Speculative Fiction Starters for Children and Young Adults

This article was written for the Martian Chronicle blog, but it was never posted so I decided to rewrite and to present it on my blog. Enjoy!

            When children and adolescents show an interest in reading, we—as adults, and as readers ourselves—want nothing more than to load our recommendations and favorite books on to them. Unfortunately, not only will this overwhelm young readers, but also turn them off to reading the books we want them to read (outside of school reading). One of the reasons for this is because many adults fail to pay attention to the genre of literature the kids are reading. If a teen is reading non-fiction, then they’re not going to be interested in historical fiction. If a child enjoys fairy tales, then giving them a book about aliens might not capture their attention. In addition, suggesting “popular” (i.e. Percy Jackson, Magic Tree House, etc.) books isn’t the way to go because those readers might have read those books already. Knowing the books within a preferred genre is worth reading and it will keep the interest of reading in children and in adolescents. 

            When it comes to speculative fiction, adults tend to select the “typical” and/or the “popular” books of the genre to give to children and to young adults. And, there is nothing wrong with choosing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Watership Down. However, there are so many other books to give to these young readers and the genre has expanded so much that it can feeling overwhelming for everyone. That being said, here are some recommended books for young readers who are fans of the speculative fiction genre. 

CHILDREN

  1. The Wizard of Oz: The Complete Collection by L. Frank Baum

There are 14 books in this series which is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Several books, including the 1st book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, does follow Dorothy and her dog, Toto, on their many adventures in Oz, but the series gives readers more insight into the entire world through several other characters who live in different parts of Oz. Think of them as “modern” American fairy tales. 

  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black

Holly Black is more known for her young adult books, but she has co-written this series—and, a sequel series—with Tony DiTerlizzi; and yes, the books are better than the movie. This series follows twin brothers, Jared and Simon Grace, and their older sister, Mallory, as they move into their family manor. As they unpack, they wonder if there is something, or someone, else living in the house. When Jared finds a “field guide” that belonged to their great-uncle who disappeared over 80 years ago, Jared, Simon, and Mallory learn that their backyard is home to numerous magical creatures, both good and bad.

  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

DO NOT CALL THIS BOOK, “HOGWARTS IN AFRICA,” because it is NOT THAT!!! This book will remind readers of Rick Riordan and Ursula K. LeGuin, in which “gifted” children attend a school where they learn magic that is based on their heritage. Sunny and her friends learn how to hone their abilities which is based on African shamanism and cultural practices. The plot alone makes this book and its sequel, Akata Warrior, stand apart from other “magic school” stories. 

  • Young Wizards by Diane Duane

What if wizardry and magic weren’t just about casting spells, but protecting the entire galaxy? What if your spell book was real and you had to be able to read the language its written in in order to cast spells? This series, which started in 1983 with So You Want to Be a Wizard, follows Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez as they begin their careers as wizards. After completing their “Ordeal,” the two friends travel throughout Earth, to Mars, and to the rest of the galaxy as they work on their tasks using scientific spells. Currently, there are 10 books in the series, and each one sees the development of the young wizards. 

This horror story will make readers question whether or not their local urban legends are real. The story follows 11-year-old Ollie, who is grieving the death of her mother. One day after school, Ollie sees a crazed woman yelling at a book and threatening to throw it into the river. Ollie steals the book and begins to read it. She reads about two brothers who were in love with the same woman, and a deal they made with “the smiling man.” Ollie believes what she’s reading is just a story until her school bus breaks down and her broken watch “warns” her to “RUN.” 

YOUNG ADULT

  1. Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith

This book won the Batchelder Award in 2008, and it was written for children as young as 8-years-old. However, this book can be enjoyed by adolescents; and yes, the fact that the book is more than 800 pages long is another reason this book is recommended for adolescent readers. The story follows Wataru Mitani as he goes on a quest in another world to save his parents’ marriage. The difference here is that this story is written in a style that appeals to gamers, especially fans of (Japanese) role-playing games, or RPGs. Fans of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Final Fantasy will love this story.

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

What if your father was a famous storyteller who receives his stories from a river of dreams? What happens when that river stops flowing and your father can no longer perform his job? Join Haroun as he journeys to defeat the dark force that is halting the flow of the river, and the stories, which flow to his father. This is a very unusual quest.

  • Memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar Trilogy by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

15-year-old Alexander Cold is sent to stay with his grandmother who works for International Geographic. Her latest assignment takes both of them on an expedition to the Amazon. There, Alex meets Nadia Santos, and the two friends go on an adventure through the Amazon, where they learn about their spirit guides, which are in the forms of animals, so that they can save an ancient city from ruin. Isabel Allende’s YA trilogy, which starts with, City of the Beasts, follows the protagonists’ adventures both in the Himalayas and in Kenya as well. 

This book, which is set in a futuristic war-torn Nigeria, was influenced by the anime series (and its many spinoff series), Gundam. Onyii and Ify are sisters who live in a camp with other orphaned girls that is isolated from the ongoing civil war. However, after an attack on the camp, the sisters are separated and find themselves on opposite sides of the war. In a future where space colonies, A.I.s, and flying mechs exist, how does a war end when both sides have advanced technology. Will Onyii and Ify survive the war and reunite? 

  • Tamora Pierce Pantheon

For almost 40 years, Tamora Pierce has written stories of several characters through generations in the world of Tortall. Alanna: The First Adventure was released in 1983, and it follows Alanna as she and her twin brother, Thom, switch places in order to go to the school they want to attend. Thom goes to school to train as a mage, and Alanna travels to the King’s castle to train as a knight. There is only one problem. Females haven’t trained to be knights in over 400 years. This means Alanna will have to disguise herself as a boy so that she can become the knight she wants to be. And, that’s just the first quartet in that universe! There are a lot more stories about different girls learning and growing into strong women that take place inside and outside Tortall. 

These are a few of several books and series available for young readers of speculative fiction. Now, some of these authors have written other books for children and for adolescents, and I recommend those books as well. This is a starting point for young readers who want to read books that might not receive the recognition they deserve. Yes, let them read Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Earthsea Cycle and the Rick Riordan Pantheon; but, these fantasy, horror, science fiction, fairy tale, and magic realism stories are worth reading, too. I hope you enjoy them all as much as I do!

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Ships”

The Tide Child #1: The Bone Ships

By: R.J. Barker

Published: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            Joron sat opposite the man who had made sure he was condemned to a ship of the dead, and, in so doing, he heard of the miracle that would make him part of a legend, (12: To All Who Serve, Comes A-Calling).

            The speculative fiction genre has gone from limited to selective, and because of this fans have only so much time to read all of the books published by all of the authors. R.J. Barker is one of the many authors whose books I’ve been struggling to make time to read. I’ve heard great things about the author’s trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom, and it’s in my TBR pile. Then, I won an early publication of The Bone Ships, the first book in The Tide Child Trilogy. I was excited, yet skeptical of what to expect from this book besides pirates. Then, the author told me on social media that I should expect, “a different story than other ones I’ve read before.” He was not exaggerating. This book is a fantasy adventure about pirates and warfare, and most of the action and the story occurs at sea, and it’s engrossing, not boring!

            The story follows Joron Twiner, who is about to lose his position of “shipwife,” or master and commander of a ship—“Tide Child,” to Meas Gilbryn, or as many others refer to her, “Lucky” Meas. Meas has a reputation of being one of the “most decorated, the bravest, the fiercest shipwife the Hundred Isles had ever seen,” (p.7). And, she was recently sent to a “ship of the dead”—the “Tide Child”—as a death sentence for a criminal act. “Ships of the dead,” which are typically made of the black bones of an arakeesian—a giant whale as big as a dragon, are operated by “criminal crews.” The crew consist of criminals who’ve committed a crime of some sort and are sentenced to a “black ship” to serve their term until death. In this case, a life of piracy, which will lead to one’s death at sea, at some point in the future. Joron, who starts as a wishy-washy sailor, and Meas, one of the best shipwives of the Hundred Isles, are the last people you would expect to be on a black ship, but they are. And, Meas just won a duel against Joron, which makes her the new shipwife, and Joron’s demoted to “deckkeeper,” or second-in-command. It turns out, Joron losing the duel is the best thing to happen to “Tide Child” because Meas immediately takes control of the crew and slowly transforms them into a presentable crew. Throughout the story, Meas remains a flat character, but she forces the other characters, especially Joron, to develop into the people they are meant to be. 

            The plot of The Bone Ships centers on the reconfiguration of the crew of the “Tide Child.” After Meas becomes shipwife, she makes numerous, but essential, changes within the crew. She reassigns roles, teaches them how to fight, and involve them in sea battle in order to improve their experience and their morale. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, so this training and refashioning take up the majority of the story. There are two subplots. The first focuses on the shift of the “Tide Child’s” goals from protecting the kidnapping of children to tracking down the first arakeesian spotted on the seas in centuries. A race ensues amongst all ships and their crews into locating the arakeesian, sailing as far as the uncharted waters. The second subplot, clues into society and the rules of the setting, which are relevant because they explain how both Joron and Meas ended up on a black ship. Joron’s reason is straightforward; Meas’ reason is more complicated. Both subplots are necessary for the development of both the plot and the characters. 

            The narrative in this novel is told in a sequence of an account told by the protagonist. The story is told from Joron Twiner’s P.O.V. in first person in the past tense. Although the narrative follows the events of Joron after they occur, readers get the stream-of-consciousness and an account of the events he witnessed. There are no passages or chapters of Mea’s account of the events, or any from any of the other characters or the crew. This makes the narrative more engaging (and maybe believable) because an individual’s account of events is based on what feelings they experienced at the location(s) they were at at that time. This type of narration make Joron a reliable narrator, and his account can be followed by the readers. 

            The style R.J. Barker uses in The Bone Ships is split between world-building and naval terminology. The word choice and the language used throughout the narrative presents life in hierarchical society, or at sea. The terminology included in the story is a lesson in sailing and ship maintenance which enhances the narrative and make it more realistic, and it’s based on knowledge, words and maintenance of ships in our world. For someone who knows nothing about sailing or boats (such as myself), this was very informative and helpful to understanding the narrative. In addition, the description of the battles transports readers into the middle of the action, swords, blood and all. The mood of this novel is stormy. Life in the Hundred Isles is attainable through strength, the weak bring down everyone and they have no place in the world. The tone is the competition for survival and recognition amongst those in society, a story that follows Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” to a teed. All of the characters are competing for survival in order to survive in their harsh environment, and strength is the coveted trait. All of the elements used by the author transport the readers to the sea. 

            The appeal surrounding The Bone Ships have been mixed. This is because readers of the author’s first trilogy probably weren’t expecting this change in story type from him. Then, there are readers who are not interested, or were confused by a book about life on a ship. For clarification, I’ll use The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Fans of the series have stated that that book was their least favorite one because they found the story to be “slow” and “uninteresting.” Not everyone is interested in stories about sailing, and I believe this is why there were some negative reviews from some of the readers. I didn’t mind this story because all of the terminology was explained and action occurred both on land and on sea. The elements of world-building kept my attention as well. Readers who are fans of pirates, Moby Dick and/or sailing will enjoy this book the most. For those who did enjoy The Bone Ships will be pleased to know that Book 2, Call of the Bone Ships, will be released in September 2020. I’m looking forward to reading what happens next. 

            The Bone Ships is a fantasy adventure about pirates and the tracking of a “legendary” whale. The novel is a different experience from what fantasy readers are used to, but the characters and the world-building will hook them into the story and wheel them in the end. R.J. Barker illustrates what life on the seas is really like and why some people are better off staying on land. But, if sentenced to a black ship, then it is the “Tide Child” you’ll want to be on!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Armour”

This is the episode everyone has been waiting for! Armour is the episode in which, the audience is introduced to Lee Scoresby—played by Lin-Manuel Miranda—and Iorek Byrnison—voiced by Joe Tandberg. These characters are not only essential to the story because of the roles they’ll play in the future, but also because they explain more about the existence of daemons for more clarity. Viewers of the 2007 movie will see these characters portrayed differently; and, readers will rejoice at this faithfulness to the books. 

            Lyra Belaqua and the Gyptians arrive North at a port in order to stock up on supplies for the journey and to contact the Witches—including one named Serafina Pekkala—to ask for their alliance in getting the children back from the Gobblers. These are the scenes in which the other characters, and the audience, witness how Lyra uses and reads the alethiometer. Lyra’s abilities to read the alethiometer and the truth of her parentage has started to catch the attention of Mrs. Coulter, the Gyptians, the Witches’ Council, and the Magisterium. The audience will recall that the Master of Jordan College discovered something about Lyra, and he was trying his best to keep her safe to the extent (and the extremes) of his status. 

            Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter continues to demonstrate her cunningness and her abilities as a power player within the Magisterium. She knows her previous actions went against their instructions and the law, but Mrs. Coulter manages to evade them because she’s already a few steps ahead of the Magisterium. She has made an alliance with the King of the Armoured Bears—yes, I’m using the British English spelling for this review—and they have someone both she, and the Magisterium, want.   

            Once again, these scenes are straight from the books with the exception of the bar fights. That scene was meant to present the demeanor and the skills Lee Scoresby has and what that means for the Gyptians as they continue their journey further North. Iorek Byrnison is presented to us as Armoured Bears are supposed to be; he’s a strong and fearless fighter, and he isn’t afraid to let everyone know. The Gyptians have the alliance of the Witches and Lyra manages to gain the alliance of both of these fighters for the rescue mission. The rescue party has assembled, and they are off to save the missing children. 

            Just like other media adaptations in recent years, we’ve seen actors transcend from one popular media series to another. So far, we’ve seen Narnia, X-Men, and Game of Thrones. This episode has a character from the Harry Potter movies. Do you know who it is? Did you recognize that individual in the role they were playing?  

My Rating: 10 out of 10