31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 Fantasy Books for Kids
It’s always a little easier to find fantasy titles rather than science fiction ones for these lists. Honestly, anything that involves a mythological creature in any way is probably fair game. Still, I’ve been choosy with the books I’ve included on today’s list. Fantasy is so beloved in this post-Potter era that it would be a mistake to just throw anything with vaguely magic leanings in here. These books, to my mind, represent the best that fantasy for kids in 2022 had to offer. Yes, there are magical creatures and world building, but some of the titles you’ll find here are downright subtle. Take a gander. You’ll see what I mean.
Interested in previous years’ fantasy lists? Then just look here:
2022 Fantasy Books for Kids
Dreams of Near and Far by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak, translated by Polly Lawson
“Maybe it’s a fairy tale?” So asked one of my librarians upon reading this book. For her, she felt that the suspension of disbelief required of the reader pushed the storyline too far in that particular direction. Myself, I couldn’t disagree more. By gum, if we can’t suspend disbelief in a book of magical dreams and fantastically intelligent cats then when can we? “Dreamlike” is a more than appropriate term for the storyline, which is split between two children. In one storyline a boy’s dog dies and the boy is overwhelmed by grief. In the other, a homeless girl wanders the world with her cat in search of a home. It’s a uniquely playful tale, like a kinder gentler Pinocchio, complete with a nasty guy locking our heroes up so that they’ll perform. Not only did I love the art in the book, I loved the design of the whole thing. Where the words fall on any given page is marvelous. This is a gentle book but not without drama. Good for dog, cat, and fantasy lovers alike.
I’m Ogre It by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Boy. Jeffrey Ebbeler got the assignment from Holiday House to write one of their “I Like to Read” books and decided to take a big old swing. And you know what kinds of books I like? I like big swing books, baby. And it doesn’t get much bigger or swingier than an easy book with high fantasy ideals. The whole premise of this book is that a girl’s older brother is video game-obsessed and won’t really play with her anymore. When a family of ogres moves in next door (like ya do) she teams up with their son and the two of them come up with a game so enticing, even her brother can’t resist. It’s a kind of put-down-the-video-games message but not in a preachy way. Plus, any easy book that replicates the feel of a game with different levels is instantly interesting to me. Fun and strange in equal turns.
Kat Hats by Daniel Pinkwater, ill. Aaron Renier
Matt Katz’s Kat Hats does not make hats that look like cats or hats for cats. It trains cats to BE hats. So when someone needs a hat stat, it’s up to the top Kat Hat to save the day. Brain melting fun with eye-popping art. Oh, sez I. Daniel Pinkwater has a new picture book after all these years of radio silence. Oh, sez I. His illustrator is Aaron Renier, a guy who’s sole contribution to the world of children’s books was that remarkable and creepy-as-all-get-out Walker Bean series. That’s . . . an absolutely fascinating combination. And maybe it was because I was aware of Pinkwater’s brain bursting oeuvre (Lizard Music, anyone?) that I was in the right frame of mind for this book. I would think you would have to be in the right frame of mind because otherwise the sheer weirdness of the concept and the art itself is going to make your (adult) little gray cells congeal. This book is really weird… and I really like it. If you want something that does NOT look like the 5,000 other picture books produced this year, better get in on it.
Knight Owl by Christopher Denise
Owl has a dream. You may think it’s ridiculous, but more than anything he yearns to become a knight in shining armor. But when his chance finally comes, will he be up to the ultimate challenge? Whoooo can say? Stand aside N.C. Wyeth and bow your head Maxfield Parrish! Christopher Denise is the one to watch these days. I’ve a weakness for little owls anyway, and this book really and seriously taps into that mild adoration. What could be cuter than an itty bitty owlet facing a gigantic dragon anyway? Love the tone of the book and the writing, but it’s the art that’s the true star of the show. Luminous is a word that’s overused in children’s book reviews, but for once in my life I’ve gotta use it. Lovely and luminous.
Paradise Sands by Levi Penfold
As God is my witness, I didn’t know how to categorize this book so I think I’ll have to slot it under “folktales” even though it’s clearly an original creation. But the tone, man, the tone! We just don’t see a lot of truly haunting picture books in a given year. This one has all the hallmarks of a book that someone will buy for a child, the child will read and reread for years, and it’ll embed itself in the deepest folds and crevices of that child’s brain. Now I’m no fan of sepia, but that’s only because folks don’t know how to use it. Penfold here, an Australian, knows what he’s doing. I’m assuming this is taking place in the outback, but on a first read I figured it was somewhere in the more barren parts of the west. The people featured in this book look scoured. Like the wind and the sand and the dirt have worn them down in small ways. The story is fairly classic, though contemporary. A girl and her three brothers are driving to visit their mother in the hospital. Along the way they sing an old folksong that turns out to be terribly prophetic. The brothers are quickly enchanted and transformed and the daughter must obey the rules of the Teller and neither eat nor drink nor take any food or water for three days to save them. The Teller is represented as a lion that looks as if he were dipped in a strange, deep sadness. The ending is bittersweet as the girl both succeeds and fails. Penfold invokes all the best elements of classic fairytale literature, and the words are told just perfectly. If you need something beautiful and odd to give to a child, you could hardly do better than this.
The Queen in the Cave by Júlia Sardà
One day Franca decides that she is going to plunge into the unknown to seek a marvelous queen. When her sisters come along, what will they find, and will they ever get back? A hypnotic, cacophony of chaos. I like giving you books that’ll wake you up a bit. We’ve seen a lot of children’s books that ponder the end of childhood, like Peter Pan or that really strange Jerry Spinelli book Hokey Pokey. I don’t remember ever seeing a book that discusses how the younger siblings feel when their older sibling starts to pull away from them and grow apart. This book is essentially one great big metaphor for that, but done in Sardà’s inimitable (which is to say, wackadoodle) style. I really liked it, in a strange way. From a kid’s point of view, this is kind of what happens when adolescence calls your sister away. A lot to chew on here.
A Spoonful of Frogs by Casey Lyall, ill. Vera Brosgol
Okay, truth be told there’s not a HUGE amount of fantasy infused in this story of a witch, her cooking show, and a plethora of frogs so canny they might well be related to the ones in David Wiesner’s Tuesday. Do I care? I do not. I figure that if the pointy hat fits, wear it. And what’s not to enjoy in this exceedingly simple, one might even say Merrie Melodies-esque paean to physical comedy and clever amphibian know how? A witch on her own cooking show attempts to show the viewers at home how to create a delicious Frog Soup. Trouble is, the spoonful of the titular ingredient refuses to fall into the pot. Hijinks ensue. For those kids that like their witches a little less scary and little more silly.
Tiny Cedric by Sally Lloyd-Jones, ill. Rowboat Watkins
What do you do when you’re a grumpy monarch of particularly tiny size? You throw out everyone who’s taller, of course! But what happens if all the people left are babies? Wackiness. So, Rowboat Watkins doesn’t do your usual run-of-the-mill picture books. I absolutely adored his Rude Cakes book from a couple years ago, but then he sort of got distracted by marshmallows and my attention wandered. Now he’s illustrating a book by picture book longstanding, reliable author Sally Lloyd-Jones and I wholly approve. Because frankly, this is a book that takes its ridiculousness to its logical extreme. I absolutely loved the weirdness of the whole endeavor. Now, I will confess that originally I was worried that the book was making fun of shorter people, and that’s not cool. But Cedric’s story isn’t realistic in the least, and I think it’s pretty clear that Cedric’s true flaw is how he pumps his ego up in unhealthy ways. A great BIG thumbs up from me.
Witch Hazel by Molly Idle
Every season Hilda helps Hazel dust off happy memories from the past. But when a life comes to its close, how do you move on and make memories of your own? A gentle, caring tale of good friends across ages. Probably Idle’s best book since her Caldecott Honor winner Flora and the Flamingo, and I mean that truly. She’s taking a risk with this one, working entirely in sepia tones. What I find so interesting about it, though, is how she’s playing around so much with shading and the absence of colors, the white standing in for memories. Naturally, she’s perfected her round, circular style, where every movement feels connected to every other movement. Also, have you ever read a Halloween-ish picture book with half as much heart as this one? Love the writing and what the book has to say about life and living and memories. Seems appropriate that Idle would be the one to do a circle of life story, what with her circular style and all.
Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe
Bad enough that Aviva lost her dad and doesn’t have any friends at school, but why does she have to live with a mischievous and difficult dybbuk at home? A clever tale of grief, loss, and practical jokes. A nice enough cover but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blown away by this book. More fool me. This is remarkable title in which trauma and folklore intersect in remarkably subtle and respectful ways. I found the Glossary really helpful since I’d never heard of a lot of things on these pages (including what a mikvah was). But the truly amazing skill of the book is the fact that it’s capable of dealing with dark, serious subject matter on the one hand, and then pepper the book with fun and neat ideas on the other. At one point it even seems to replicate those old girl detective novels of yore. And yes, the twist at the end has a bit of Sixth Sense floating around it, but by that point I didn’t care. I was already hooked. I’m sniffing Newbery potential around this one, no lie.
Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack
There you go. That’s the killer cover I was hoping for. Jewish fantasy got a leg up, what with this book and the aforementioned Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coming out in the same year. In both cases you have strong female leads with some definite flaws in their characters. The heroine of this book, Ziva, loves her brother. Loves him so much that she’s not going to let a little thing like leprosy (known today as Hansen’s disease) stop her. As she says at one point, she’d poke out all the eyes of the Angel of Death if she had to, to keep Pesah with her. When the two find themselves on a mission to the city of Luz where the Angel of Death cannot follow, with a half-demon boy as their guide, it’ll take all their skills together to escape his grasp. Now the tricky thing with starting out your story with a flawed heroine is that you need the reader to simultaneously sympathize with her, and, at the same time, understand when she’s in the wrong. And Ziva is in the wrong a LOT at the start of this book. It may turn off a couple readers, but advise them to stick with it. This is a girl with a bottomless well of strength, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about that. Just as there’s also something incredibly satisfying about this book as a whole. A can’t miss title.
A Dragon Used to Live Here by Annette LeBlanc Cate
A peculiar book! That’s a compliment. When you write a work of fantasy with castles and dragons and little forest elves there’s a certain standard format you expect. With this book, I never knew what to expect. All the fantasy elements, and I mean all of them, are told as memories. The children of the resident lord and lady are hanging out in the space between the castle and the outer walls where they discover Meg. Meg is cranky, Meg is a scribe, and Meg is working with a bunch of other scribes to get all sort of invitations, signs, and paintings done in time for the children’s parents’ anniversary. As the kids ply her with baked goods, she tells them the story of their mother and her encounter with the dragon that used to reside in their current castle. This is absolutely ideal bedtime reading and almost a kind of intro to fantasy reading. I also suspect that kids that only like realistic fiction would be very into it as well. Light and lovely.
The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
Sai’s been living a lie, ever since she became assistant to Mangkon’s greatest mapmaker. Nobody knows her secrets, and when she’s invited on an epic adventure, how can she say no? A rousing, rollicking adventure tale full of fun and villainy. Okay, considering how many Newbery Honors Soontornvat has under her belt already, I feel a little weird confessing this but here goes: This is the first novel of hers that I’ve ever read. I know! I’m late to the party! But WHAT a party is! This book has friggin’ everything. Orphans with mysterious lineages, dragons, high seas storm battles, a cunning villain, swordplay, forgery, the works! My sole regret is that it’s so short. Of course, that’s part of its charm too. Ms. Soontornvat is the master of brevity. This could easily have been some drawn out 500-page tome. Instead, it clocks in at a neat 358. A kid reading this will breeze through it without a problem. Love the characters, the plotting, the whole kerschmozzle.
The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark
Melanie Gate is an orphan and a lock-eater a.k.a. someone who can open any door. But when she sets off for adventure under an assumed name with a sentient automaton, she discovers there’s more to the world, and herself, than she ever could have imagined. Oh, splendid! Just splendid! I do love an introspective fantasy novel with LGBTQ leanings and surprise villains. This is just a delight. I listened to the audiobook but I’m sure the book itself is just as good. This remarkable fantasy novel just packs in the adventure. Imagine if Dorothy and the Tin Woodsman just set off to overthrow the Wizard, and you’ve pretty much got the gist of what’s going on here. I also give it points because there were times when I felt very smart and clever for figuring a key component of the book out, only to have that surety tossed upside down near the end. A delight.
Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring by Matthew Loux
I like inherently ridiculous concepts in my kids’ comics. This year has seen a bumper crop of weird ideas too. Everything from vampire lumberjacks to cheery post-apocalyptic androids. But for a wacky idea to actually work beyond its pitch it needs a steady hand at the wheel. Now Matthew Loux is the fellow responsible for the two Time Museum books (and my son would like to inform Mr. Loux that we are patiently awaiting the third . . . ahem). Here, a nice girl from a terrible town of nasty, suspicious humans finds a skull ring in her garden. She puts it on and POOF! Now she’s a skeleton girl. Naturally the humans run her out of town, but when she goes to the monsters she’s heard so much about they are, quite simply, lovely. Really sweet. There are plenty of books for children out there where the outsider is rejected summarily and cruelly. This book is quite the opposite. Where Prunella fits in, she is rejected. Where she stands out? She is embraced. It’s a book about finding your people, even if your people happen to be made of skulls and bones.
Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold by Mark Leiknes
A ragtag group of kid adventurers, in the vein of a classic Dungeons and Dragons set-up, attempt to successfully complete a quest without dying or destroying any villages in the process. A tall order. What we have here is one of those books where the text and the comic-like images mix together on the page nicely ala that Nathan Peirce Max and the Midknights series. I like to read comics to my son but he was perfectly content to change things up a little and read this book as well. And I gotta say, it grew on me. The laughs increase exponentially as the storyline goes along. About the time we got to Crazy Larry’s Acid Swamps of Doom Adventure Cruises I was good to go. And yes, there are slightly more fart jokes on the page than strictly necessary, but it’s all in good fun, with plenty of twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. Good wackadoodle hilarity.
Windswept by Margi Preus, ill. Armando Veve
I debated placing this particular book in the Science Fiction category as well, where it probably would fit in just fine. Still and all, Preus has tied her book’s heartstrings to the Norwegian fairy tales her father would tell her in her youth, and you feel that tie throughout. It’s difficult to call a book with trolls science fiction, after all, even if there is an environmental message at its core. In this tale, the world is strange. Post-apocalyptic? Perhaps. It’s also a world where children are told not to go outside. Strange winds periodically can come and pick them up, whisking them away so that they’re never seen again. For Tag, that very thing happened to her three older sisters, years ago. She’s always been content to stay inside, but when she receives an invitation to stretch beyond her house’s walls, she finds a world outside full of literal magic and, even better, friends. It’s your usual ragamuffin group of kids, setting off to save the world, which I appreciated. But what I really loved was the way Preus integrated the Norwegian folktales into the story itself, much in same way Grace Lin did it with her Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series. I also very much enjoyed how illustrator Armando Veve worked in small details in the story’s map that are funnier when seen than heard. For example, the characters are told at one point to meet at a yellow 3. It’s only when you look at the map, though, that you realize that the 3 in question is a sideways golden arch from McDonald’s from back in the ancient past. Great bedtime fare, and old-fashioned questing.
Wingbearer by Marjorie Liu, ill. Teny Issakhanian
A quick word of warning, this book is very much the first in a series and it ends on a cliffhanger. I know some folks like to know about that beforehand. By this point you understand that each book on this list, if my daughter sees it, gets a romance rating. And while this book does not really have any romantic impulses in it, at the very least “the boy is cute” (quoth she) so take that under advisement. I like a book that comes up with a wackadoodle new idea and gives its world building some proper time and attention. Liu delivers on that point. Our heroine, Zuli, has been raised in a magical tree by mystical birds. At this safe haven, birds, when they die in our world, go there to be reborn. Got that? Trouble is, the birds are now dying but their souls are not being reborn again. What gives? Zuli sets out on a quest, meets friends along the way, suffers betrayals, comes to understand her own powers, and then there’s a wonderful bad guy twist right at the end. The art is skillfully done and everything that happens is crystal clear from start to finish. Definitely one for your shelves.
Zia Erases the World by Bree Barton
What if you could erase any word, any concept, completely out of existence? When Zia finds a dictionary with a magical eraser, she thinks she can erase all her problems away. What happens when you erase too much, though? This one took me a chapter or two to get into, but once I was in I was in. This is one of those books that takes serious subject matter (in this case, anxiety) and combines it with some kind of fantasy or fantastical element. Here the idea is about what happens when you try to erase pain. What is the price of that erasure? What are you too short-sighted to see. There are some small dangling threads at the end, like why Zia’s friend never seems to forget what is erased, but other than that it’s a pretty darn consistent book. Fun too.
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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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