The kids’ novelists who made me a SFF reader.
By Ruth Tross
Posted on November 14, 2013 in Fun Stuff with tags Ursula K. Le Guin
I was your typical bookworm when I was a kid. Luckily I lived five minutes from a library so I could head there every Saturday for my allowance of 6 books, which I started to read on the way back home – it’s a miracle I never got run over in hindsight. Some of the authors listed below are now sadly out of print, though Hot Key Books have just announced they’re reissuing Grinny, hurrah! Others are still incredibly well known, and still writing. Looking at the list, what all of them have in common is the sense that around, below, just outside our world lies another one – where things are more magical, darker, stranger. There are more dangers there, but many more possibilities. I used to half believe that one day I would be able to step off the kerb, walk through a wardrobe, whatever, and encounter a whole other place out there. It never happened, but these days I get the same effect from reading SFF– and these early reads were the ones that made me a genre fan. You can’t beat discovering a strange new world…
All covers are real and were on the copies I read. Oh, the 80s.
Diana Wynne Jones
Jones probably needs no introduction from me. Charmed Life is the first novel in the Chrestomanci series, set in a world that is almost like ours but not quite. They have motor cars, but it’s broadly Victorian in feel, and there is magic. Lots of magic. Chrestomanci is in charge of supervising magic in all the related worlds, which leads to a lot of fun adventures. All the books are light in touch but deeply thoughtful about families, friendships, and combatting evil wherever it is found. I can’t actually pick a single favourite DWJ book – she’s my go-to comfort-read author – but Black Maria, Howl’s Moving Castle or Charmed Life are all good places to start. And cat lovers should read Chrestomanci’s origin story The Lives of Christopher Chant because Throgmorten is brilliant.
Another classic. I’ve always been a sucker for British myth and legend seeping into the ‘real’ world, and this series is one of the best examples of that you could ever possibly read. The Grey King is probably my favourite of the books, because Bran. Just don’t talk to me about the way the series ends… or the movie.
Ursula K LeGuin
All right, very predictable, but I couldn’t leave these out. They are some of the best YA fantasy you’ll ever read: magical and beautiful and heart-wrenching. It’s so refreshing not to have an all-white cast (Ged is green, apparently, according to the cover), and the characters are allowed to be snappy and impulsive and wrong – the point is what they learn from their mistakes, which is a great encouragement for a grumpy teenager. I could never get on with books about paragons of virtue. And the world building and deeper themes are impeccably done. I must have read Tehanu a dozen times, but I still don’t think I’ve got to the bottom of it.
Grinny by Nicholas Fisk
Great Aunt Emma comes to stay, but something isn’t quite right about her… I think Nicholas Fisk is one of the best SF writers for kids and I can’t quite believe he isn’t better known. He wrote scary alien invasions (Grinny and its sequel You Remember Me) and benign ones that we humans react to badly (Trillions); apocalyptic horror (On the Flip Side); and novels about androids and robots that beat Asimov in their questioning of what it means to be human (yeah, I said it), particularly the absolutely heart-breaking A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair. Go track down second-hand copies. They’re amazing.
Strange Attractors isn’t one of my favourite William Sleator novels, but I couldn’t resist that cover. My favourite is probably Interstellar Pig, in which a boy on holiday inadvertently joins a really massive MMORGP, where different alien races are playing each other and the losers’ planets get wiped out… and now Earth is on the board. It’s a really epic imaginative novel. Sleator was particularly good at ordinary kids getting sucked in SF style adventures; other great books include The Boy Who Reversed Himself, where the titular boy accidently enters 4D space; The Duplicate – you can guess – and the really frightening House of Stairs, about a group of unruly teenagers subjected to a Pavlov’s Dog-style behaviour modification experiment.
She’s probably best known for I Know What You Did Last Summer now but I find her other work much more interesting and dark: immortals (Lost in Time), witches (Summer of Fear), psychics (The Third Eye) and spirit walkers (Stranger with My Face) all feature in her writing, as well as more mundane and human evil in Daughters of Eve and Killing Mr Griffin. Again, it’s the way she takes ordinary suburban teenage life and twists that really appeals to me; it’s unsettling and enthralling at the same time.
That cover is so awful, I don’t know what they were thinking. Oh well. The Changeover is out of print but really deserves to find a home – I’m pretty sure it would work for Twilight readers, though it’s rather more interesting. Laura Chant lives with her chaotic mother and toddler brother, a normal existence till her brother is cursed by a mysterious shopkeeper. Only Laura can fight him, but to do that she needs to awaken her own latent magical powers, with the help of mysterious local boy Sorensen Carlisle, the first male in a long line of female witches. The ‘changeover’ she has to go through is mystical, dreamy, and, er, really quite sexy. This is definitely a YA read. For younger folk, Mahy’s hilariously bonkers Blood-and-thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak is also worth tracking down.
I could add a lot more names to this – Robert Comier! Jenny Nimmo! – but I will resist. Tell us your favourites instead.