March 22, 2012

Middle Grade Fantasy Classics by Charlotte from Charlotte's Library

Today I welcome Charlotte from Charlotte's Library.  
She has this fantastic post every Sunday where she rounds up all the MG fantasy reviews/highlights from around the blogosphere!  Fantastic - check it out!!

Today she is here to talk about Middle Grade Fantasy Classics.  Welcome Charlotte!

The first room in our dilapidated old house that was finished was our unborn son's bedroom, complete with built in bookshelves. I carefully placed there all the books on my mental list of fantasy "classics"--the books that I considered essential reading for a child of mine. It was part of a Plan.

My Son's Bookcase

Tolkein, in his classic essay "On Fairy -Stories," speaks of the Cauldron of Story, in which simmers a multitude of things old, potent, beautiful, comic, and terrible. Out of this soup can be drawn new stories. I want my boys to have in their minds as full a cauldron as I can give them, not only so that they can, if they wish, be creators of their own stories, but so that they can also take from the world of story an appreciation for the numinous--the flashes of joy or chills on the back of the neck that come from seeing something beyond the mundane world--and bring that back into "real" life.

In much the same way that learning a language is easier when you are young, I think that it is easier to fill your imagination when you are not yet a teenager, or (even worse) a grown-up. When you're a child meeting various stories for the first time, the impact of a new book is much greater than it is for an older and more cynical reader like myself--I have read of a hundred lamp-posts in snowy woods (or more accurately lamp-post equivalents), and so I can't help but be a bit blase. For the child, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe holds the first Lamp-post, and there's no world-weariness born of experience (such as one might have at 13) to keep it from being an awe-inspiring moment.

These images and emotions become evocative signifiers--touchstones for life, building blocks of the imagination, reminders of the past. It's not just me who thinks so; Neil Gaiman said in the introduction to M is for Magic (p. ix)--"Stories that you read when you're the right age never quite leave you... if they touch you, they will haunt the places in your mind that you rarely visit."

And so I feel a sense of urgency in making sure that my boys read the books that I consider the fantasy classics, while they are still in the "middle grade" age bracket of nine to twelve years old. I want so badly myself to be "the right age" for many books, knowing how much they would have thrilled me back in the day, that it is almost painful to think that that age is passing by for my children.

On a slightly more selfish level, I want my children to speak the same literary language as my husband and myself. I want them to recognize quotes and allusions to shared stories, to know the same myths and
metaphors as we do. The books that I consider the middle grade fantasy classics are simply the ones that were the basis of my own literacy, and of course every parent who is a reader themselves will have a somewhat different list.

But in any event, here's mine.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Moominland Midwinter, and the other Moomin books, by Tove Jannson
The Dark is Rising and the other books in that series, by Susan Cooper
The works of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager,
Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series
C.S. Lewis' Narnia books
Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber
The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle

To this list my husband brought A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner, and The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield (all fine books that I'm happy to count as classics, but which, because I didn't read them myself until I was older, weren't immediately books I put in my son's room!).

The process of making sure these books get read to the boys is going fairly well. On the plus side my youngest is now reading The Hobbit to himself for the third time and my oldest can quote Alice; on the
negative side The Dark is Rising was rejected, and Nesbit evoked only polite interest.

However, I am less worried than I was at the onset of this whole reading to children business. I'm more aware then I was that reading is in large part a social and situational thing, and my children are going to be finding classics within their communities. I'm thinking of Harry Potter, and the Warriors series, and Percy Jackson, and even The Hunger Games--YA in name, but de facto middle grade.

These are the stories that make up the shared vocabulary of the playground, and are the icons of its culture. Though none of these books evoked in me any awe or stunned shock of recognition, I can't say that they haven't done so for my children. They (typically) refused to answer directly when I asked them if this was the case, but there are still indications. Yesterday, for instance, my little one spent an hour in the woods alone, telling himself Story as he lived the life of a Warrior kitten, growing from from Maplekit to Maplepaw.
Those books, that do little for me, might well end up the classics he presses on his own children.

As my children grow older, I wonder what books I'll read to my grandchildren; in particular, which books from the past ten years of middle grade fantasy books galore, I will think of as "must read" classics. Of those that have recently won Newbery Awards, the only one I'm betting on is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. Many of my own favorites, like Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, and Letters to Anyone and Everyone, by Toon Tellegan, don't seem to me to have enough general appeal to be classics.

But in any event, when my putative grandchildren come visit, all the books their fathers read and loved will still be here waiting for them. Unless their fathers sneak off with the books behind their
mother's back....

Please do share the middle grade fantasy books you consider classics! I can't help but notice that the books I've listed are all over forty years old, and so I have a question for those of you who were children in the eighties and nineties in particular--what books from those decades do you hold dear?

Thank you so much for this post! I never really enjoyed fantasy book until Harry Potter! Now I love them :)


  1. What a wonderful post! Charlotte, I loved reading about your favorites of the middle grade years. When I think of what I was reading in my middle grade years, the list has a lot of historical fiction on it - Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Elizabeth George Speare, Ann Rinaldi, L.M. Montgomery. Add to that healthy doses of Patricia C. Wrede and T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and, OF COURSE, Tolkien and Lewis. What a wondrous time of reading 'middle grade!'

  2. I love what you said about wanting your children to speak the same literacy language. That is totally my goal with my daughter too.

  3. I think Roald Dahl played a pretty big role in my "fantasy" early years. But I'm totally having a hard time coming up with more fantasy staples from back then. Maybe I wasn't as big a fantasy fan when I was a kid! Love this thoughtful post, Charlotte.

  4. From reading your blog, I can't imagine you having kids that aren't well read. I do think the classics we loved, like The Hobbit or The Secret Garden and the others you mentioned, may not resonate with all kids. I think you're right that books like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and The Hunger Games may be the classics that they insist their kids read. Because I know my daughter and her friends loved those books. Thanks for sharing Charlotte.

  5. What a wonderful post, Charlotte. And you know you covered all my favorites...especially when I was doing a whole lot of book talks in the eighties and nineties. During those years my daughters loved, loved Patricia C. Wrede. Loved her.

  6. Charlotte, this is easily my favorite post of the March of Middle Grade. Your boys are so fortunate to have reading parents like you and your husband. I love that you chose their first book collection with such care! With the glorious exception of Roald Dahl, I didn't even start reading fantasy or science fiction until college. Luckily, my own little boy won't have to wait so long :)

  7. Thanks, Jill, for hosting me, and thank you all for taking the time to comment!

    I've never read much Patricia Wrede--I think I must try more of her younger books. They keep coming up in conversations like this!

  8. What a lovely post! I agree with most of your list, even though I think I'm probably a generation younger. Among my other favorites (some more recent, some not) are Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia Wrede, Robin McKinley, L. M. Montgomery, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary many! I'm going to need BIG bookcases for my kids someday. :)

  9. I guess I'm not so into the idea of "classics;" I feel like I spent enough time in grad school arguing about the idea of canon. However, I do second the motion of whomever mentioned Patricia C. Wrede, and I do cheer on those books mentioned with strong female protagonists and a more diverse cast. Those might not be classics by dint of not having that broad appeal, but they should be... but then, "should" is a discussion that's personal to each parent and each bookshelf. A very thoughtful piece, Charlotte!

  10. I love some of the newer books. I think Neil Gaiman's Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book is destined to become a classic.

  11. I have to put in a word for the classic fairy tales. I know they're problematic for many parents, and I've seen my own children reject them in favor of proper chapter books with more complex plots and character development... But think about all those fantasy books on the list, especially authors like Wrede who draw so heavily on the fairy tale tropes and whose humor and subversion depend so deeply on knowing what it is that's being played with and subverted! If you want a shared vocabulary, fairy tales are practically the basic word lists of the fantastic.

  12. I whole-heartedly agree, Anne! I have made sure that they at least had a reasonable number of fairy tales solidly in their little heads...I read my fairy tale anthologies over and over again, but my boys have never picked them up on their own. I think that, unlike me, they have so many new and shiny books that it never occurs to them!

  13. Charlotte! You are awesome in this as always. This is so true:
    "On a slightly more selfish level, I want my children to speak the same literary language as my husband and myself. I want them to recognize quotes and allusions to shared stories, to know the same myths and metaphors as we do."

    Their desire for that can play a big part in what books they choose too. I know Bit has read some things or requested read alouds just so she could know what her father and I were talking about.

  14. This is an AWESOME post. I hope to do something like this for my future kids. Plus, there were a few books mentioned that I have never heard of, so I'm gonna go check them out now!