Top five kids' books about fantastical faerie lands
Published on: 24 November 2021 Author: Ross Montgomery
Author Ross Montgomery delves into folklore, fairies, changelings and mirror worlds in this run-down of some of the most exciting and bewitching fantasy books for children.
Front cover of The Chime Seekers by Ross Montgomery
When I started writing The Chime Seekers, I’d been glutting myself on adult fiction filled with faerie folklore – The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, even some of the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett...
I loved these dark visions of fairy worlds filled with strange rules, malice and trickery: the thin, unknowable tightrope between our world and the other.
Dark folkloric fantasy worlds feel like a classic mainstay of "kidlit", and it seems like there’s a bit of resurgence: everything from the funny and kaleidoscopic world of Otherland by Louie Stowell, the arrival of Peter Bunzl’s Magicborn next year, and even dark twists in the upcoming Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by Annabel Steadman.
Here are some of my favourite sinister faerie worlds from children's books, which all inspired the village of Hallow Fall in my book The Chime Seekers!
Five fictional faerie worlds to explore
1. Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
Where The Wild Things Are is part of the essential kids canon; everyone loves In The Night Kitchen. This, the third book in Sendak’s Wild Things fantasy trilogy, is usually forgotten – possibly because of the marked shift into detailed, drained pastel illustration, and the fact that it’s terrifying. Spooky hooded goblins replace Ida’s baby sister with a terrifying changeling made of ice, and Ida travels backwards out her window into "Outside Over There" to 'spoil their kidnap honeymoon': a world of robber caves and babies hidden in eggshells. It’s absolutely baffling, just as faerie worlds should be.
2. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
From the front cover of Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
How, how, how did I wait so long to read Diana Wynne Jones? I love her so much that I basically have to ration reading her books, so I don’t become depressed. This is one of her odder books – closer to Young Adult fiction than Howl’s Moving Castle and Charmed Life – and apparently it divides her fans. I can see why: she perfectly captures the sense of never understanding what’s happening, whether something is really happening or not, and it can feel incomprehensible in way that’s quite upsetting. I love the vision of countryside aristocrat faeries, living in their rustic manor garden parties and sacrificing a soul to hell as a tax every seven years.
3. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Illustration by Chris Riddell from the book cover of Coraline
It’s not a book about fairies, per se – but the uncanny horror of Coraline’s mirror-house hidden inside and beneath her own, and the Other Mother's strange, incomprehensible rules feel like pure faerie magic. The gifted talismans that help you navigate the world, Coraline’s ingenious solving of where her parents are hidden, the stealing of children: all feel like classic tales about escaping from the clutches of a fey trickster. Something about the Other House feels absolutely, bone-shudderingly weird.
4. The 13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
From the front cover of The 13 Treasures
The joy of a good fairy story is in seeing how the protagonist eventually learns to trick and outwit creatures who are the vest of the best at trickery – how the slow, careful understanding of their baffling rules means beating them at their own game in a satisfying, magical way. In The 13 Treasures, the first of Harrison’s trilogy, Tanya is tormented by evil, sinister faeries who hate her “second sight” and cause havoc while visiting her grandmother at Elvesden Manor. Watching her find a way to fight back is pure childhood wish fulfilment: after all, they already live in a world where nothing makes sense and you just have to accept it.
5. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
From the front cover of Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Explaining the plot of a Frances Hardinge book is always pointless: the joy of reading them is in experiencing how baffling, joyous, unexpected and inspired they are. Reading them feels like finding out you can breathe underwater. Cuckoo Song is a changeling story in its purest, most frightening form: the gradual realisation that something is deeply, deeply wrong. The evocation of the Underbelly beneath London, a faerie world filled with Besiders, is Hardinge at her most menacingly brilliant.
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