31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Fantasy Books for Kids
Can you believe that last year I had a nice, big, beautiful science fiction list and then entirely eschewed fantasy? For! Shame! Fantasy was my first genre love. I dedicated long hours of my childhood to Apple paperback ghost stories and Susan Cooper and Pern (which is technically science fiction, but shhhh!). This year I’m doing what I already did with the humor and science fiction lists. I’m broadening the scope a tiny bit. That means I’ll not just include chapter books but comics as well!
In sorting through all of this I also had to make some big choices. Does Magical Realism count as Fantasy? If it doesn’t (and I don’t think it does) then technically A Game of Fox and Squirrels doesn’t belong on this list. Does Horror? Yesss . . . I do think so. Talking Animal Fiction? No. Superheroes? Not really. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to this game so these rules are fairly arbitrary. With that in mind, here then are the books I read in 2020 that I thought were just stand up and cheer great. Please bear in mind, though, that I missed a LOT of middle grade books this year. I think we all did. This is just a sampling of what was on offer . . .
2020 Fantasy Books for Kids
Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster
I feel guilty. This year, I honestly don’t feel like I read enough high fantasy. That’s on me. It can be easy to get distracted by all the well-written realistic stuff out there. But fantasy was, as I mentioned before, always my first love as a kid, so when you stumble on a book that renders it really well, you should grab on with both hands. In the world of Emblem Island, each human is born with a small picture or emblem on their skin that indicates a particular skill or talent. For Tor Luna, he was born with the emblem of leadership. It’s a symbol he despises and so, on a day when wishes might come true, he wishes to change his symbol. It works, but at a terrible price. Now Tor and two friends are in search of the Night Witch. She’s the only one who can lift the curse on their heads, and to find her they’ll have to travel through an array of real Latinx folktales, any one of which could kill them. There are times when the book drove me mildly crazy (like when they’re lost yet have a compass that they keep forgetting about) and it ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s a GREAT cliffhanger. Aster honestly manages to conjure up all kinds of ideas and images I don’t recall ever seeing in children’s books before. If you have kids that are fantasy fans, hand them this first book in a new series. They’ll dig it. I know they will.
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, ill. Lydia Corry
What makes a princess excellent? An enchantress sets off to find the answer to that question and discovers the stories of eight entirely different girls, all of whom have big tales to tell. Tested this one out on my nine-year-old and I think it definitely works as bedtime fare. It’s a bit slight, but as princess fare goes it’s strong. Eight different “princesses” (the term gets a little loosey goosey at the end) are presented in different countries, cultures, nations, contexts, and times. The disposed Russian monarchs are the least subtle of the batch but the rest stand on their own. During the course of the year someone asked me to recommend middle grade fiction for a reader that has always loved Disney princesses and needed something along those lined but that would deliver a swift kick in the pants. This book fits the bill.
The Fabled Stables: Willa the Wisp by Jonathan Auxier, ill. Olga Demidova
Let us return now to early chapter fiction, if only for a minute. Auggie has a great job tending to magical creatures in the fabled stables, but he’s lonely. Will a mysterious moonlight critter prove to be the friend he needs? Very slight, very short, and to the point. Auxier writes in his note at the start that he wrote this because he wanted to find something that he could read to this differently aged kids, all at the same time. I will attest that you can read it to an 9-year-old and a 6-year-old with very little difficulty. A kid working in magical stables is a familiar concept that we’ve seen, even in early chapter books, before. That said, it moves at a fair clip, the hero is likable and comes up with a solution entirely on his own, and it’s sometimes hard to find chapter books that bridge the gap between easy books and longer fiction that are this precise length.
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf
Suraya’s best friend has always been a ghost. He’s cruel and terrible and scary and he adores Suraya. So what happens when she decides the two can’t be together anymore? Yeah, this book is a bit of a wonder. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like it before. I’m so sad it doesn’t have a chance at a Newbery, but at least it received a Kirkus Prize nomination. It’s hard to find too many middle grades that excel in emotional satisfaction quite as well as this one does. And hey! Hanna lived in Evanston for a number of years (via Northwestern) and she also has a piece in the collection Once Upon an Eid. I like where this is going.
Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon
A simple game of hide and seek turns into a nightmare when a malevolent monster starts pulling kids into its terrifying world. You can run, but you cannot hide! Essentially “Stranger Things” meets “It” with a mostly Black cast. This is exactly the kind of book I would have picked up as a kid, only I don’t think I ever read anything quite this dark when I was young. Hermon doesn’t pull any punches. The nightmare world the kids are trapped in is terrifying (our hero gets in by being buried alive). This is for those kids that saw the aforementioned scary fare on their own and are convinced that there’s nothing in the children’s room dark enough for them. Though definitely less psychological than last year’s Small Spaces, it has strong things to say about economic disparities. Not everyone’s problems magically disappear at the end (and there is at least one dangling thread that I imagine will get picked up in a sequel) but altogether it’ll keep you awake at night. My top scary book of 2020.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas
When you’re dad’s deployed all over the place you get used to moving constantly. Nestor Lopez learned long ago never to unpack fully, never to make friends, and never to get attached to his new “homes”. But Nestor suddenly finds he has a hard time following these rules in this new town. Not only is he living with his abuela but there’s a mystery to be solved involving missing animals. Nestor and his two new friends are going to have to investigate. His secret ability that allows him to talk to animals? That should help. I was impressed by how elegantly the Latinx mythology was worked into the narrative. Sometimes when middle grade fantasies use myths it can feel awkward, but Cuevas really did the heavy lifting to make it feel inevitable. Good mystery elements and a nice military brat characterization. Nestor’s dad’s job doesn’t feel like a convenient plot element but is integral to our hero’s personality and inner life. Slick editing and a great final product.
Aster and the Accidental Magic by Thom Pico, ill. Karensac, translated by Dupuis
If you’re going to write an epic comic then by gum you need to go big. And this little Belgian import (which I didn’t even know WAS an import, so perfectly was it translated) is not afraid to go as big as possible. It tracks the heroine, Aster, in two different stories after she and her family have moved to the great outdoors. Naturally you hear all of this and you probably imagine it’s something like Hilda. That’s not a terrible comparison, actually. Of course, the most obvious difference is that Hilda is ALL about nature and Aster has to be persuaded to come around to it. There is also, along the way, an old lady with magic powers, a talking dog, chestnuts that are also knights, and an evil fox. All good things in a great big good book.
Beetle and the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne
After all these years, Kat Hollowbones, former best friend of Beetle the goblin-witch, is back. But is she a good witch or a bad witch? Though my daughter and I would agree that the tacked on romance is entirely superfluous (you can save people without having to be in love with them) I thought Layne did a stand up and cheer job at her world building. This felt entirely original and entirely relatable. And cute! So so cute! Love the art, love the style, and really love that grandma goblin.
Black Sand Beach: Are You Afraid of the Light? by Richard Fairgray
The Twilight Zone meets Twin Peaks . . . for kids! When Dash and his friend Lily set out to spend the summer at Black Sand Beach, they have no idea how many ghosts, changelings, and malevolent forces they’ll have to encounter there. I have a bad habit of reading books to my kids before I’ve read them myself. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but once in a while I come across something that’s particularly creepy. That’s what happened with this book. You want a bit of psychedelic insanity? I’m taking horse people with giant toothy mouths on their bellies? Got your number. Of course both my kids ADORED the book, and the only reason they’re upset with it is that they won’t be able to read the sequel until the summer of 2021. I loved the humor and weirdness of it. As I mentioned, this is sort Twin Peaks-y, but the characters are so confident in this world that you take comfort in how they saunter through it. Oh, and my favorite character is Andy. You’ll soon see why.
Dungeon Critters by Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, edited by Calista Brill and Mariah Huehner
I heard the praise surrounding these critters and their dungeons (and there are a LOT of dungeons) long before I actually got my hands on the book. Note: Do NOT do what I did and skip around before you do a read. That is a terrible way to encounter this storyline. Be good and begin at the beginning and work your way through, because this thing is jam packed with plot, character development and color color color! LGBTQIA+ friendly? Oh yes indeed! Essentially, this the tale of four animal warriors that work to investigate and defeat a vast conspiracy. Nerd that I am, I was particularly fond of a section in the back called “How We Make Comics” that shows precisely how Natalie and Sara divvy up the work of something like Dungeon Critters. Anything that shines a light on that process puts my soul to rest. Hand this to your lovers of Bone and Amulet. So far it’s a standalone, but it’s epic-worthy.
Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian by Tim Probert
What would you do if your grandfather (a pig wizard) went missing one day? If you’re Bea you team up with a cheery Galdurian warrior and find him in this sweeping adventurous tale. Clearly a labor of love, to say the least. It’s little wonder that Kazu Kibuishi is the one blurbing this book. The first in a series, it’s going all in on being epic. Beautiful, highly-detailed art and likable characters. I like how Bea’s anxieties take physical form too. Plus I just really like Cad. That guy’s got a good heart in him.
The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski, translated by Anne Collins Smith and Owen M. Smith
Princess Robin just can’t stay put! In three lushly illustrated stories she helps new friends find their way, outwits a witch, and defeats a crew of nasty pirates. Three little books about a princess and her friends are collected into one and translated for American audiences. This is definitely a comic that’s on the younger end of the spectrum. I love verbal sophistication and wit, but there’s a lot to be said for dreamlike imagery and simple storytelling. Troïanowski definitely belongs to the same camp as your Johann Sfars or Lewis Trondheims, but it’s the colors that set him apart. He manages to be detailed and pack the pictures with images without being overwhelming. The book has lots of little interactive elements where the fourth wall falls to pieces and readers are invited to help the characters. I appreciated that the book sometimes says to put a piece of paper down to trace, rather than drawing in the book. Nice touch.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
When she stumbles on the local witch in the woods, Snapdragon discovers a whole wide world where being the odd one is a blessing, not a curse. Personally, I liked it a lot. That creepy opening really hides how sweet a book it is. A second readthrough and you discover how so many of the book’s themes are hidden early on (did you notice the quick glimpse of violets at the start when Jacks realizes who Snapdragon is?). The art is so incredibly stylized that I don’t know how it’s going to be received widely, but it’s dead on in its LGBTQIA+ themes. Plus, I should probably confess, I keep rereading Jacks’s love story. It’s so frigging romantic! That moment when she chucks the violets at the sun! I love this book.
The Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse
Orphan adopted by two kindly old witches. What could be better? When Effie is unceremoniously dumped on the doorstep of her Aunt Selimene in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, the crusty old lady doesn’t want a thing to do with her. However, it soon becomes clear that she and Effie are kindred spirits (though it takes fellow witch Carlota to get them to that point). When a Taylor Swift-esque pop star shows up soon thereafter with a vermillion face and no way to remove the redness, Effie discovers her aunt’s true occupation and her own calling. Escabasse spins a good yarn and the storytelling matches the art panel-for-panel. A witch title for those folks in the mood for something a little more realistic than Beetle and the Hollow Bones and a little less fraught than Snapdragon.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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