Brilliant Books for Boys – Fantasy

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you you want to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales” (Einstein)

…although the jury is out about whether he actually said this, apparently he believed it’s creativity that makes a great scientist (others have since jumped on the bandwagon to both agree and disagree).  But, I’ll come clean – I only came across this quote now.  It isn’t why I read fantasy books to my kids – they just happen to be the ones my youngest likes best.

So, following my previous blog with ideas for how to move on from reading picture books to your kids, I thought I’d share some books that my guys (5yrs and 8yrs) have enjoyed. If you’re reading this and have any recommendations for great books that aren’t listed here, then please let me know.  I will post a list of any books recommended to me to share the good-finds with all 😉.

As my youngest doesn’t want to read any of the (adventure) books my eldest used to like, I’m lucky that my mother-in-law’s house is a treasure trove of interesting books and that she unearths new gems every time we go.  Since her previous recommendations have been brilliant, we gladly borrow anything she suggests. The books have lovely stories, usually along the lines of ‘good versus evil’, where our usual way of seeing the world is turned on its head. The downside is that some of the books were written over 100yrs ago and whilst they’ve stood the test of time because of the strength of their stories, the antiquated English can sometimes need a bit of deciphering.

As there’s so much good stuff out there, I’ve just focused on fantasy here. I’ll cover adventure, fact and ones that kids may enjoy reading to themselves another time so that it doesn’t get too unwieldy.

Fantasy Books:

Five Children & It, E. Nesbit

I can’t remember whether we first read this, watched the BBC production, or had it as an audio book.  Our guys have enjoyed it in all three forms, after it was first recommended by grandparents.

It has a simple structure, so is easy for young kids to follow, who might find longer, more complicated plots confusing.  The children find a Samiad (sand fairy) in the gravel pit behind their new home and it grants them wishes, although the moral of the story quickly becomes apparent: be careful what you wish for!

We’ve not yet read the sequels (The Phoenix and the Carpet,  The Story of the Amulet), but are looking forward to doing so at some point.

Alice and Wonderland / Alice through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll

We had them on an audio book from our local library which my eldest listened to on long car journeys (hence why my review is short!). Don’t be put off by a girl in the title, my son was entranced by it.  It’s on my list of Christmas presents for my youngest as we don’t own a copy, but I think it’ll be right up his street.  That is if he wasn’t totally put off by our brief attempt to watch the recent Johnny Depp film version (beautiful to look at, but totally incomprehensible to my guys)!

The Magic Woodland Triology, Beverley Nichols

(1) ‘The Tree That Sat Down’ (2) ‘The Stream That Stood Still’ (3) ‘The Mountain of Magic’

These are some of the most enchanting books I’ve ever read (the second book, ‘The Stream that Stood Still’ is my favourite).  I think they are only available now as second-hand copies through Amazon.

The trilogy is a ‘good vs. evil’ story, where things aren’t always as they seem – the witch is superficially beautiful and greed brings out the bad in people. The books describe the adventures of Mrs Judy and her Granddaughter who own The Shop under the Willow Tree.  All is well in the enchanted wood in which they live happily with the woodland creatures, until Sam opens The Shop in the Ford with his Grandfather and enlists the services of a witch (Miss Smith) to sabotage their business.  The reader then follows the fortunes of Mrs Judy’s family as they battle to save themselves (and the kingdom) from the evil intentions of Sam and Miss Smith. I know it sounds a bit cutesy, but I can’t recommend these enough – they’ll suck you and your kids right in.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce

I was suspicious of the quote on the front by Philip Pullman proclaiming that this book is ‘Perfect’.  However, the fact that it’s also won prizes drew me in.  It was slow-going in the beginning and the long descriptions of the garden (rhododendron bushes) won’t mean a lot to young kids and wouldn’t bother reading it until your kids are used to longer books. Once they are, I strongly recommend persevering though the first couple of chapters because once the main action starts, it’s brilliant.

After it picks up pace, it tells the tale of how fun can happen in the most unlikely of places when Tom goes to stay with his childless aunt and uncle, whilst his brother recovers from Chicken Pox. There’s some great ideas, mystery, spine-tingles and cliff hangers (resulting in my kids taking hum rage when I refused to read ‘just one more chapter’).

If you can get through the slow start, this would suit both boys and girls, as despite what’s suggested by the title, Hattie is the star attraction.

The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit

Keeping with the theme of magical gardens, I read this to my eldest when he was younger and despite the antiquated language, the ideas were fantastic.  There’s an enchanted garden, a magic ring and a lesson about being careful what you wish for.  Despite taking a little time to fathom out what’s happening, once the story is up-and-running it keeps you hooked.  Mind you, it probably didn’t help me that I was trying to make sense of it from a real-world perspective (you need to kick reality to the curb).  The story describes a series of events that happen every time someone wishes something, (anything!), whilst wearing the magic ring (written five years after ‘Five Children and It’, it echoes some of the same ideas, although it’s even crazier).

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

This book follows a bored child (Milo) on his quest to save a magical kingdom by completing a quest. During which time, he’s forced to: think differently, question everything and see mistakes as building blocks to success. Philosophy-meets-psychology wrapped-up in a very crazy caper, told through clever use of the English language.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘BUY THIS NOW’, however, I also should admit that I’ve oscillated about whether it’s a book for kids or young adults (or English teachers!). The book is overflowing with clever witticisms: puns, homophones, metaphors, clichés, adages, idioms, proverbs and any other literary device you can think of, all topped off with a scattering of mathematical jokes for good measure. I can only think the author had a lot of fun chuckling away to himself as he let his mind run away with itself in the process of writing this.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘DON’T BUY THIS BOOK’ to read to your kids. Yet it’s not as pretentious or clumsy as it sounds – the quirks are woven into the story so well that the tale doesn’t suffer. It was me, not my kids who was tempted to give up reading this (the chapters are long and if I missed reading to them one night, I’d then struggle to remember what was going on when I next picked up the book), my kids however were transfixed, so I kept going because they enjoyed it so much.

You do have to have a fair bit of energy to read it though – I found I struggled to make it make sense, or make sense of it when I was tired.  For instance, I had to explain lesser-used terms like what it means to be caught in the Doldrums, Short Shrift and how a lady who was a ‘which’ was mistaken for a ‘witch’.  Explaining that to a five-year-old at bedtime with no pencil nearby was interesting to say the least….

My mother-in-law showed my guys the animated film when they were half-way through the book and I think that really helped to bring it to life for them (my five-year-old ended up explaining the remainder of the book to me, when I got confused). The concept of ‘words and numbers at war with each other’ (Dictionopolis vs Digitopolis) and the need to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason to restore peace in the Kingdom of Wisdom has seemed to stick enough for my youngest to apparently wax lyrical about it to his friend.

I don’t know how much of the underlying messages click with my kids, but there were plenty of times when I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Only last night this passage came up in the closing stages of the book, where Milo is giving himself a hard time – it struck me as a lovely thing for kids to hear before they go to sleep…

Extract (p.232-233):

“It has been a long trip”, said Milo climbing on to the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here so much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes.  I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.  For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

“But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important.  It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things that matters.”

“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo, as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep.  “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”

“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, even in the tiniest way…. …. Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer… … many of the things you want to know are just out of sight, or a little beyond your reach.  But one day you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

Related content:

Moving on from picture books? What to read next to your kids…

What’s your life in books?

Dead Poets Society – my internal soundtrack

The power of imagination – use it, or lose it

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