute, have we really strayed so far from that child? Sure, the experiences we read about have morphed. Now we relish beheadings of blood-drooling demons, experiences with marriage, sex, and divorce, not magical rocks that allow us to see beneath the veil covering other worlds, nor the first day at a school of magic. Except, is that really true?
It’s a common thought that a book for kids can’t possibly expand beyond what a book for fully realized adults can. They don’t know about the pain of life, the harsh realities of unfair employment, the corruption and injustice peeking at every corner. Furthermore, we’re far too accustomed to matured lyricism to ever go back to more rudimentary writing styles.
Yet many times during my work in education, and my exploration of children’s lit, I found it was kids teaching us adults how to be fully realized. I’ve seen MG books with complex worldbuilding and characters. I was still being taught lessons by these stories seen through a child’s lense, stories that brimmed with unmatched wit, hope, inventiveness, engaging worldbuilding (a world filled with wonder yes, but also corrupted politics and evil), and even its own brand of despair.
Even as adults, you never really stop learning, or discovering, or imagining. Even as adults, it is worthy to hold on to those things that propelled us into the awe-inspiring world of Fantasy.
Without those simple children’s stories, those simple, childish worlds, I wouldn’t be where I was today. They taught me to grow beyond and learn with every story. They taught me what magic was and why I was allowed to love it. They encouraged me to go to infinity and beyond.
So, after this tearful, tl;dr introduction, I bring you a post that celebrates a selection of these children’s books that to this day inspire me to explore the world of Fantasy.
To them, I am forever grateful.
The Edge Chronicles: The Twig Saga by Paul Stewart & Chris Ridell
This book was one of my earliest forays into fantasy, into a world filled with dangerous quests, the search for something more, and a landscape abound with strange creatures and a terror lurking in the darkest corners of a forest.
Beyond the Deepwoods follows Twig, a boy who was abandoned and raised by a loving family of woodtrolls. The woodtrolls have but one rule that protects them from the perils of the tenebrous forest around them: never stray from the path.
Guess what Twig does? He stays home like an obedient boy and lives out his days sipping tea in his comfortable lil woodtroll nook….Ahah, that’d be a pretty cool but quick book, right? No, Twig does the unthinkable, rather age-appropriate thing and, you guessed it, strays from the path. So begins a journey filled with creatures from the worst of nightmares that will lead Twig to a most unexpected conclusion. He will have to face his worst fears to accomplish he doesn’t even know what yet.
I like to joke that this was my induction into dark fantasy, and you know what, maybe it’s not that much of a joke. The creatures in the book are pretty damn terrifying (well, they were, for a kid in her first decade of life. A reread is definitely in order to confirm this) and the illustrations capture just the right moments of helplessness and wonder. The end of Twig’s journey leads to a plot twist so huge it adds a whole new genre to the book.
The Twig Saga is actually a trilogy within The Edge Chronicles, but Twig’s adventures can be read without any prior knowledge of the previous stories; I can testify to that, as I only much later realized this story fit in a much bigger canon.
Book of the Stars by Erik L’Homme
As a kid, I loved portal fantasy, stories of ordinary children like me stepping into other wondrous worlds. This series isn’t exactly a portal fantasy, but it deals with this multitude of worlds in the singular way only fantasy can manage.
Our journey into Book of the Stars starts with Guillemot, or Robin in the English version. Robin lives in the Lost Isle, a realm in between two others, The Real World and the Uncertain World, this latter a shadowy realm of evil and darkness.
As the island he inhabits, Robin is suddenly caught in-between fates, when, one night, Qadehar The Sorcerer approaches him with hopes of making him his apprentice. But Robin has always wanted to be a knight, and it is known that knights and sorcerers, though working together for a common purpose, may never blend. He is so faced with the decision of walking an unknown, uncertain path which he has shown promise for, and which has admittedly enticed him, or work towards a dream he has always envisioned. I personally can still to this day related to a message such as this.
The setting is an intriguing mixture of medieval and technological, with knights, squires, and magic melding with computer games. As worlds mingle, we discover a magic system based in movement and posture, hidden agendas at every corner, and a lesson that darkness resides where we least expect.
One of the things I most loved about it, even with all its issues (particularly regarding female characters), is the strength with which Robin’s guardians (Qadehar, his mother, Alice) believe in him and encourage him. We should all be so loved.
Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones
A great number of people know Diana Wynne Jones through her famous work, Howl’s Moving Castle, immortalized in our generations by Hayao Miyazaki’s animated adaptation. Yet I first knew Diana’s work thanks to the Chrestomanci series.
The story revolves around Eric (known as Cat) and Gwendolen, his sister, who lost their parents in a boating accident. Gwendolen, being the ambitious, driven girl she is, convinces the Chrestomanci Castle to take them in and train her as a witch under the tutelage of the most powerful enchanter in the world. Cat is just content to walk around as the non-magical human he is (or so he believes), doing mischief.
But this story soon reveals a much bigger picture, as Janet, Gwendolen’s counterpart from another world, is brought into the world of Chrestomanci, and she and Cat unravel the horrifying intentions hidden behind Gwendolen’s actions.
This children’s book deals with some pretty heavy themes, such as the effects of trauma and familial abuse, all the while woven around a variety of interesting magical concepts, where every magic has a particularity of its own.
The Tapestry series by Henry H. Neff
With this book, I will have to admit most of the plot has faded from my memory. I don’t have a good memory to begin with, but it gets even harder when I try to relive books I’ve read more than 15 years ago. It’s been a long time.
I remember the basic premise, along with a little help from Goodreads: Max McDaniels is a young boy who one day wanders off (what is it with kids and doing that?!) in from his father at The Art Institute of Chicago. There, Max encounters a magical Celtic tapestry that triggers a painful vision. His exploration sets in motion events that lead to his recruitment to the Rowan Academy, as he has been marked a Potential, one with magical prowess.
What follows is an engaging story of magic, academics, exploring your potential, and discovering the unknown within you. Max meets some hilarious characters that evoke our own memories from school times (like that one friend that was touching dangerous magical items because he was always distracted with his own thought, who can relate?!) and a whole new world behind his capabilities.
The story weaves Celtic myth, some science fiction elements, and a funny light-hearted school environment that even so, doesn’t shy away from ancient struggles between good and evil forces.
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi
By now you’ve probably realized how much I loved chapter books with illustrations as a kid. To be honest, I wish adult fantasy normalized this at times, because I would love to see more epic battles, nightmarish monsters, and fantastical creatures imagined in picture. But for now, kidlit has managed to satisfy this desire of mine.
This series remains one of my favorites to this day. It blew up hugely in my day, it was a source of unity class-wise and even school-wise, as the Spiderwick fever spread amongst us 5th/6th graders. Everyone was reading this at the same time, we shared the books, sometimes reading two, three at a time to speed things up so the other group could have their turn. This was my first training at holding back spoilers from others, and I must admit I sometimes failed miserably. But I never forgot these stories.
Spiderwick begins and ends with the Grace siblings, who move into an old new home, the house of their great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick. There, they find a strange, marvelous book titled Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastic World Around You, and unsurprisingly enough, they are thus inducted into the fantastic world around them, a world filled with unseen creatures, some bad, some good, all terrifyingly fantastical.
As they venture through a catalog of the mythological and fantastic, the siblings learn to strengthen one another and care for each other. For me, all things wonderful and fabulous were kept between the pages of this series, where the power of books is highly evidenced, and three little kids brave the unknown.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
When someone asks what my favorite book is, or what’s the next book they should read, The Earthsea Cycle is always at the tip of my tongue. Ironically, I frequently find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe how much I love these books.
This is the story of Ged (or Duny, as his mother child-named him), nicknamed Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth, a young boy who unleashes a shadow upon the world and who must master the incredible source of magical power within him. To me, Ursula weaves a story like no other, working her way through the metaphysical, the magical, the intentional. This is a story of pride, of unchallenged potential, of mentorship.
In the world of Earthsea, words are true power. The knowledge of an object, a person, a creature’s name wields with it control. Magic bends around this premise, and Ged’s journey is one of restoring imbalance in the world. Ged’s character himself was the first subversion of the common wizardly mentor fantasy trope, and the first time I realized someone as young as me could have extraordinary power.
This is a deeply character-driven story that still finds its growth supported by a world filled with exceptional detail and captivating worldbuilding. I, for one, loved to grow up with Ged.
To me, it was an extremely powerful and transformative journey, with an impactful message of accepting yourself, even as you suffer and fail. To the world, I believe it helped shed a few misconceptions on children’s literature, as its unparalleled brilliance demands to make itself known.
Hence, it’s the perfect series to end my list with.
What childhood kidlit books do you still love to this day? Which ones do you remember even now? Which ones would you reread?
Featured image by freepik