When I meet someone out in the world who mentions they have kids around ages 10+, I get excited. I start maneuvering the conversation towards the subject of books. If all works well, we’ll soon be talking about some of my favorite series of books: mostly young adult coming of age fantasy novels, but also some books that are Just Plain Good.
It’s not just kids, though. Some series are my comfort food. I read them over and over again in my life: often as I sleep, as a way to relax. Sometimes I’ll start re-reading a series from the start, and be lost to the world for a week as I just voraciously tear through them.
I’ve hyped them up in person, and via text. You’ll see these recommendations scattered in emails, facebook comments, chat threads.
Now, I’ll try to post them here, so that there’s one more central place.
These are by no means all the “Sahar Massachi loved these as a teen” canon. But it’s a start.
Read the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett
This series by Terry Pratchett is probably my favorite series in all of fiction. TP was the most popular (fantasy? fiction?) author in all of the UK — until he was displaced by JK Rowling.
Discworld is a set of books of social satire pretending to be fantasy pretending to be humor. They have little mini-series and in-jokes between books.
The series went on for so long that the style changed over time. So “early”, “middle”, and “late” books have enough of a different feel that if you only mildly liked a book from one period, you might think another from a different period was great. (Skip the first four, they’re quite different than the rest)
I think that wisdom is pretty hard to find these days. I find these books to be wise — but not in a self-help kind of way at all. Instead, they’re adventure books! Full of memorable characters, fun situations, and so on. The wisdom comes from asides, little sentences or five that go into the author’s theory of humanity.
It never stops being really fun and funny. But there’s also lots of veiled cultural references, meditations on certain themes, and page-turning action.
There’s a book on the nature of belief, religion, the iron law of institutions, and philosophy. It’s also about a god who turned into a turtle and found the one follower who actually still believed in him.
There’s a book on startups, VCs, the power of marketing, .the internet, and corporate power. It’s also about a con man who was sentenced to revitalizing the city post office for his crimes.
There are books on witches (psychology, the power of narrative), policemen (what does it mean to be human, the rule of law, democracy, neo-noir), death, incompetent wizards, etc.
Again, these books are fun and funny without the sort of cheap laughs you’d get from a “humor” book. Kind of like the difference between I don’t know, Parks and Rec vs “Dude Where’s My Car”.
Wholeheartedly recommend them to everyone.
(And if you go deep into the rabbithole, there is a game you can play set in that universe that has been continually developed by volunteers for dozens of years. Plus BBC mini series, old computer games, etc)
Read the Tortall Books by Tamora Pierce
(Tamora Pierce writes novels in two different worlds. The Circle of Magic books and the Tortall Books. Circle of Magic is clearly inferior, in my opinion.)
TP was a pioneering writer of feminist coming of age teen fantasy novels. Not that I knew that when I started reading them. They were just — really fun!
I think it’s best to illustrate just by giving a quick gloss on the series (in order of their writing).
- Alanna books: a girl wants to be the first female knight in hundreds of years. She pretends to be a boy, becomes a page/squire/knight, etc. Goes on adventures.
- Wild Magic books: two dozen years later, a girl has a weird kind of magic — not the normal energy flows etc. Instead, she can talk to animals. This turns out to be really important. Also, the land is under invasion from mythic creatures (giants, dragons, griffons, centaurs, and less intelligent and nice beings). Why? What’s going on? Can animals, humans, and magical beings coexist?
- Protector of the Small — a little while later, a girl wants to be the first openly female person training to be a knight. It’s very hard. She deals with sexism, stands up to bullying, classism and conservativism, etc. Bullying being one expression of many of these bad isms. Great stuff.
- Tricksters — the daughter of the hero of the first books gets captured by pirates, sold into slavery in the fantasy carribean, and becomes the spymaster for a multicultural revolt against colonial autocracy.
- Beka Cooper — 500 years ago, a girl is a cop. But her friends are all thieves. And the cops are very corrupt. How do you be a good cop in a corrupt system? Can you change the system? In this adventure series, you can, at least a bit.
While the first series reads a little young, as you go through the books chronologically, the implied age level of the reader increases as well. I recommend starting with the Tricksters series. Only two books, both of them full of intrigue and spying and so on. Plus a revolution!
Tamora Pierce is clearly just a kind person with a passion for justice. I think she helped me become who I am today. Big fan, and the books are just so fun and easy to read.
Read the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey is the sort of person who writes 2-3 books a year, and has for decades.
She has a few larger worlds/series, but I’ll focus on the books set in the land of Valdemar.
The books generally come out as trilogies. So you follow one main character through three books that are similarly titled (e.g. “Storm Warning”, “Storm Rising”, “Storm Breaking”). Then the main character from that book might be a supporting or minor character in the next. So you have a sense of a cinematic universe in which all these books happen.
ML also clearly saw herself as a feminist author writing a new kind of book (starting in the … 80s?). Lots of female protagonists. Lots of examples of, interestingly, different *types* of feminism.
Magic’s Pawn, which I read quite young, was pivotal to me. I don’t want to give away all the twists, but I think it’s safe to say that it features a gay male protagonist, it is a compelling book, and it got me on the gay rights train early. I cried reading it, and I reread it every few years.
All the books have well-developed magic systems (important!). Adventure! Ethics! Often — spying and sneaking and so on.
If a country could be a main character of a book, Valdemar would be it. It’s a kingdom where the knights are all chosen by (basically) unicorns-with-horns. Those knights (called Heralds) are commandos, judges, fighters, etc. And they generally have to be good people because otherwise they’ll be disowned by their not-unicorns.
It’s a great setup for lots of adventures. Plus, as time has gone on, the books move geographically far afield and away from that convention.
They’re just … really good! Some sample series:
- Valdemar doesn’t have “real” magic. This is a problem. Some People have a Destiny planned for the heir to the throne — go learn how to do it. She throws it off, and goes off to do what’s best for the kingdom in a surprising way — living with the fantasy native americans and confronting a world-destroying evil that is gaining strength in the hinterlands.
- It’s thousands of years ago. There are two super strong wizards duking it out — the evil one and the good one. The main character is a griffon (gryphon) commando who has a lot to learn about love. Plus his best friend, a human therapist-healer-bodyworker-hearthealer (it’s hard to explain).
- The cataclysm is going to happen soon. The giant empire to the east is invading. The religious fundamentalists to the east are in the midst of a reformation. Can a bunch of unlikely allies avert the apocalypse? Can the commander of the invading army successfully go native and defy the empire?
- The long origin story of a genius mercenary, and how she ended up using every trick in the book to stop an evil king who mind-controlled his own people to turn them into an unstoppable horde.
These are a comfort food for me. I reread them all the time (along with Tamora Pierce’s books and Discworld books)
Read Sabriel and the sequels
Sabriel is a fun, unique book. Unique, except that the sequels exist (and honestly, Lirael, the sequel, is even better).
In this book — it’s roughly the 1910’s. Hadrian’s wall exists, and it is the border between [basically england], and a land of magic.
Sabriel is from magicland, but she lives at boarding school south of the wall. One day, her dad sends her a message, and she thinks she needs to go north and rescue him. Also, her dad is a reverse necromancer — he puts the dead to rest. She goes north into magicland, and realizes that the zombies and other undead are taking over.
Why? What about her dad? Will she rescue her dad? Will she rescue the kingdom? Who is the mysterious enemy behind all this?
Plus, in this book: lawful magic is cast with runes, chaos magic with words, and necromancy is done with bells. Love it.
Hard to put into words, but I really like this one.
Other books that teenagers might love
If I write a part 2 to this post, I might flesh this out. But here’s a little teaser:
- Ender’s Game: Of all my favorite books, clearly the most conservative. Adults can’t be trusted. Children are terrible to each other. Overcoming adversity. This is a good book for every child to read, but if it’s the final book they read you’re in trouble. Hard to explain, but it’s fantastic and I highly recommend it. Bonus — Ender’s Shadow is a sort of sequel. Most of the same events, but from the perspective of a minor character in the first book. Really recontextualizes a lot. Read both. Wow.
- The Westing Game and The View From Saturday and From the Mixed Up Files of Ms Basil E. Frankwiler are for younger kids (5th grade, maybe? 3rd?). Excellent, fun, thought provoking.
- Redwall is great is you’re 7-9 years old.
- The “Drizzt Books” and many other books by R.A. Salvatore are fun and worth reading once. There are lot of them. I recommend reading The Crystal Shard, and then Homeland, Exile, Sojourn. They’re good! The Crystal Shard and its sequels are fine, standard fantasy. But Homeland/Exile/Sojourn (especially the first two) stand out to me. Imagine an evil, theocratic, society of beings who could live till 1000 years old, easily. What would it look like? You need some order — it’s a hierarchical society run by a priesthood, not a chaostown. But also it’s not like they frown on murder, for example, per se. The books do a great job exploring that, as well as what it might feel like to be trapped in a society with values very different than yours.