Raise your hand if this sounds like you:
You've read -- you've loved -- all the Harry Potter books. You mourn their passing. They opened up a whole world for you. But you. . . ahem. . . have for some reason not sought out any other “kids books” to read.
Is it true? Have you not? Why not? There’s a world of them, and here are some of my favorite “kids books” that are great reads for grownups too. This is only the tip of an iceberg -- there are so many other books I could put on this list. These are just stand-out faves that I have read more than once or will certainly read again. Beware, once you get yourself over to the YA section a teetering Rapunzel’s tower of books will tumble over and cascade into your life. I hope you’re ready!
His Dark Materials
by Philip Pullman
My favorite. Love, love, love. In the first book, The Golden Compass, Lyra is growing up under the not-so-watchful eyes of the scholars of a great Oxford college, in a just-off-kilter parallel reality to our own in which much is familiar, and much more is not. This book gets the highest praise I can come up with: I wish I'd thought of it myself! In it, humans have "daemons" which I can best describe as their souls made physical as animals, which are their constant companions and cannot be separated from them. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, journey with "gyptians" to the Arctic north to try to recover kids kidnapped by "the gobblers." There are witches, a creepy church doing dubious things, and an armored polar bear. Just read it, you.
The Goose Girl
by Shannon Hale
A beautifully written fairy tale retelling that goes far beyond the fairy tale. I love Shannon Hale's lyrical language and her world that feels both real and magical. This tale is romantic, earthy, funny, and a story of coming into one's own strength.
by Neil Gaiman
Creepy cool. A door (that is only sometimes there) leads a young girl into a bizarro-world version of her own life. Haunting, strange, and smooth.
Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen
by Garth Nix
In a kingdom destroyed by necromancers, one person weilds the power to send the dead back to death where they belong: a young woman, who has inherited this duty from her father. Here's another concept that I would love to have come up with myself. I love these books and Garth Nix's dark, original fantasy world.
by Edith Pattou
Another fairy tale retelling that is so much more. This takes the cool old tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," a kind of journey-version of Beauty and the Beast, and really brings to life the Nordic world that it comes from. Trolls, polar bears, love, enchantment, courage, and beautiful writing.
A Certain Slant of Light
by Laura Whitcomb
This isn't fantasy the way the others are fantasy. It's contemporary and set in a very real American high school and household, except for one major thing: the main character is a ghost. But it's not like that. This is such a unique, compelling tale. In Whitcomb's world, ghosts have to attach themselves to human hosts; they are unseen hangers-on, and the young woman ghost is attached to a high school teacher. She's at the front of the class with him as usual when, to her great shock, she catches one of the students looking at her. Seeing her -- the first time she's been seen in over a hundred years. Why this seemingly ordinary young man can see her, and what happens next, makes for a great read that has stuck with me.
by Janet Lee Carey
This book has the feel of being Carey's own offshoot to the Arthurian legend, but doesn't go into all that sword & stone stuff. Princess Rosalind is raised to believe she will be the one to fulfill a 600-year-old prophecy of Merlin's to restore her family to honor. She also has a secret: one of her fingers is not human, but dragon. She keeps it hidden always under a glove, but it is that finger, curiously, that will save her life from a dragon and suck her into the prophecy in ways she could never have guessed. Beautiful writing and a tight, fast, totally satisfying story.
Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer
by um, me
What sort of fool wouldn't put their own book here, I ask you? My first novel tells the story of Magpie Windwitch, a young faerie who's a devil hunter. The setting is our world, a world in which humans have been unwittingly releasing devils from their age-old prisons and unleashing, perhaps, a new devil age. The strength of faeries seems a thing of the past; the magic of the world is threadbare, and it seems a hopeless case. But Magpie won't give up without a fight, and the trail of the latest escaped devil leads her back to the mystical forest of Dreamdark, a place of legends and Djinn, cunning imps and tattooed warriors, and to revelations about her own role in the world.
Anahita’s Woven Riddle
by Meghan Nuttal Sayres
A nomadic girl living in early 20th-century Persia, promised in marriage to a khan she doesn't love, makes a bargain with her parents: that whoever solves the riddle she weaves into her wedding carpet will become her husband. Besides the khan there are three suitors and the book is romantic and fun as a love story, but it also paints a picture of the lives of the nomads and their herds and traditions, with a lot of information about weaving and carpets and dyes that I found fascinating. I love me a Persian carpet.
Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind
by Suzanne Fischer Staples
This is perhaps a little bit more realistic a portrait of the life and choices of a nomadic Muslim girl who would like to marry for love (or not at all) but is not in command of her own fate. The world of camel-trading nomads in Pakistan is beautifully rendered, and the character Shabanu is a strong-willed girl in a place where that doesn't go over so well.
I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
Written in 1948 and set in England in the 1930s, this is the story of two young women swept away to live in a castle by their possibly mad writer-father. Castle living is not quite as romantic as one might think! The story takes a turn to romance when two American brothers inherit the estate on which the castle sits; it's not your typical love story, though. I came away thinking it was a lesson in how you can't control who you fall in love with, and chances are you won't fall in love with who you "should" and neither will they, etc etc. You have to read it to see what I'm talking about. Great quirky voice, too.
A Northern Light
by Jennifer Donnelly
Set in the Adirondacks of 1906 and imagining the real murder that was the basis of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The narrator, a girl working in a resort hotel for the summer to try to earn college tuition, witnesses the events surrounding the crime. This Printz-award (or honor) book is much more than a murder mystery, though. It's a window into a slice of American life, class, poverty, racism, dreams, and more. A memorable narrator, great writing.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Great premise, great characters, great writing. Maud is an orphan in early 20th-century New England, and she is certainly not the most "adoptable" child in the place, having justifiable anger (and heartbreak) issues that I will not spoil here. However, her life takes a turn for the better when she is adopted by three elderly sisters and whisked away to a new life. It's a strange new life, though, and Maud will soon enough find out just why the sisters have adopted her and what her role is to be in their peculiar family.
Hattie Big Sky
by Kirby Larson
A Newbery honor book this year, this is the story (based on the true story of the author's grandmother) of a sixteen-year-old girl homesteading alone in Montana during World War I. Wow, I would not want to do that. Montana winters, prairie life, anti-German sentiment, the nature of friendship, hope, spunk, a great narrative voice. A fast, sweet, gripping read.
[You may note that these are pretty much all fantasy or historical fiction. That's pretty much what I go for, but there are also many awesome contemporary mainstream YA books. If you haven't taken a good look at the YA section in the bookstore in the past, say, ten years or so: DO. Have fun!]
[Alexandra has asked me to add that her favorite YA novel ever is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I have no doubt will make it onto my list too, but that I haven't read it yet.]