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This is a list of my favorite series for older children and younger adults in the realm of magic, other realities, and the richly imagined. All of these books are fantastic, many are deeply poetic, and I recommend them for all ages — I can re-read them anytime, always with wonder and fascination.
The Sea of Trolls trilogy, Nancy Farmer, 2004-2009. Along with The Land of the Silver Apples and The Islands of the Blessed, this is a brilliant quest adventure of Norsemen and berserkers, slaves, gods and ogres — an exciting, exquisitely detailed world half legend and half fantasy, complete with humor and longing and even philosophy, that should be high up in the canon of children’s and young adult literature. (Note for locals: Farmer is an Arizona native who lives in the Chiricahua Mountains. She’s won plenty of awards, but still deserves to be far, far more widely read.)
The Worlds of Chrestomanci, Diana Wynne Jones, 1977-2006. A seven-book series about a multiverse peopled by a charming cast of relatable, endearing magical characters. Written by one of the world’s all-time finest fantasy writers, the British Wynne Jones, who wrote dozens of wonderful novels and short-story collections — of which I’ve devoured almost all — before she died just a couple of years ago. Wynne Jones’ books sparkle with vigor and wit.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, 1995-2000. This excellent fantasy trilogy for young adults, beginning with The Golden Compass, is in fact, like most of the books on this list, for all ages. Gorgeous and almost infinitely memorable, it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life, I predict, once you fall in love. There’s also a movie.
The Tree That Sat Down, The Stream That Stood Still,The Magic Mountain, Beverley Nichols, 1945-1950. A lovely, gentle, out-of-print cycle by a British writer better known for other things — good for younger children, not so much teenagers. The first book, The Tree That Sat Down, is about a little girl who grows up with her grandmother in an enchanted wood. They’re the only humans to live there, among the innocent and comical, often poignant, talking animals, until a couple of vicious con artists from the big city move in and set up shop to bilk the animals for all they’re worth. This whole out-of-print series is a delightful classic and needs to be re-published post-haste.
The Abhorsen Chronicles, Garth Nix, 1995-2003. Singular, powerful fantasy trilogy for youth by this well-known contemporary Australian writer, also author of the highly enjoyable Keys to the Kingdom series (pegged a little younger), who’s never boring.
The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander, 1964-1968. A classic, mythic and funny series about an assistant pigkeeper named Taran who, through his magical pig and his sorcerer guardian, ends up going into battle to save the world from the Horned King. His strong and more powerful princess/girlfriend, Eilonwy, and a bard named Fflewddur Fflamwho plays bad music are unforgettable.
Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Edward Eager, 1954-1958. Half Magic is the best of these very American riffs on/homages to E. Nesbit, which I like better than Nesbit, personally. Matter-of-fact and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, pegged pretty young but wiser than their protagonists’ years, they feature a very real-seeming four-kid, single-mother family in 1920s and then follow those kids’ kids in the 1950s.
The Greenstone Grail trilogy, Amanda Hemingway, 2004-2006. These very recent books by a frank and funny English writer (no relation to Ernest) who also writes pulpier books under various pseudonyms are highly entertaining, likable and just a bit creepy — about a boy who can dream himself into other worlds.
Also notable, though not a series (yet): The Other Side of the Island, Allegra Goodman, 2008. A dystopic and haunting sci-fi allegory about a girl caught in a future of extreme weather and authoritarian corporate governance. This was such a compelling read I keep checking frantically for a sequel. More, please.
And no children’s lit list can ever be complete without Narnia — always, always, Narnia. C.S. Lewis, 1949-1954. But everyone’s already heard of that.
Lydia Millet’s books for older children are The Fires Beneath the Sea (2011) and The Shimmers in the Night (2012). Her books for non-children include Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, My Happy Life, which won the PEN-USA award, and most recently Magnificence (2012), the last in a trilogy about extinction and family love.