Numerous authors and fans have published their Top 10 Fantasy Novel list. I’d like to go meta for a moment and talk about the ur-list that underlies all lists of this nature. Comments are invited. On a personal level, I have a hungry Ewok in my care, and how best to nurture her budding genre sensibilities is important to me. Before you even get to The Hobbit, there are stepping stones of genre literature in regards to educatin’ your chillun’. For now, this rant sticks to books, so the Totoro-minded will have to wait.
So, here be stepping stones:
Stone #1: Dinosaurs. It all begins here. That wonder about the Other Time and the Other Place filled with Other Things. Every kid loves dinosaurs, but there are pernicious side effects. That first fannish flame is one of the reasons, IMHO, that Creationism has struggled v Evolution even in the face of general American apathy and ignorance regarding science. The Bible does not mention le thunder lizards and kids love them, so WWJD? Jesus, in the form of parents who over-value religion, hedge their faith around the T-Rex. That scaly mofo allows the science spark to smolder, and it may rekindle within even the most squashed mind. I don’t mean to be down on JC and the gang, just his most zealous supporters. There’s lots of value in JC’s teachings, and as Darth Vader teaches us, there need be no conflict. So, start with the dinos.
Picture Books are stone 1A for charging the pistons in the headbone of your young’un, specifically the classic toddler trivium of Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and all things Seuss. The Very Hungry Caterpillar can eat my shorts.
Stone #2: Now we get into your Basic Cultural Mythology. Any region will do: Greco-Roman, Chinese, Norse, Mayan, JesusLand, etc. Other Place and Time again, but now it’s with humans. You can visit Rome and Cairo. You can dress like a Viking, or a Ninja, or a Pirate, or as Noah. This is definitely time for Faerie Tales. Before your kid is ten, she should be able to choose between Pirates and Ninjas. This is the time for all the great psyche scarring. Monsters live in the closet. Really bad ones live under the bed. Bad dreams wake them up. They’re afraid of the dark. Eat your broccoli Timmy or the Vege-stalker under the floorboards will tear the soles off you feet. Nooo, Daddy!!!! I try to have my ewok imagine a big, faithful dog that can attack spiders and zombies for her. Apparently, her fears are zombies, vampires, and red spiders. Since she has never seen the first two outside of Scooby Doo, I’m not sure where she gets that other than DNA. We live in Florida, so I know where the last one comes from. I’m still not sure how her mind works.
Stone #3. Now we’re back to familiar Middle Grade / Young Adult books: Maddy L’engle, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Oz, etc. Basically anything that ends with Potter, Narnia, the Hobbit, and all things by Roald Dahl. If your precious tot starts talking about Twilight, then you’ll have to intervene. Hermione is heroic. Bella is a passive cardboard cutout that feeds the worst fantasies that girls and women can have about their interaction with the male species. Nip that shit early. The Princess Industrial Complex in all its forms must be thwarted. Old School Disney can suck it. There are dozens of books for the warrior-princess, and that’s what we fathers aim to mold. The GeekDad & GeekMom websites are chock full of must-read lists for tweens and teens.
Now that the foundation is set, their taste should be consulted. But know this: if she is to hold her own when addressing the Tribe, she needs some of the 8 essential vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin A: World Fantasy. The land itself is a bona fide character, in much the same way New York is for so many films. This is Narnia & Middle Earth territory. I suggest the stand alone book Tigana, and the following series: the Wheel of Time, Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (great story and setting, horrible protagonist), the Riftwar saga, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, and the first set of the Shannara series, and anything by Zelazny. This may lead to serious addictions to Role-Playing games, video games, cosplay, etc. Some of the series run up to 13 books. I started the Wheel of Time in college and I’m still not done reading. Most of these are adult books, so they should be fodder for the end run of genre taste management.
Vitamin B1: Historical Cycle. For Americans this means the Arthurian cycle of tales, but we have seen stories spun on these themes ad infinitum. Arthur the King has returned, again and again, and frankly needs to rest. If the library has been unholy ground for you, then the internet has arrived to widen your horizons. Let your teen read about the adventures of Gilgamesh, of Krishna, of the 47 Ronin, of the Maccabees, and of the erstwhile ass-kickers of the Scandinavian Eddas and Georgian sagas. So much win, so little time.
Vitamin B2: Character Fantasy. These are the books, that while they may have cool and well-developed realms, the characters carry the legend. I do not mean to imply that Gandalf or Rand al’Thor don’t shine as characters, but I can drop Conan anywhere and he will remain the BAMF barbarian. So too for Elric and his black sword, and Fafhrd & the Mouser.
Niacin: Humor: If you’ve read enough to know your fantasy tropes, then belly laughs are yours for the reading. Find them in Xanth, Discworld, Sweet Silver Blues (and many more) by Glen Cook, the Myth Inc series. These are awesome for teens.
Thiamine: You got your mint chocolate chip. Now you need your Brussel sprouts. Hook your fangs into something non-fiction, an academic treatise or two on the quest of the hero, historical accuracy, or the seriously ancient and naughty Decameron. Try the 13th c. Canterbury Tales on for size. Books by authors about their own writing also work. “Hero with a 1000 Faces” fits here nicely although you will become a pompous ass for a while. Good for teens with an academic bent.
Vitamin C: Grim & Gritty. Tired of princes and damsels? Do elvish angst and easy fixes with high magic leave you slack-jawed? Need to feel some mud between your toes, and some gristle in your shank? You can’t go wrong with the shared realm of Thieves World, or the Black Company by Glen Cook, Game of Thrones by GRRMartin, the Malazan books by Steven Erikson, and the pitiless mercs of Joe Abercrombie. This is my current favorite sub-genre, but see NSFW stickers on all of these, especially Thrones.
Vitamin: D: Urban Fantasy. Yes, bring the phookas and grues into the city. Mix in the tech and the mech and the dirty, dirty sex. Call it Dark Fantasy, Gaslight Romances or Steampunk. This category really steps on everybody’s toes and we love it so. Anything by Neil Gaiman is good. The classic examples of the modern fey arrive from Charles DeLint. Read “Court of the Air” and sequels for steamy-alien-magical immersion. Steven King’s the Dark Tower fits here too. The fare runs from perfect-for-teens to harsh-for-adults. My second favorite sub-genre.
Vitamin B6: Weird. And finally a palette cleanser. Some ginger and wasabi to freshen your tired synapses. For something short go to Harlan Ellison or Catherynne Valente. Long form, go to China Mieville. Not for teens unless they’re really precocious.
So, go now. Fortify thy spawn, and let the world tremble.