While I was writing The Magician's Book, I often found myself talking with parents whose kids were obsessed with Narnia. A few of them asked me to recommend similar titles for their children. Remembering how eagerly I searched for such books when I was a girl, it's a charge I take pretty seriously. Beyond the best-known classics (The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter series, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wind and the Willows, The Hobbit, etc.), here are my suggestions. Some of these titles were books I loved as a child; others I've discovered since, but think I would have liked if I could have read them back then.
Joan Aiken: Perhaps best-known for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken wrote a lot of classic children's novels, but I particularly like the short stories about the Armitage family that she wrote throughout her life. Small Beer Press has put out The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories, which brings together all 24 of them. The Armitages (Mark, Harriet and their parents) live in a seemingly ordinary English village, but are frequently visited by magical events, particularly on Mondays. Herds of unicorns turn up in the garden, the next door neighbor offers lessons in witchcraft and Mark gets enlisted in an aerial dogfight with a dragon on the way home from the dentist’s office. Throughout, their parents remain unflappable in the very best British style. Great for reading aloud to younger children.
Lloyd Alexander: Alexander, like Cooper, was fascinated by Welsh mythology, but he set his middle-grade adaptation of it, the Chronicles of Prydain, in a Medieval realm; his hero is a pig-keeper, not a contemporary schoolboy. The series, which begins with The Book of Three rarely fails to win over young fans of Narnia, although some have complained that the only significant girl character, a haughty princess, is too passive.
John Bellairs: I've only read a few of the late Bellairs' children's books. They're remarkable for their often spookily intense imagery and sensitive boy protagonists. Some are pretty uneven, featuring perhaps one or two utterly indelible images surrounded by a lot of narrative padding. The House With the Clock in Its Walls is the general favorite, and older kids will appreciate his only adult novel, the nearly flawless The Face in the Frost, about two elderly wizards forced to save the world.
Susan Cooper: Cooper's The Dark is Rising series immerses several children from the 1970s in the unfolding of events foretold in Arthurian prophecy. The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone mostly seems like an adventure yarn, with the more epochal elements turning up in the second book, The Dark is Rising, which is about an entirely new character. (They all wind up together in the concluding books.) I adored this series when I was 11, and thought it tremendously profound. If the books seem a trifle over-earnest and wedded to their time today, I think most children will still thrill to them.
Edward Eager: Eager wrote several sprightly short novels about groups of siblings who have magical adventures. You can buy the whole series in a boxed set, called Tales of Magic, but if you want to sample one or two first, I loved Half Magic and Magic by the Lake.
Neil Gaiman: Best known for his graphic novel series, Sandman the multi-talented and indefatigable Gaiman has branched out into screenplays, songwriting and novels for adults and children, among other activities. His Coraline is one of the creepiest children's books ever written, in addition to being a just about perfect specimen of the genre. The Graveyard Book, about an orphan adopted by a cemetery full of nurturing ghosts and raised by a vampire tutor, is less unsettling, a cozy goth coming-of-age story.
Tove Jansson: I don't know if moomins (small, adorable, hippo-like creatures) are indigenous to the folk culture of Jansson's native Finland, but it hardly matters; they are now part of the fabric of any well-furnished childhood. There are several books depicting their mild doings, but my favorite was always Moominland Midwinter, in which Moomintroll wakes up during the long hibernation that blankets his village and goes poking around to see what the world is like when everyone's asleep.
Norton Juster: A depressed boy named Milo receives a toy tollbooth as a gift, and drives through it into a allegorical land where sounds are visible, words are edible and the principalities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis feud over whether words or numbers are more important. The Phantom Tollbooth may be the best American children's fantasy ever written and ought to be on every child's bookshelf. One of the high points in my journalistic career was having the honor of interviewing Juster in 2001.
Andrew Lang: Lang was a 19th-century folklorist who produced several collections of fairy tales, beginning with The Red Fairy Book and running though every color in the rainbow after that. Despite the somewhat fusty style, these are the real deal -- full of violence, inexplicably heartless behavior and gaping plot holes. It's tempting to see this material as unfitting for child readers, but many generations of kids have read them as devotedly as I did; their allure is eternal.
Madeleine L'Engle: Reading A Wrinkle in Time has long been a rite of passage for a certain kind of brainy, misfit girl, but L'Engle's classic has also introduced many boy readers to their first taste of mind-bending literary science fiction. Wrinkle and its sequels are cosmic in every sense of the word, while remaining rooted in the intimate troubles of a fractured family.
Ursula K. Le Guin: Perceiving that the burgeoning children's fantasy genre had been overwhelmingly shaped by British and European folklore and mythology, Le Guin based her Earthsea Trilogy on Taoist and Native-American traditions as well as Jungian psychology. Her hero, Ged, starts out as a junior wizard, and in later books must confront and remedy the terrifying consequences of an early transgression. The reigning principle in Le Guin's conception of magic is the importance of balance, and the very setting -- an archipelago made up of hundreds of islands, militates against the idea of centrality and empire. One of the greatest works of children's fiction every written.
George MacDonald: A late-Victorian fantasist whom C.S. Lewis regarded as his "master." MacDonald's children's fantasies -- the best is The Princess and Curdie -- might strike some adults as cloying or overly didactic after the fashion of his antique time, but they are marked by a genuine, open-hearted sweetness that children seem to pick up on and fall in love with in an instant. If the essence of the Christian message is love, then MacDonald probably conveys it more persuasively than any other Christian novelist I've ever read.
China Mieville: Best-known for his politically pointed science fiction, Mieville has written only one children's book, Un Lun Dun, but it's very, very good. If the whole "chosen one" motif in children's fantasy bothers you, here is robust alternative, set in an alternate, fantastical London, whose word play and metaphysical friskiness brings to mind The Phantom Tollbooth.
E. Nesbit: Nesbit more or less invented the children's fantasy novel with Five Children and It, followed by The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, featuring the exploits of a quintet of remarkably unsupervised Edwardian siblings. They were a significant influence on Lewis, who read them as a boy. Nesbit's droll, confiding narrative voice makes them particularly fun to read aloud.
Garth Nix: Nix has written more than one series, but the one I know best is the Abhorsen Trilogy, which begins with Sabriel. The books are set on a continent divided between a non-magical south and a magical, if perilous north, and the main character is a girl magician. Although too dark and demanding for younger children, their brooding imagery and meditations on the principles of the magical arts will fascinate the older ones.
Philip Pullman: First published in the 1990s, Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is the free-thinker's British fantasy epic. Philosophically and psychologically complex, it becomes, by the third book, more than most children under the age of 15 will be able to understand, yet it's also packed with dashing and suspenseful adventures. Highly recommended.
Barbara Sleigh: At nine, I loved cats and regarded London as a place only slightly less enchanted than Middle-earth. Carbonel: The King of Cats, the story of a little girl who discovers that her new pet is the deposed prince of London's feline populace, and who resolves to help him regain his crown, might have been written just for me.
Lemony Snicket: The calamities that descend upon the three long-suffering Baudelaire orphans in Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events are not, strictly speaking, magical. However, the stories themselves, set in an imaginary place and narrated with a woebegone mock solemnity by Snicket (himself the fictional creation of novelist Daniel Handler), have a fantastical quality. The books are profoundly literary and likely to amuse any well-read adult nearly as much as they have delighted millions of children. Kids old enough to perceive that that the mournful narration (complete with suggestions that the reader opt for a cheerier book) is supposed to be funny get to revel in their first experience with parody.
P.L. Travers: If the only Mary Poppins you know is the one in the Disney movie, you don't know Mary. The literary Poppins is both less sugary and less medicinal than the Julie Andrews version, a personage of mysterious eminence and unknown origin who occasionally (and inexplicably) deigns to work as a nanny for the Banks family. Travers is one of children's fiction's finest and least tendentious writers; these stories (the books are fairly episodic), are a delight to read aloud and manage to be spiritual while avoiding any veiled religious proselytizing. In fact, Travers re-wrote the first book to remove passages she later came to regard as racially insensitive, and you can still obtain either version-- so be sure to double check the second chapter of any edition you're thinking of purchasing.
Ysabeau Wilce: The teenaged heroine of Wilce's spirited novels, Flora Fyrdraaca, comes from an eminent military/political family but aspires to be a ranger, which in Califa, where she lives, resembles a cross between a musketeer and a wizard. Beginning with Flora Segunda, Wilce's books feature the pacing of a madcap farce, the intrigues of a Dorothy Dunnett novel and a Wonderland version of San Francisco in which the human residents are the colonial subjects of some vaguely Aztec bird-headed overlords. Weird in the best possible way.
Diana Wynne Jones: During the peak of the Harry Potter craze, Wynne-Jones was often held up by aficionados as an example of a superior writer in the same field who, inexplicably, enjoyed far less success than J.K. Rowling. Wynne-Jones' characters, particularly in her Chrestomanci series, are often young trainee witches and wizards struggling in a world of unreliable and downright treacherous adults. Her outlook is probably too complicated and prickly for the average Potter fan, but just the ticket for those wary, thoughtful kids who have already figured out that life is more complicated than a simple contest between good and evil.