This list is purely subjective of course. And it’s purely of the moment. I invite all my readers to add their own titles to this list. But I thought it’d be fun to introduce some of my favorite female protagonists over the years.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Florence Lamborn (Puffin, c1945)
I’ll kick the list off with this red-haired gal from Sweden. Pippi is outrageous, wildly nonconformist and an affront to right thinking adults everywhere. This super-strong little girl is not only capable of living on her own with her horse and monkey, she insists on it. Watching Pippi interact with the more staid society around her leads to hilarious results. She really is one of the first female superheroes of literature. Re-reading this book with my son, as a parent I find myself wincing at many things in this story–but those are some of the very things that make the story so magical and delightful for children.
Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (HMH, c1990)
Cimorene is anything but a proper princess. She wants to learn how to cook, and do magic, and fight with a sword. But her parents simply want her to marry a very dull prince as a proper princess should. So Cimorene runs away and makes a deal with a dragon. She’ll be the dragon’s princess if the dragon will keep away the princes and let her do all the unproper stuff she wants. I added the Trina Schart Hyman cover here because it so beautifully captures the Cimorene (not sweet or elegant) and her relationship with the dragon. Lots of fun with fairytales turned on their heads. Check out the rest of the series if you enjoy this one!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow (HarperCollins, c1900)
It’s easy to forget, given it’s age and weight as a classic that this story contains one of the more forthright and impressive adventurers who’s ever crossed into a fairyland. Farm girl Dorothy mostly takes things in stride–from her quest to find the wizard, to her show down with the witch, and to her final journey home again. Think about how rare this was at the time to have a girl in that role (and not a princess). Then realize that unlike the movie, Dorothy’s journey was no dream, and she’ll return to Oz many more times throughout her life on other adventures. Baum’s extended series of books set in Oz don’t always feature Dorothy, but she’s an enjoyable character when she does appear.
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion, c2007)
When the aliens invaded earth and Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s mom is taken away aboard an alien ship, Tip is left on her own. So she does what any self-reliant tween does heads out to steal a hovercar and find her mother–oh, and maybe save Earth from yet another alien invasion in the process. A fun and funny narrator, Tip makes this story of aliens come to life with hilarious observations and crazy shenanigans. In the end it’s a darned good SF story too.
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum, 1983)
Anyone who knows me by now probably has some notion that this series is bound to land on a list like this. Seriously, Alanna changed my life. This twin who disguised herself as a boy to become a knight, then goes on to prove herself and become a champion to the kingdom, well, up until then I’d never seen a female character in a sword and sorcery story succeed as hero by being the warrior. Alanna is a stubborn, hot-tempered gal who wants things her way–even if that way is a challenge. Her struggles to both succeed as a fighter and to figure out how to accept herself formed the backbone of my fantasy reading as a tween.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, c2009)
Minli is a poor girl who works hard to survive each day with her family, but she loves her father’s fantastic stories that he shares with her. Stories of magic and adventure and strange places. When she sets a goldfish free, she doesn’t imagine it will send her on a quest far from home. Along the way she will meet and befriend different creatures, and have to use her wits to win. Combining ancient Chinese myths with a girl’s magical adventure story, this is a fantastic read aloud to share with your family.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, c1986)
I could hardly have this list without including Sophie. Poor, elder sister Sophie who is told her life will be the dullest since she is the eldest. A girl who is quiet and has mostly accepted her lot in life, until she is cursed. In a case of mistaken identity, Sophie is cursed by a witch and turned into an old woman. Horrified by this, and not wanting to face her family, Sophie decides to seek out the nefarious wizard Howl. Being old gives Sophie a new latch on life, and she embraces the chance to be as stubborn and cantankerous as she wants. Sophie has a magic all her own, and with it she might cause the wizard Howl to lose his life . . . or might be his one chance at saving it.
Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (HarperCollins, 2015)
Alice Dare is being sent to Mars with a shipload of other children so that they may be kept safe and train to one day fight the aliens that have invaded Earth. When all the adults on Mars go missing, there’s soon trouble–and Alice and her friends find themselves on the run out in the not-so-friendly Martian terrain. Alice is wry and funny as she tells her story about how she and her friends wind up bringing about a peace with the alien invaders and saving both races from an even greater threat. Hilarious SF adventure with several great female characters to cheer on!
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Young Readers, Expected Publication April 2015)
Corinne La Mer is a fearless and strong-hearted girl living on an island in the Caribbean. Unlike so many others, she’s not afraid to venture into the dark forest. At least she wasn’t until a Jumbie followed her out! Now that Jumbie has designs on her father and on the village, and Corinne must come to accept her own lineage and decide where her loyalties lie. In the end that decision is not so simple. This spooky fantasy tale won me over the first time I read it, I hope others will enjoy discovering Corinne much as I did.
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (HarperTrophy, c2003)
If you’ve never encountered Tiffany Aching, I hope you will soon at your next opportunity. A girl of intelligence, determination and heart, Tiffany finds herself to be the hero of the story, even if others don’t want to acknowledge it. This is just the first book in an ongoing series about Tiffany and her journey from girlhood to womanhood and becoming a witch. Sir Terry handles it all brilliantly in my opinion. “Yes! I’m me! I am careful and logical and I look up things I don’t understand! When I hear people use the wrong words, I get edgy! I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string! That’s the kind of person I am!”
So there you have it! Please share your favorites in the comments!
So excited to celebrate my 400th post on my blog. Three years ago in 2013 I was a hesitant newcomer still trying to hammer out my niche and style and wondered if I could keep at it. Well, here I am, still posting. Still loving my topics and reading.
So my first 100 posts, to celebrate I listed quotes from 100 books. My 200th post was a list of first lines from speculative fiction titles. My 300th post wound up dedicated to the memory of Sir Terry Pratchett. So for my 400th, I’m picking 100 books that helped grow me as a reader and a person. Stuff I read as a kid and absorbed and have never forgotten. The stories that help make up the structures of our minds and our ways of thinking. I’ve mentioned a few authors more than once but overall tried to keep my repeating of authors limited where possible.
So here we go!
If there’s ever been a story that epitomized the idea of friendship and the power of writing to me–it was this book. Most likely too, this was the first story in which I encountered the idea of death and the inevitability of it as part of the cycle of life. But most importantly, that fighting for a life–and fighting for a life to be lived and not cut short is hugely important.
Long before every little girl could dress up as a Disney Princess, I knew I was not princess material–that I was pretty ordinary in appearance. This book reminded readers that it is the extraordinary heart and mind of a person that truly matters. That appearance to others is often affected by how we see ourselves, and that happiness is not ultimately connected to beauty. But it has a lot to do with humor and heart.
We often all of us feel different than those around us, and we yearn both to be accepted and to be extraordinary in a way that others will see as such. Katie struggles with this in a very real way–her powers singling her out as a freak, her desperation to just fit in, and her happiness at finding others like her who will accept her for who she is. This fed my love of psychic gifts and my fascination with them.
I’ve loved all of Mr. Dahl’s books to some degree, but this one was like he had written a story just for me. A small girl who’s a reader? Who is exceptionally bright and gains the powers of telekinesis? Oh the joy of reading this story! And honestly the revenge in this one was sweet indeed. (Though it did leave me trying to move the chalk on the chalk board with my mind for years to come in school).
I had my own copies of the entire Narnia series. Each book has it’s places for me that I loved. But nothing quite rivals the magic of that first trip through the wardrobe coats with Lucy. Into the snowy trees to that iconic and amazing image of a lamppost in the middle of the forest in the snow. This series was one of my first portal fantasy stories–and also one of my first British fantasies. I was fascinated by Turkish Delight in the story and when I finally got the chance to study in Britain years later, I made a point of finding it. Contrary to most reactions, I rather liked it!
I think I may have placed two DWJ books on this list if only for the fact that she had an enormous impact on my reading life as a kid. She was one of my main British fantasy voices–and the reason that the Harry Potter craze puzzled me. I’d been reading great stories for years about British wizards! This is by far one of my favorite rereads even as an adult. The main character is transformed into an 80 year old woman through most of the story, making for some interesting adventures indeed. It was hard to keep all of her titles out of the mix though, they were beloved rereads time and time again. Diana Wynne Jones taught me that fantasy could be funny and could exist in rather mundane British society instead of all high fantasy epicness.
A science fiction adventure that gripped me and never let go. When a space ship is torn apart midway through the journey, only a handful of kids and teens survive . . . along with a strange alien life form that may just help them find a way to safety. It’s a book of relationships, struggles to accept tragedy and unite with strangers in a common cause and finding resiliance in yourself. It’s more teen than middle-grade, but I encountered as a kid and have never forgotten it.
My father’s old book, stuck on my shelf and read by me in grade school. It’s wonderful interplanetary SF and while the story itself is intended for adults and young adults, this fourth grader loved it. It was one of the first books that really whetted my appetite for far distant futures and alien encounters. Not to mention a fascination with legal and court wrangles that might be part of that future.
I’d never heard of lotuses or lotus eaters prior to this book. But after reading it, it left me with vivid thoughts of a wild world within the moon. It also gave me some puzzling out to decide what really was better: blissful existence without much identity or memory or worry, or facing the world as it is in all its hardships and uncertainties? It really made me think a lot about what we choose in our own lives and how that’s important.
I read and reread this one. A young teen winds up stranded planetside far from her cold and demanding parents and discovers an archaeological dig of an alien civilization. She finds friendship with the scientists working there and connection with the strange beasts that wander around the site. She never expects to be picked as the link between an alien computer mind and the humans, but now she has to convince her friends that the strange beasts are much more than that! Strong female protagonist, fascinating alien civilization–this one remains a favorite.
Monica Hughes is another huge influence on me from my childhood. This future utopia/dystopia post apocalyptic world setting was one I was familiar with from many novels. This one made such huge impact because the main protagonist is a girl who isn’t like everyone else in her dome. She just can’t settle the way they do and she doesn’t quite fit in despite repeated attempts to try. It is only when she is awakened to the fact that she is different and her role is to be different as an innovator for her community that she really clicks into self-realization.
It’s not really a children’s book . . . and yet I read it as a child and loved it. It turns fairy tales on their heads. It delivers sadness and disappointment and lost causes . . . and hope and magic and seeing things through to the finish. These are unforgettable characters in a story that lives and breathes with a character all its own.
The first book in the Harper Halls trilogy and part of the adult SF epic that is the planet Pern, this was another book I encountered which focused on the misfit. Menolly is a misfit in her community. Only men are Harpers, but she is gifted as a musician and a composer and desperately yearns to channel her craft–yet gets punished for doing so. It’s only when she runs away that things begin to change and the world opens up for her. Dragons, both large and small, music and the drive to create it and the desperate need to be oneself even at the cost of everything else. Powerful stuff.
Our heroes in this book are three kids who make up a fantasy adventure story in an effort to distract their one sib from her injuries–but they’re storytelling comes to life a dramatic way, pitting them against magic and villains in their ordinary lives and making all of it suddenly extraordinary. There’s a real insistence on the power of stories from this book–and I loved the idea that a mysterious old object at a garage sale could lead to such a fantastical adventure.
If you want my first love in urban fantasy–this would be it. Nita was me, the bookish, bullied kid who’d rather hide out in the library and read. How many times did I wish I’d come across a wizarding text on my own library shelves? Harry Potter and his world only came into my life as an adult, these were the contemporary wizards I grew up with! This is one of the books I cherish and still love to recommend to readers (it’s still available on the shelves). New York City fantasy, the search for The Book of Night With Moon, the fight against the Lone Power, the ordeal to become a wizard . . . I almost wish I could be a kid encountering the story for the first time again.
This is the book whose ideas sparked the name of this blog. L’Engle’s trilogy of books: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet were three that I owned and read often. The first book combines elements of science fiction, fantasy and spirituality in a way I’d never seen before–it blasted the doors of my imagination wide open. Add to that Meg being the protagonist who saves her brother from the awful IT and it’s just near and dear to my heart. Each book in this trilogy taught me some lessons, about myself and about my perspectives of other people and history.
There was more than one New York City set fantasy series I read. This one I quite liked, though it was more focused on family troubles and human flaws. The first book excited me because the bronze king referred to in the title is actually a New York City statue that exists. It was also my first introduction to the mythological creature the kraken. While this series didn’t age as well as the first, I still have the copies of all three books in my possession. What impressed me most was the struggles the characters had to face that were human struggles that magic couldn’t solve for them. The pain and sadness still had to be faced, and it was simple human strength and love that helped the characters get through it.
Science fiction about clones was popular during the 1980s and this book by Nicholas Fisk was one that fell into my lap. Opening up my eyes to some of the experiences of WWII from the British perspective, this book also played with the idea of story vs. reality and how the two can overlap. In the end how powerful is memory? It’s a daunting story in some ways, taking place in a future where humans are looking to the past for solutions to their problems.
Part whodunnit, part social commentary, part futuristic, this story takes place in a near future world where clones are kept as organ banks for the wealthy. To prolong the life of individuals, clones are grown to provide needed organs when they fail. Our narrator is a Clone Catcher, someone who tracks down renegade clones when they run and returns them to their owners. Only in the most recent case things aren’t so clear cut, and our clone catcher must question the morality of his own career choice. Are clones people in their own right?
George MacDonald is the grandaddy of fantasy stories for kids, and this is a delightful favorite. The idea of a mysterious woman with silvery hair living on pigeon eggs and spinning magical thread in a castle turret is the sort of stuff that just stays with you. Classic fantasy tropes and delicious adventure made this a marvelous discovery. The slightly old-fashioned language was just an added spice for this hungry reader.
One of the first novels I ever bought from the Scholastic book order forms. Our main character is a girl who is swept out of our world and into another where she’s apparently treated as a princess. But being a princess in this world holds deadly dangers and it’s only with the help of certain allies that our heroine is able to break the enchantment and save the kingdom . . . and complete her essay for school. This was the first book that introduced me to the idea of harpies and some rather interesting interpretations of magic.
Cats, outerspace, adventure. Need I say more? Well, I guess I might. This space opera series was a sort of “I can’t believe somebody wrote something like this–this is great!” kind of thing. At the time I was more familiar with science fiction being sort of staid and serious and very much extrapolated from what our science was like. You couldn’t have giant talking cats who went swashbuckling around the galaxy. But this book proved you could–and have darned fun time doing it too.
An unusual series in so many ways, including that it features an African American girl as one of the protagonists. But I loved it because of the sentient cats who were actually aliens. It seemed like such a reasonable explanation for cats. I loved the idea of traveling to a completely different world and exploring it. This book was fairly unapologetic about leaving behind Earth to be destroyed which was an odd, but interesting facet.
I remember my mother first reading this book to me–I don’t think she realized what the story was like, and I don’t think she liked it very much, but I loved it. I re-read this story many, many times. Sometimes I’d wonder what I would do if I had magic powers like that. Sometimes I’d just reflect on the unpleasant characters who were taught a lesson in the course of the tale.
One of an entire group of short story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov specifically directed at kids. I devoured all of them. Short stories are a form of story unto themselves, and creating a good anthology is not easy. That each of these anthologies in this group was full of exceptionally good stories was something of a jack pot. These story gems are often the type of tales that can appeal to a wide range of ages, from children to teen to adult–all without changing a word.
Who wants to live forever? That’s the question this book really asks. It turns out that immortality doesn’t quite make life happy or good. This fascinating story will leave most readers uneasy, but it was great food for thought despite it’s bittersweet story arc and unnerving premise.
The movie is only half the book–that was the first thing I realized when I was reading the book for the first time. This is one example of how utterly different reading a book can be from seeing the movie. Plus it’s hard not to love a fantasy that is focused on a magical book . . . I still have that thrill when I come across an old tome in a bookstore that maybe I’ll find something fantastical.
There are always those strange books that make an impact. Unlike the more famous brother and sister who run away to a museum, these two teens wind up hiding out in shopping mall and discovering an entire tribe of kids who freeze and mannequins during the day. The story always intrigued me for its strangeness and how it reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode about mannequins in a department store.
One of the bricks of a book of epic fantasy that I fell instantly in love with. I was never afraid of long books–and often really looked for them because they promised me a lot more time in a world than a shorter novel. The entire Redwall series featuring woodland creatures in epic battles and quests was something myself and my best friend kept reading through our childhood and into adulthood.
One of the defining books of my youth. Sword and Sorcery with a female protagonist who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a knight. I love all of Tamora Pierce’s work, but this original quartet is my favorite. Magic swords, evil dukes, divine cats, stubborn girls who won’t let being female stop them from following their dreams. Oh, this was like balm for all the times I read a story and the girl was just needing rescue or not in the story at all.
Creepy supernatural is Lois Duncan’s calling card–and this was the book that started me off reading her. The protagonist goes off to an exclusive school for gifted children only to find herself in an old house where the students are being taken over by ghosts! I had a liking for scary, especially anything that involved paranormal elements, so I went on to read most of Duncan’s stories for tweens and teens.
One of the series I have made an effort to track down and buy in the years since I read it. This trilogy of stories about kids with psychic powers really comes across as exceptional, with real work put into the characters and their situations. Rereading this first book lately, I was again impressed by how well Wilanne Schneider Belden writes a story. I only wish she’d written more.
Like creepy combined with utterly strange? This book captures that. I first experienced this story as a read-aloud by my mother, but went on to read the story myself after her, and recently I have read it to my son. The ability of our main character to problem solve in some scary and dire situations is pretty astonishing and really sunk in. Mom and dad stolen away in the middle of the night by creepy enchanted boots? Don’t hide under the covers and cry, figure out how to trap the boots and make a plan to rescue your parents.
Another great read with some dark undertones. My mom read me this one too–and I never forgot about the mute boy who was desperately trying to escape captivity by the less than kind innkeeper. It was my first encounter with the idea of a mute character and it got me appreciating both the boy’s determination and his limitations in his adventure.
Yet another book my mom read us. (Blame The Read Aloud Handbook)This one SHE remembers over the years. An alien worker falls to earth in a giant spacesuit. A human boy gets trapped inside the suit when it crash lands. Now alien and human are in a desperate struggle to survive while the rest of the world reacts with alarm.
I remember my mother reading this to us. I remember re-reading it several more times, endlessly fascinated by the way the story did not end with the balloon in Oz but rather with a trip through the magical land where many more creatures and and fantastical things were encountered. I was always impressed that the Lion gets a chance to gain a rulership over a group of animals in the woodland by defeating a fearsome monster for them.
Beauty and the Beast has been one of my favorite fairy tales since I was little–but this rendition was what totally won me over. I mean, well before Belle discovered Beast’s library in the Disney version, McKinley’s version introduced me to a library that had books that hadn’t been written yet. Not to mention Beauty is a lot more forthright in her tale. I still have my copy of this version and can’t wait to share it with my son and daughter in a few more years.
This has one of my favorite short stories and was the first time I ran into writing by Connie Willis. The short story “Much Ado About [Censored]” was one I not only took to heart but shared with any of my teachers, friends and family over the next few years.
One of those books I discovered because I was haunting the paperbacks that my teacher left out for us to pick up and read through. This one delighted me in the idea that magic could run in families and suddenly crop up if you hoped hard enough for it. It was one of those books that made me a real fan of magical fantasies in a contemporary setting.
Set in a completely different world from the one I was familiar with, a boy is told he will be a magician and given several strange gifts on his tenth birthday. This powerful and bittersweet tale took magic to a place of strange creatures, other worlds and bittersweet endings. It remains a favorite of mine along with the other two books in the trilogy.
My mother read us this one. Can you imagine the thrill of hearing about an old cupboard that will turn plastic figures to life with just a turn of the key? My sibs and I were still certain back then that toys came to life at night and this fed the same kind of fantasy, while also making it clear that the figures come to life were not just toys any longer. They were real people who had lives and dreams and wishes to fulfill.
We have a beautiful old collection of these tales that’s got to be closing in on eighty or ninety years old. I read every story in the book and poured over the pictures for hours so that even now the images stay visible in my mind when I think of the corresponding tale by Andersen. Andersen’s works were always darker and more moralistic than the stories of Grimm. I think the Snow Queen and The Traveling Companion were my two favorites.
I read every fairytale book I could get my hands on. There was a point as a kid when any fairy tale, myth or legend was gobbled up in my voracious reading habit. Tales by the brothers Grimm introduced me to some of the most essential foundations of traditional fairy tales while giving me a good understanding of how they’ve transformed over the years. Not every kid knew that the original Cinderella didn’t have a fairy godmother, or that things got pretty bloody for the stepsisters in the end.
I read a huge number of mythology texts over the years. But when I was in grade school this was the text that caught and kept me. D’Aulaires managed to create illustrations and text that made the history of Greek mythology at once kid-friendly and entertaining. Entertaining may not be hard to do–but kid friendly can be a challenge! What I read there started me on much of my own world building and story writing in later years.
If I have to include one book by Mahy, I’ll put in this one. A young boy has disturbing visions that announce “Barnaby is dead!” He doesn’t know what they mean, but he and his sister go investigate and uncover a family history of magic they never knew about. The title is a bit misleading since the story is more fantasy than horror. This was probably my first New Zealand author encounter, but I was hooked after the first book!
There are books you love because they are just right when you read them. This lightly written story is full of fantasy tropes and cliches that had I been an older reader with more books under my belt I might not have thought as much of it. But at the time, this story fed my growing love of fantasy, introducing me to these tropes. For me the cliches were not cliches but first encounters. And I still like the ending of this particular story.
This remains one of my favorite time-travel tales. One where our main protagonist finds a device that can take him forward or back in time. Tycho quickly realizes that no matter which direction he travels in time, he changes things–and not for the better. The crazy paradoxes and dangers of time-travel are nicely set out in this story.
Like the myths and fairytales, Just So Stories fascinated me with their explanations of how animals came to be like they were. All these legends and ideas fed into a growing stream of story and symbolism that gave me lots of background for reading in the years ahead.
This bizarre but pointed picture book was one of my first dystopian tales. In a world where humans were locked into vehicles from the time they were born and pavement was everywhere, the cars rule. Until one remarkable plant and one determined girl start a revolution.
I’ve always loved cats in stories and despite the fact that this was classified as teen I was instantly taken in by the cat in anthropomorphic detail sitting in a portrait on the cover. This first volume of short stories by some brilliant writers is my favorite of the series. Great stuff for any cat lover who also enjoys spec fic.
I probably read most of Ruth Chew’s works back in grade school. Bite-sized stories for the early reader featuring kids encountering local magic. Most of these were small magics and quiet magical adventures–none of them wound up particularly scary or dark. This one had to do with magical items left in a locked drawer and the girls that found them. So much of these stories focused on the fun and wonder of magic.
One of my earliest SF reads. It’s the story of a future world where a boy begs his parents for a robot buddy for his birthday–and gets one! The robot looks like a human except for certain particular traits and the two boys figure out how to forge a friendship. But robot knappers are lurking! This book was one of several in a series about these two boys–the later story lines tended to be more complex. I read this around the time I saw The Electric Grandmother and it just lit up something in me that wanted more stuff about what the future might hold.
I was just on the very edge of discovering these book–most of them were fading into obscurity by the time I encountered them. But stories about a set of friends playing around with tech inventions by the scientist boarding at Danny’s house made for some exciting stuff. Miniature robots that could make you feel like you were right inside a beehive, computers that were super-advanced (for the time), anti-gravity paint, houses of the future . . . It’s neat realizing now how many of the inventions described in the stories are close to something we have now!
Talking cats, far futures and technology that allows creatures to phase through objects! One of those oddly lovely science fiction reads from my youth that I regret not having to hand to reread sometimes. I always liked that two of the principal human characters were female.
Ibbotson’s light-hearted and whimsical British fantasy won me over even before I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. This was a particular favorite of mine–for some reason the library only had a large print version, but I must have checked it out about ten or twenty times to reread and enjoy. Pretty much this is “The Bachelor” only told for kids and featuring witches in competition to win marriage to a dark sorcerer. Only much, much better than The Bachelor.
Psychic kids with a range of psi gifts are being helped by a doctor to try and realize their gifts can be a blessing rather than a curse. This book was a sobering reversal of the lighter story of The Girl With the Silver Eyes. All the kids in this story are troubled or in trouble. Their gifts are often difficult to bear, including one girl who can see the future. The story focuses on how friendship manages to achieve what nothing else can–and will weather any storm for the future.
A fantastical time-travel story about an unwanted boy who magically is transported back in time to the Industrial Revolution. It was the first time I really got a glimpse of that period of time–how the factories chewed up and spit out children so cruelly in the mad rush of progress. The heart and gentleness of our main character, and the desperation of his brother back in his own time to find him make this story a very satisfying whole.
Another book that was more teenage than kid. Disabled kids are treated as no more than subhuman guinea pigs in this dystopian corporate nightmare. But that all may change with the new experiments done to a group of kids that not only fixes their neurological disabilities, but gives them far greater abilities to tap into computers and share their minds with AI personalities from the computers. This was the first real book I read where corporatism is the ruling force of the dystopia–I think it prepared me for the devastating sense of Brave New World years later.
I had a taste for dystopias in the 1980s–though I preferred them with a bit of light to the tale. This story gives us the picture of elite domed cities that are kept running by thousands of workers who live in the underground depths and go through their lives with no awareness of the daylight or luxuries above. When a boy is brought into the underground accidentally from a third place, a frontier farm, one underground girl decides to help him find a way out and back home.
My second book by Diana Wynne Jones and it is another one I love–for quite different reasons than the first. This SF/Fantasy/Mystery features a star sentenced to live in dog form on Earth. It is also the story of a girl sent to live with relatives who do not accept her and treat her poorly. It’s about the friendship the two share, the mysteries they unravel and the final rather bittersweet ending that gives me a lump in my throat till this day.
Some books defy easy explanation. This was a book that fascinated me. It disturbed me and upset me . . . and I’ve never forgotten it. What happens if you start remembering a fantastical adventure you were made to forget?
Oh to be back when I discovered this story as a kid! The first time I read about Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse it was only an excerpt from my reading book at school. But naturally I had to seek out the whole thing. Selden’s delightful animal fantasy set in the heart of New York City is something that still makes me smile.
While I saw the Disney movie, it was the book that captured me. Despite the chauvinistic attitudes that are evident at times, the overall story is so much fun to read–especially if you love dogs. The revenge the pups get on Cruella Deville is a lot more fitting in the book than the movie.
Never liked the movie much,but the book is a different story–the book is a very thought provoking and profound work where things are taken a bit more philosophically than the movie does. The deer in this book for most of the story all regard Man as a deity like figure with power over life and death. In the end of the story Bambi learns that Man, like the deer, can die and comes to the conclusion that there must be something greater than Man. This conclusion struck me and I’ve never forgotten it.
The idea of dragons becoming attached to people when they hatch was first introduced to me in this story–a concept I later found again in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. It did make me imagine having a dragon of my own.
For a girl with super powers look no further than the self-sufficient, utterly confident, utterly cheerful and terribly subversive Pippi. She thought outside the box and turned things on their head with delighting regularity–her disgust with education was particularly funny and I though it a very good point.
My school librarian read this to us, probably in first grade. It’s an Easter story with a female protagonist who proves she can be an Easter Bunny despite being a mother–or perhaps because she is a mother. It was one of the first books I bought for my daughter.
This was more teen than children’s, but I read it around age 11 and found a person I could identify with in the pages. Talia was the sensitive, shy girl who liked books and dreamed big. She was the girl who was bullied and ostracized often who nevertheless found a community and an identity that was hers. I still reread this every so often.
I remember buying this book off the shelf at the bookstore because I instantly loved the cover. A girl who was a necromancer? A magic system that used a series of bells? Unforgettable world building. Creepy but delightful–it’s the book that turned me into a Garth Nix fan.
A marvelous SF book about a girl smuggling her cat aboard a space station, desperate to keep the only friend she’s had with her–and how that cat becomes entangled in humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials. I loved the idea of cats in space, and the near-future feel of this entire story made me hopeful for the future of space exploration and possible alien contact.
Alien abductions, teens missing, kids with strange powers. Our main character is one of a group of teens all born around the same time. But all of the sudden his friends are acting strangely and he’s having strange dreams. He finds himself in possession of powers that are beyond human–what does it all mean? Despite the lurid title this is a great SF read, one that struck me because the aliens in this story are not all wise or all good, but simply struggling to find answers to their problems.
The first book I read about cloning–and one of the first science fiction books I read that featured female protagonists. The chilling idea of cloning, what it would mean and how it could be used all first came from this book. The fact that the woman cloned is a brilliant scientist was significant to me–and that the products from that cloning are like her but they are not her at the same time.
Yes this is a tale of magical, musical orbs that are used by people in their everyday lives is great because of this musical element, but my favorite part of this story is the powerful friendship that exists between the two main characters. Tamborel never gives up on his friend, no matter how she pushes him away and shuts everyone out. It’s that trait that appealed to me most in the story.
Not your ordinary princess! Patricia Wrede introduced me to the delightfully subversive character of Cimorene who wants to learn all sorts of things despite being told they aren’t appropriate for a princess. She’s smart, strong and stubborn and not interested in marrying a Prince who bores her to tears. So she heads off to become a dragon’s princess. This sort of fractured fairy tale and strong female protagonist instantly won me over.
An odd young teen duology that I found myself attached to. The main character is thrust into a fantasy world where she must help a band of disparate characters. It has a very Wizard of Oz sort of tone, yet the magic and issues surrounding each character make it more mature and darker in tone. The first book ends without wrapping up everything, so it was necessary to find the second book to finish the story.
A girl’s mind inside the body of a chimpanzee living in a future world where very little of the wild is left. It’s a sobering look at identity, what humankind may come to, and how hope can be found even when everything else seems to be impossible. Again, a strong female protagonist who finds a way to freedom, a girl with a powerful spirit and strength.
Goofy science fiction was one of my favorite reading go-tos in the 1980s. I loved finding tales of aliens and future tech that I could also chuckle at. This was a great example of the kind of thing I loved. Aliens visiting earth in disguise are discovered by kids who then have to figure out how to help.
I’ve always loved writing. But it was this book with it’s tantalizing story starters that first launched me into the realization that I could write stories however I imagined. I wrote my first ten page fantasy story for school from one of the pictures, and then started writing for myself and have never stopped.
Never underestimate the power of imagination. That was probably the strongest message I took away from this multiverse story. Other than Diana Wynne Jones, this was probably one of the first stories of world-hopping I read about. I loved it so much I tracked down a copy years later.
This bittersweet SF/Fantasy trilogy was startlingly profound and very different from my usual encounters. Our heroine is not very strong at the beginning of the story, and she allows herself to be taken by the villain without hope she will even live. But through the events in the story she changes and grows and becomes a strong and powerful character capable of changing the world.
What if in an apocalyptic future Merlin is reborn to a resurgence of magic in the world? That’s pretty much the premise of this story. All the old Arthurian legends spin together within a fallen technological world. This mixture of SF/Fantasy wasn’t commonplace and I loved it when I caught the two blended together. This was the third book I read about kids encountering Merlin.
A dystopian future where Earth has been mostly abandoned and robots have taken over. Human kind is oppressed and resistance is continually hunted out and put down. Oddly the thing I remembered most clearly from this story was the torture technique used on one of the characters which involved playing the Beatles song “She’s Leaving Home” over and over again.
What if traveling across the galaxy could be done not with technology, but with human essence, with heartlight? That’s the premise of this book that sends our character on an epic journey across space and time with her grandfather. I liked the idea of a spiritual/biological solution to space travel.
What if the dinosaurs weren’t destroyed by a meteor? What if, instead, the dinos had a massive technologic civilization that saw disaster looming and so the dinos left the planet and went into space, planning to return some day to reclaim their planet when the danger had passed? And now they’ve returned to find instead that humankind has claimed the planet in their absence. What struck me most in this story was that the villains of the story arc aren’t really true villains, but simply placed in an impossible situation. The story “humanizes” all the characters in such a way that it was an impressive read.
Kichebo is a rare cheetah who is mostly black with only a few marks in gold. She is rejected by most of her kind but finds commonality with another black cheetah who reaches out to her in spirit from the past. I loved this book enough to try and get my mother to read it when we were trading books (my mom does not like SF and Fantasy) it didn’t really work out for her, but it remains a favorite of mine as do all of Clare Bell’s sentient cat books.
Speaking of cats, this was one novel that’s really more of an adult or young adult book that I read along with my best friend. We were cat crazy and this story of a young domestic cat seeking out his heritage and discovering his true identity was just the perfect sort of story for us. These days kids have the Warrior series to track epic adventures of cats, but Tailchaser’s Song was a satisfying epic in and of itself.
Little people–not fairies or some sort of magical folk really , but simply very small people who live inside the walls and floors of houses the way mice might–stealing er “borrowing what they need to survive. It always had me peering in and under things, trying to catch some little people of my own.
I read both stories as a fourth grader, but it was this adventure with Alice that fascinated me. The ability to travel through the mirror into another world that was so markedly different from our own once you got there. The idea of mirrors as portals. The chessboard storyline and the variety or realms Alice travels through all made this book both a wild adventure and immensely satisfying. It was the book I brought with me to the hospital to have my mother read me during my operation in my fourth grade year.
What’s in a name? This book is all about the power of names, and how names give you a window into someone’s soul. I had to read this book for a class in 6th grade and it stayed with me long after, as Ged confronts his shadow self and reclaims his identity.
Yep, another book on my list from this gentleman. Among the Dolls was probably one of the creepiest things I read at that time. Imagine you mistreated your dolls in play and then found yourself locked in the dollhouse in a miniature version of yourself, unable to escape and having to put up with some very nasty dolls? Creepy indeed. It made me a little leery of dollhouses after that.
A short story book of SF/Fantasy tales. There’s some stories in here that just blew me away and still do when I’ve reread the book. Short stories are a powerful communication tool–and often especially good for SF concepts.
Ghost stories, spooky stories were another favorite thing to read, even if they did freak me out now and again (do not get me started on the story of the mummy footsteps I read once). But the titular story in this one has to do with a playground jungle gym and is quite alarmingly frightening–enough that I haven’t forgotten it even now.
My mother had the Winnie-the-Pooh books when she was a girl, so of course she introduced me to them. I learned all about Heffalumps and plots to steal honey . . . the gentle and whimsical atmosphere that surrounded these stories kept them safely magical in a way that my high adventure reading wasn’t.
Time traveling kids, a missing will, and dark plots set up in this paranormal mystery story. Apparently this was made into a movie in Britain. Despite the bland title, this was one of my singularly favorite ghost stories, particularly since the idea in the story was that the kids weren’t actually ghosts, but traveling in spirit form through time to reach out to future characters, or later on the present-day characters travel back to reach out to those same characters from the past.
I loved traveling through these books as a kid, though admittedly if I got an ending I didn’t like, I’d backtrack until I made better choices. Still, it’s thrilling to have a book where the endings differ based up on what action you choose. It’s in many ways a lesson in storytelling set out right there for young writing minds to follow.
Another gift from my mother. She loved this book and so read it to me as a child. I admit the first time she read it I found it rather difficult to follow, but then I read it myself and really loved the bit about roses and why the Little Prince’s rose was so special despite his realization of how many roses there were in the world. I’ve read the book since as an adult and found many more inspiration points to cherish.
While not strictly speculative fiction, this small book I purchased in 6th grade from Scholastic talked about mysterious disappearances from history, none of which have ever been fully explained (at least according to the book). My favorite account in this booklet was the bit on the story of D.B. Cooper and how he vanished after jumping off the plane. But this was the forerunner to me becoming a fan of shows like the X-files and Unsolved Mysteries.
An anthology of 100 short-short science fictional stories. I must have read the book over dozens of times. Some of the stories are clever, some are silly, some don’t work as well, but most were decent. My mother even enjoyed a few which is something that doesn’t often happen. A lot of these short-short stories have become part of my SF background noise, flavoring what I know and recognize.
Probably one of the first books that involved a Regency plot line that I actually read–granted alternate world Regency. It also was one of the few romantic plots I read at the time where I actually really enjoyed the unfolding romance between the protagonists. This was the sort of fun, magical read that kept me coming back for a reread for years to come.
This is probably the book that gave me the strongest sense of not just a female character, but what being female meant. While the changes in the story are magical ones, the thematic connection to a girl becoming a woman is very obviously at its heart. I loved the central theme of this story and the way the power and the choice rested in the main character. It was a book with romance, but the agency remained with her all the way to the end.
So there’s a hundred of the speculative titles that fed me as I grew up. It’s hardly all of what I read in those years, but I hope you’ll enjoy the glimpse!
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Tags: Authors, Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, fantasy, Genres, Historical Fantasy, Historical Fiction, kidlit, Lists, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Reading, reviews, Science Fiction, sequels, series, SF, Space Adventure, Tamora Pierce, Urban Fantasy
I’m reusing this list today, perhaps because it’s on of my favorites. I’ve always been a fan of stories where girls dress up as boys–particularly when it’s to gain access to a set of skills/opportunities/people that they can’t access while being female. I think I read my first story about this when I was eight. At that time it was a nonfiction book The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson (Scholastic, c1975). This list takes a look at some of the speculative fiction females that dressed up as boys or men.
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum, c1983)
There’s no better book to kick off this list with in my opinion. Alanna’s adventures were some of my earliest fantasy reads that fed my love of knights and epic battles. Alanna is a twin who disguises herself as a boy so that she can become a page and eventually a knight in the kingdom of Tortall. Book 1 and 2 of the Song of the Lionness Quartet both have Alanna as “Alan”, desperately trying to keep her secret from most of those who know her, and dealing with her own body growing from girl to woman in secret.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld , illustrated by Keith Thompson (Simon Pulse c2009)
Deryn Sharp has always dreamed of serving on an airship, but girls aren’t allowed to be airmen, no matter how skilled and passionate. So Deryn disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed into the ranks. Little does she expect to wind up aboard the giant Leviathan airship on her first flight. Now she’s in the thick of things and having to guard her secret at every turn. Deryn keeps up her subterfuge throughout the Leviathan trilogy, but finds it harder and harder to hide the truth! Great steampunk fun!
The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, c1955)
I still remember the first time I saw the animated movie of this book and watched Eowyn reveal herself as a woman to the Witch King of Angmar. (The Witch King has made it known that he cannot be defeated by any man. That makes Eowyn the perfect force to defeat him.) Eowyn disguises herself as a soldier among the Rohan warriors in order to fight the evil in her land. Her triumph in the story is one of the few female roles that Tolkien actually includes in The Lord of the Rings.
Mairelon the Magician by Patricia Wrede (Starscape, c1991)
Young Kim works as a thief on the streets of London in this alternate Regency era fantasy. She dresses as a boy to keep herself safe from less savory types of employment in the city, but she’s always dreamed of something more than the life she has. So when her latest job gets botched and lands her in the keeping of a rather maddening magician, Kim is willing to go along with his wild plans–especially since it allows her to be around real magic! Kim’s story continues in Magician’s Ward.
The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier (Knopf Books, 2011)
Araene lives on the Floating Islands where she studies the arts of cooking, as is allowed to women. But Araene has a secret, she has the talent to do magic, and has been sought out by the mysterious magical school on the islands. But girls aren’t allowed to study magic, so Araene disguises herself so that she might become a student. This fantasy adventure follows Araene and her cousin Trei in their journeys and their struggle to save their home from invaders.
The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (Atheneum, 2001)
Corinna, who disguises herself as a boy “Corin” is determined to keep her position as a “folk keeper” someone that can deal with and pacify the ravenous and mysterious folk, and keep them from committing mischief. This story is an unusual one, with a heroine who is extremely mercenary in her choices in order to protect her own standing in her chosen job. It’s only over time that Corinna grows and begins to look past her immediate work to discover who–and what–she really is.
Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (HMH, 2008)
For unpleasant heroines, however, this one takes home the prize. Princess Benevolence, or “Ben”, hates being under the thumb of the conniving Queen Sophia. Ben makes every effort to defy the Queen, and when she finds a secret room with books of magic, she finds more and more ways to rebel. But trouble is coming to the kingdom, and in order to stop it, Ben must look farther than her own personal rebellion and anger. Part of the story has Princess Ben disguised as a commoner boy–a fact that allows her to see allies and enemies in a new light and face some truths about herself and what happened to her parents.
Alphabet of Dreams by Susan Fletcher (Atheneum, 2006)
More royalty in disguise! Mitra and her little brother are beggars on the streets of the city–royal exiles after their father’s failed attempt to take the throne from the tyrant, King Phraates. Mitra disguises herself as a boy to help them both survive the streets and dreams of the day when they will rejoin what’s left of her family and regain their standing in the world. However, her own plans may be forestalled when she and her brother are taken on a journey with three wise magi . . .
The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer (Chicken House, c2001)
One of two picture books on my list! When baby Violetta’s mother dies in childbirth, it’s up to the king to figure out how to raise his baby daughter. He decides to teach her the same lessons he’s teaching his sons. This includes how to fight and ride and joust. Violetta struggles at first, but perseveres and soon becomes skilled–so she’s a bit shocked when her father announces on her 16th birthday he’ll hold a contest among the knights to win her hand in marriage. Rather than allow her fate to be taken away from her, Violetta sneaks out and disguises herself as “Sir No Name” then promptly wins the tournament for her own hand.
Elena’s Serenade by Cambell Geeslin, Illustrated by Ana Juan (Atheneum, 2004)
Elena wants to be a glass blower. In fact she’s certain she can be a good one–but girls aren’t allowed to be glassblowers. So Elena disguises herself as a man and runs away to Monterrey to learn to blow glass. Along the way she makes animal friends with the music she plays on her glass blowing pipe, and learns how to add in the music to her glass so that she’s able to produce butterflies and stars from the glass–things the others can’t make. A magical realism tale where the heroine will not take “no” for an answer.
So there are my ten! What are your favorite girls-disguised-as-boys titles?