Sometimes, we need a little escapism with a side of pep in our reading. A little pick-me-up. And fantasy can be just the thing. After all—if it’s for middle readers, it (almost) always will have a happy ending, making any trials and tribulations worthwhile . We’ve gathered together a few fabulous titles from all around the world that fit that criteria—from grand sweeping fantasies to slightly more day-to-day goings on with a pinch of magic. After all, what’s the point in fantasy if you’re only looking through the fantastical lens of one place and culture?
So let’s dive in. The Gauntlet is a little bit Jumanji, a little bit steampunk, a little bit Middle Eastern—and a whole lot readable. Author Karuna Riazi is a New Yorker who calls on her family roots to at her own unique spin to the middle reader fantasy space. Farah is an amazing main character for young readers to connect with—especially as a positive and empowering depiction of a young hijabi woman.
Nipping closer to home, V. M. Jones’ Karazan Quartet is a rollicking fantasy with a smack of science fiction kicking it all off. A fantasy computer game rubs shoulders with reality, an orphan finds a family he never expected and wit and kindness are as important as brawn. These titles are now out of print, but there are copies in plenty of libraries and maybe second-hand bookshops if you’re lucky.
Presumably if you’re a Sapling reader, you know that Howl’s Moving Castle started out life as a book well before the anime film won people’s hearts. It’s an eternal favourite of booksellers everywhere—as anything by the legendary Diana Wynne Jones is. Magic, hidden talents, mystery, adventure, with a dash of tween-friendly love and happily ever after. You’re going to be hard-pressed to do better—plus there are two less-known sequels (Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways) to look out for.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a book from our temporary neighbour Neil Gaiman. You can’t really talk about fantasy fiction in 2021 without him, can you? While there are plenty of options to choose from, for a feel-good fantasy list, Stardust is the pick. From England to the land of Faerie, dastardly princes, fallen stars, witches and a whole lot of humour. It’s one of those treats that’s not technically a kids book, but is definitely readable by teens, and it’s a charming contrast to a lot of the mega chunky sagas that tend to populate the YA fantasy space.
You might be familiar with Adeline Yen Mah’s young readers memoir Chinese Cinderella, but did you know that she’s spun off a few fiction titles with a main character based on her childhood self? One such title, Chinese Cinderella: The Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting, also published as Along the River in some places, firmly sits in the fantasy realm, with a gaze back in time. A story of art and endurance – among other things – this is a great young adult title to sink your teeth into if you’re keen to expand your fantasy reading beyond Western European conventions.
Moving westward from China towards India, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Conch Bearer is a Desi take on great heroic adventure fantasies. Main character Anand is one of our favourite kinds of protagonists—tween kid with tough backstory but an unshakeable proclivity for dreaminess and belief in magic—and his journey towards the legendary Silver Valley in search of the magical Conch through. The author grew up in Kolkata but is based in the US these days, and you can see the melding of US middle reader sensibilities with her homeland’s influences throughout the setting and characters.
Barbara Else is a vital part of the children’s literary world in Aotearoa—from her own writing, to her support of other writers as an editor. You could pick a variety of options from her backlist, but we went with The Travelling Restaurant. Ordinary kid turned adventurer Jasper Ludlow goes sister-searching on the Old Ocean and comes up against all the nefarious things one could hope to find in the pages of a middle reader book set on the sea, from pirates to whirlpools and plenty more besides.
If you like a bit of domestic (as in, home-and-surrounds domestic, not not-overseas domestic) fantasy, might we suggest Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon? It has pockets of action, but a whole lot of wholesome Witch, Girl, Dragon, and Swamp Beast whānau dynamics. An all time favourite of myself and my Little Unity colleagues, and always a hit with kids at the school library I work at too. It’s witty, with wonderful world-building and characters you’ll be obsessed with.
Briar Lawry is an English teacher and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She worked in bookshops for years, most notably Little Unity, and judged the NZCYA Awards in 2020. She was also one of the editors of The Sapling between 2019 and 2023.