Recently, we Book Smugglers started a feature called Old School Wednesdays in which we review books that are at least 5 years old. Based on the strong response we saw to the feature, we also started a monthly readalong (determined by popular vote)—last month, the selected title was The Naming by Alison Croggon. Unfortunately, The Naming was derivative, bland, and...well, boring (starred Kirkus review, we disagree with you). In the ensuing discussion, someone requested that we create a list of titles that would be a better introduction to the fantasy genre (of the epic variety) for young readers.

Thus, here we are! After racking our brains, here is our personal list of recommended reads—both old school and contemporary—to get new young readers excited about the fantasy genre (note that we are sticking to the epic Western European mold in keeping with The Naming):

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper: In many ways, The Naming shares a ton of similarities to this story about the rising dark and the ones chosen to stand against it. Though, to be fair, this also fits Tolkien and any other number of classic fantasy novels. The good news is, the Dark is Rising Sequence does it all very, very well, in a way that doesn’t feel derivative or boring.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: One of Thea’s very favorite fantasy series of all time, Wrede’s stories of dragons and a particularly practical princess named Cimorene (and the adorably swept-up Prince Mendanbar) are the perfect recommendation for any middle grade reader. (Looking for a standard, go-to birthday present? Look no further.)

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The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce: The classic series that started it all! Starring one of the most endearing warrior heroines of our childhoods, Alanna of Trebond masquerades as a boy in order to learn how to become a warrior and harnessDragonswood her magic.

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith: A fantasy duology comprising Crown Duel and Court Duel, this book leans heavily towards the romantic with a distinctly Regency-era type of feel—Crown Duel is deeply satisfying, fun, and, yes, warm and fuzzy.

Wildwood Dancing & Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier: Juliet Marillier is one of our Book Smuggler favorite authors PERIOD, and her first two YA novels are among her best work. Wildwood Dancing is a re-telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (crossed with a little Princess and the Frog), while Cybele’s Secret is more of a standalone, following a secondary sister from the first book. Both are equally fantastic.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley: Be warned: This is NOT a book for the faint of heart. This is a triggering book that re-tells the German fairy tale of Thousandfurs—but with a much more empowering (if tear-filled) ending. 

The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale: This quartet of books (The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets and Forest Born) follows different protagonists as they come into their own elemental powers at great risk. Although some books are stronger than others (my favorites are Goose Girl and Forest Born), on the whole this is a fantastic series for young readers, and each book can be read as a standalone to boot.

The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier: By another Book Smuggler favorite author, The City in the Lake channels the likes of Sharon Shinn and Juliet Marillier, but is simultaneously entirely unique. A missing prince, a kingdom on the verge of collapse, and a girl that can fix the disturbance in the magic that threatens to destroy everything—what’s not to love?

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: It’s hard to believe that Seraphina is Rachel Hartman’s debut novel because it is just that freaking good. In a world where dragons can assume human form, one girl who is part-human and part-dragon (therefore all blasphemous) must guard her secret at any cost.

Secondhand ChThe Princess Cursearm by Julie Berry: Another relatively new release, Secondhand Charm explores what it means to wield great power as a young girl finds herself thrust in the spotlight on account of her extraordinary healing abilities. Oh, and did I mention sea serpents? Yep. It has those.

Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey: This is actually the second book in a series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. A fairy tale with a very dark edge—the heroine is persecuted and tortured as a “witch” after all—this is a rousing story inspired by the Arthurian mythos, and a story guaranteed to touch even the most jaded of readers.

The Princess Curse & Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell: After reading The Naming, the next collaborative review we Book Smugglers undertook was Merrie Haskell’s newest, second novel, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. And believe us when we say it is fantastic. Although it’s not quite as good as The Princess Curse (a smart re-telling of both the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Persephone/Hades myth), this is another wonderful, winsome middle grade novel from an author that is quickly becoming a new favorite.

And that is our list! Are there any other books you’ve used to encourage young readers (or old readers!) to get into the fantasy genre? Do tell!

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them onTwitter.