If you’re craving a reading list full of magic and fantastic creatures, these books deliver.
Jamie is a curious kid. And one day, his curiosity gets him in the worst kind of trouble when he stumbles on a group of shadowy, cloaked figures playing a secret game and gets expelled from his world by them: “You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner.”
As Jamie stumbles through his new circumstances, figuring out the rules of the game as he’s pulled from fantastic world to fantastic world (Diana Wynne Jones is a genius when it comes to creating worlds) at irregular intervals by Them, he dreams of finding his way home. What he finds instead are two friends in the same position he is: Helen, a priestess with a magic arms, and Joris, an assistant to a famous demon-hunter. Together, they decide that it’s time to put an end to Their manipulative gaming and to get back to their own worlds for good. They end up in up in a contemporary version of England, where they team up with two regular people and Joris’s demon-hunter owner who’s crossed world barriers to find his assistant. But defeating Them is no easy task, and the price for victory may be greater than they anticipated.
I love Diana Wynne Jones for many reasons, but one of them is that her books are always surprising—even though she often plays with the same ideas, the same worlds, and even the same characters, you can never predict what’s going to happen next in her books. Homeward Bounders was the first of her books I read as a kid, and it stuck with me—it’s so weird and compelling, and it has one of the best and saddest last lines of any story ever. I love the way her books blend the mythology and history we know with her own made-up history and mythology, so that you’re constantly realizing connections right along with the characters in the story. There’s always an undercurrent of darkness in her books, and it’s definitely strong in this one, but I like that her happy endings are never simple. Reading level-wise, this is a middle grades book, but like so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, it’s hard to pigeonhole. Older or younger readers could definitely love it.
- one year ago: Stuff We Like :: 5.27.16
You can't blame people for wanting to visit the magical world next door, but it's not exactly easy on that magical world's inhabitants—especially when the holiday organizer, Mr. Chesney, requires everyone to put their lives on hold and enact fantastic scenarios for his Pilgrim Parties. The natives are restless, and they're determined to get their freedom back—starting with appointing a terrifically inept Dark Lord for the latest season of tourists. You can't go wrong with DWJ, and this often-hilarious novel is an ideal summer (or anytime) readaloud.
We're highlighting our picks for best book deal of the day on the blog, but you can always find our favorite Kindle book deals here.
Sometimes a curse can be just what you needed, as Sophie discovers in this delightful fantasy about a hat maker's daughter who's cursed to premature old age by the Witch of the Waste. To break the curse, Sophie will need to team up with the mysterious wizard Howl, who happens to be stuck under a curse of his own—but first, she'll have to get to his castle, which has a habit of wandering around. I love this as a readaloud, on its own, or (of course) a companion piece to the equally wonderful (though often quite different) movie adaptation.
We're highlighting our picks for best book deal of the day on the blog, but you can always find our favorite Kindle book deals here.
I think everybody knows that the thing I like best is having the spring issue out! (It may not be available to download yet when you read this, but it will be available today.)
around the web
I would totally watch a remake of Mannequin with James Corden and Victoria Beckham—wouldn’t you?
Where are the people of color in the middle ages?
This is one of the most interesting pieces of long-form journalism I’ve read in ages. If you have a while, it's definitely worth reading.
in the magazine: Did we mention the spring issue is out?
one year ago: The Pleasures of Spring Homeschooling
I finished A Tangle of Gold—and with it the Colors of Madeleine series—and I seriously think you should make this your 2017 Vacation Reading Series. It was very satisfying.
We are reading The Lives of Christopher Chant for our family readaloud right now and enjoying it thoroughly.
Cookie of the week: Snickerdoodles
We’ve all been putting so much time and energy into Jason’s school, so it’s really exciting that he pretty much has a full class for fall. Yay, Jas!
Reading level: Middle grades
Cat knows his sister Gwendolen is a wicked witch—but she’s the only family he has left, and he loves her furiously. When Gwendolen conspires with her black magic tutor to get taken into the home of the great enchanter Chrestomanci, the thoroughly non-magical Cat is forced to go with her. While his sister determines to make an impression on the unflappable Chrestomanci, by conjuring apparitions to interrupt dinner and bringing total darkness to the castle every two hours, Cat tries to get along with the Chrestomanci’s enchanter-in-training children and the rest of the curious family at Chrestomanci Castle. But Gwendolyn’s plans are darker than even Cat realizes, and he has to choose between loyalty to the sister he loves and doing the right thing.
Charmed Life is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, and it’s a delightful introduction to the world of the Chrestomanci, where magic is so ubiquitous that it needs a sort of President-of-All-Things-Magical to keep it all in check. (Alternatively, you could start with The Lives of Christopher Chance, which introduces the Chrestomanci when he was just a kid named Christopher Chant having magical dreams.) Diana Wynne Jones is a masterful world-builder, and with almost no exposition or explanatory passages, she manages to bring a complicated and nuanced world to life.
It’s easy to get a little frustrated at Cat’s devotion to Terrible Gwendolen, and he’d have to be unflinchingly loyal to miss some of the clues to just how awful his sister really is—much like Chrestomanci, we’re tempted to protect him from that knowledge, even though we know that realization is the only thing that will pull him out of Gwendolen’s shadow. Gwendolen is pleasantly villainous and makes no apologies for her villainy—her glee at successfully working evil magic is one of my favorite parts of the book.
Seeing another kind of wizards school—totally different from Hogwarts—is always fun. (I especially love the students’ magical battles over marmalade and toast.) But really, anything I say about it is going to seem pallid and flat once you start reading the actual book, which you should do, stat. You don’t have to go out and buy every single book Diana Wynne Jones has ever written after reading this, but I bet you’ll want to.
(My copy weighs in at 224 pages, meaning you can use Charmed Life to cross off “more than 200 pages” if you’re playing along with summer book bingo.)
We’re whistling while we work on the spring issue, which promises to be pretty fantastic. (Shakespeare! Inspiring self-directed learners! So many awesome books!) Here’s what else is making our happy radar sing lately:
around the web
I want to drape my house in Carson Ellis wallpaper the way George Costanza wanted to be draped in velvet.
This Got Milk? parody commercial for Hamilton fans is hilarious.
This post about how homeschooling is like living in a fraternity house is still  true and  the most popular blog post I’ve ever written.
in the magazine: So excited that the fabulous Blair Lee will be joining us as a regular columnist starting with the summer issue. (She’s got a great piece on setting up a homeschool science fair in the spring issue.)
on the blog: We’re really enjoying spotlighting so many cool women’s biographies during Women’s History Month.
in the archives: It’s the perfect time to try one of Shelli’s bright ideas for welcoming spring in your homeschool.
I feel like I don’t always love Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, but I do usually love the experience of reading them, if that makes sense. His worlds are so deliberate, so nuanced—and The Buried Giant is no exception. I didn’t love it, but it gave me so many interesting things to think about. Worth reading, for sure.
I am almost done with my extreme Diana Wynne Jones-ing, which puts me right at The Power of Three.
Did you read Echo yet? I think it’s one of my favorite middle grades books of 2015—just gorgeous.
I volunteered to knit another Brickless as an incentive for a friend’s Kickstarter campaign, so I had a legitimate excuse to order a pretty skein of Miss Babs yarn. Isn’t yarn delivery the best part of the day?
The Norman Centuries podcast is currently enlivening my physical therapy sessions.
My kids have got me trying to track down an Undertale-inspired cinnamon-butterscotch pie for Pi Day next week.
I’ve been looking for a post-Miquon math option for next year, and I’m feeling optimistic that Beast Academy might be just the ticket. (Rebecca always finds the best stuff!)
My son has developed a passion for soap-carving, which has become his go-to project for read-aloud time. (My daughter continues to favor the time-honored tradition of doodling.) We just use plain Ivory soap bars and a small butter knife.
This has been a great week for nature journaling. We’ve been using the Know Your Bird Sounds CD to help us recognize all the different birds singing it up in the backyard.
around the web
This essay perfectly sums up what I love (and will miss) about Umberto Eco’s work: He was always the smartest person in the room but in the most inclusive way imaginable.
I think you know already that I will read pretty much anything about how and why words end up in dictionaries.
in the magazine: I am currently viewing my way through so many Shakespeare movie adaptations that I might start speaking in iambic pentameter. (The best ones will end up in the spring issue.)
on pinterest: This tiny acorn tea set is adorable.
Have you ever noticed that if you reread one Diana Wynne Jones book, you want to go back and reread them all? I’m on Fire and Hemlock.
After our Top Chef: Masters marathon, I am reading my way through Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook, and I want to cook everything in it. (It’s almost more like an academic study of Mexican cooking than a traditional ooh-pretty-pictures cookbook, but I kind of like that about it.)
I have a shiny new copy of A Doubter’s Almanac that I can’t wait to start reading. (I guess that’s one of the benefits of making reading for pleasure more of a priority—lots of new books!)
I took a break from my Zick Zack scarf (it’s a little over three feet long now, so it’s getting there!) to knit this adorable baby headband with a bird on it for a first birthday present. (It's a high-reward, low-effort baby present, if you find yourself needing one!)
Jas and I watched The Worricker Trilogy on a whim, and it was fantastic. (I love how watching British television is all random star spotting: Rachel Weisz! Ralph Fiennes! Helena Bonham Carter!)
Have I mentioned how much time we’ve been spending playing Yoshi’s Wooly World? Because it’s kind of become a family obsession.
Living books to inspire a reluctant reader, learning how to take notes, and other stuff that's happening in our high school right now.
I love this time of year! New beginnings and new resolutions—plus all the Best-Of booklists come out, so I can restock my to-read list. In the spirit of celebrating last year and looking forward to some seriously good reading in 2016, I thought I’d share some of my favorites of 2015.
Favorite Young Adult
Favorite First Book of a Post-Apocalyptic Trilogy Where I Didn’t Love Books Two and Three but Book One is So Good That I Can’t Help Recommending It and You Should Probably Read the Others And Make Up Your Own Mind :: Pure by Julianna Baggott
Favorite First Book of a Contemporary Fantasy Series With Clairvoyants and Ley Lines and Cute Boys Which I Stopped Reading After the First Book Because the Fourth and Final Book is Coming Out in March 2016 and I Want to Read Them All in One Glorious Binge :: The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater
Favorite Fantasy Heist Novel Which I Didn’t Even Know Was a Thing But Which As a Big Ocean’s Eleven Fan I Was Thrilled to Discover and Even More Thrilled to Learn That It’s the First of an On-Going Series (NOTE: Maybe Don’t Get Too Attached to All of the Characters in the Heist Crew) :: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Favorite Reading Inspired by My Obsession with the Broadway Musical Hamilton
(Because we’re all obsessed with Hamilton, right? Even those of us who live nowhere near New York and couldn’t afford tickets even if we did and so are forced to make do with listening to the cast album over and over again and singing along while our children mock our hip-hop skills? If you are not yet obsessed with Hamilton , you have my permission to stop reading briefly to immediately check out the album. As a bonus, it totally counts as a homeschool history lesson.)
Favorite Biography That Inspired it All and At 800-Some Pages is Maybe Not a Quick Read but Still a Great Book About Our Ten-Dollar Founding Father Who Just Like His Country Was Young, Scrappy, and Hungry ::Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Favorite Upper-Elementary/YA Historical Fiction That I Had Been Meaning to Read For Years And Finally Got Around to Because It’s About the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia That Also Sickened Alexander Hamilton :: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Favorite New Sarah Vowell Book About America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman and Alexander Hamilton’s Best Bud the Marquis de Lafayette Which Has, Disappointingly, Not All That Much Hamilton But Which is Wildly Entertaining Nonetheless As Are All of Sarah Vowell’s Books of History :: Lafayette in The Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Favorite Series That I’m On My Fourth and Probably Last Time Through Reading Aloud Until I Have Grandchildren Many MANY Years From Now :: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Favorite Series That Just Keeps Getting Better and Is Giving Narnia a Run For Its Money As My Favorite Kids’ Fantasy Series of ALL TIME Where We’re Currently Reading Book Four (The Boy Who Lost Fairyland) While Anticipating the Release of the Fifth and Final (Sniff) Book (The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home) in March 2016 ::the Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente
Favorite Series by My Favorite Kids/YA Fantasy Author Diana Wynne Jones Where We’re Currently Reading The Magicians of Caprona Which is Turning Out to Be One of My Daughter’s Favorites Because It Has Magical Italian Cats :: the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones
Favorite Memoir That Examines the Author’s Life in Terms of Her Favorite Literary Heroines (Including Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Shirley, and Jane Eyre) Which Also Has the Best Title of Any Book I’ve Read This Year :: How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis
Halloween is coming, and we need a good spooky book to read. We loved The Graveyard Book and The Witches. What should we read this year?
I loved scary stories, the kind that are best read under the covers with a flashlight, when I was growing up. I still love them. But my kids? Not so much. So it’s a pleasure to share some of my favorite spooky stories with other people who like a few goosebumps with their readalouds. Just keep in mind that these books all have genuinely scary moments in them and share them with your younger readers accordingly.
I always recommend The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright because it was one of the first books I read as a kid that really scared the pants off me. For months, I would be afraid to peek inside my own dollhouse because I was convinced the little people inside would have moved around during the night. Twelve-year-old Amy discovers a haunted dollhouse in the attic of her family’s old home, and the dolls’ mysterious behavior spurs her to investigate a family tragedy.
One of my new favorite scary stories is Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase, the first in his Lockwood & Co. series. Lucy Carlyle, who has the ability to hear the dead, joins forces with stolid George and mysterious Anthony at the Lockwood & Co. psychic investigative agency, where they—along with other, much more impressive agencies—battle the epidemic of ghosts that’s been plaguing London for half a century. There are some seriously scary bits as the kids face down malicious specters, the characters are delightful, and the action is pretty much non-stop.
For slow-building, atmospheric horror, you can’t beat Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a mystery-horror tale in which ten people are summoned to a mysterious island house to face justice for past crimes. As guest after guest is murdered, following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme, the paranoia and hysteria among the remaining guests rise to a fever pitch.
The narrator of Diana Wynne Jones’s The Time of the Ghost doesn’t know who she is or how she become a formless, voiceless spirit. All she knows is that she is one of four sisters and that something horrible has happened. As she follows the four sisters around, trying to figure out which one she is, she witnesses their abusive, neglectful upbringing and a curious game the sisters invent, which may be the key to the darkness that lies ahead. But can the ghostly narrator do anything to prevent the terrible accident she knows is coming? And can she ever return to her own body? Grimmer and darker than some of Diana Wynne Jones’ other work, The Time of the Ghost is so compelling because of the relationship between the four sisters.
If you want something a little lighter but with plenty of spooky scenes, pick up Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson. The dark and terrible sorcerer Arriman must find an equally dark and terrible wife to give him an heir so that he can finally retire, so he holds a competition for witches. There’s much gruesome magic, a wife-murdering ghost, and an evil enchantress who collects the teeth of her victims, but there’s also the yearning-to-be-evil-because-she-loves-Arriman-so-much white witch Belladonna and plenty of humor to keep things from getting too bleak.
Sometimes you want a Halloween story that’s just action-packed, and The Doom Stone by Paul Zindel is a good bet for that. Jackson heads to Stonehenge to hang out with his cool anthropologist aunt, who’s helping the British army investigate a terrifying beast on a murder spree around the countryside. When the beast attacks his aunt and she has to be hospitalized, Jackson and his new friend Alma are the only ones who can solve the mystery and stop the beast.
The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is one of those genuinely creepy children’s books that sticks with you. Jessica finds a miserable hairless kitten in an old cave, and despite her instant dislike of the cat, she brings it home to take care of. But the cat—whom Jessica names Worm—starts talking to Jessica, convincing her to do all kinds of terrible things. The cat must be a witch’s cat—but, then, where’s the witch?
A ghost story where the main characters are haunted by the Irish potato famine may seem a bit of stretch, but Black Harvest by Ann Pilling is genuinely spooky and one of those forgotten 1980s children’s books that deserves to be better known. Colin and Prill’s family, including their Eustace-Scrubb-ish cousin, expect a jolly Irish holiday, but there’s a strange stench of decay that never goes away—and Prill sees strange figures at night—and all the food starts spoiling—and people start getting sick.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic for a good reason: You can never be certain whether the narrating parson’s-daughter-turned-country-governess is truly the victim of vengeful spirits or whether she’s slowly and absolutely losing her mind. There’s such darkness in either interpretation, but it’s the unknown-ness of it all that’s truly terrifying.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote one of my favorite grown-up books (The Shadow of the Wind, in case you're curious), so I was delighted to discover that he also wrote a deliciously spooky young adult novel called The Prince of Mist. Max’s family moves to the seaside to escape the war, but they quickly come to believe that their new home is haunted by the spirit of the previous owner’s son, who drowned in the sea. With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia begin to explore the mystery of that death, discovering a horrifying entity called the Prince of Mist who has returned to collect on an old debt.
Can you recommend a good book series for reading aloud? We have read Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and Percy Jackson, all of which we really enjoyed.
I feel like everyone should read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (start with The Book of Three), about the adventures of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his friends — the princess/enchantress-in-training Eilonwy, king-turned-not-so-great-bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the curious and perpetually hungry Gurgi — as they fight to save Prydain from evil influences of Annuvin in an imaginary world drawn heavily from Welsh mythology. As in the Harry Potter books, Taran grows up over the course of his adventures so by the time the events in The High King take place, Taran is an adult facing adult decisions. This was one of my favorite series as a kid.
Everybody talks about The Hunger Games, but fewer people seem to know Suzanne Collins’ earlier series the Underland Chronicles, which may actually be a more interesting read. In the series’ first book, Gregor the Overlander, 11-year-old Gregor discovers a world beneath the surface of New York City, populated by giant cockroaches, tame bats, evil rats, and humans who have never seen the sun. Gregor, whose coming may have been foretold in an Underland prophecy, embarks on a series of quests, starting with a journey that might lead him to his long-missing father.
But what’s up with all the heroes? Add a couple of awesome heroines to your series readalouds with the Sisters Grimm, starting with The Fairy Tale Detectives. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm find out that Grimm’s fairy tales is not so much a collection of stories as it is a record of magical mischief cases solved by their famous ancestor. It’s fun to recognize characters from fairy tales living in the real world of Ferryport, and the sisters — especially Sabrina — are complicated, developing people, not just heroine stereotypes.
Another feminist series is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Many people stop after A Wrinkle in Time, but continue on with A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time, and you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. L’Engle is great reading for bright, thoughtful kids, who will appreciate the science, philosophy, and mathematics concepts that run through her books.
Another destination worth visiting is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where you can follow the adventures of young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Start with the hilarious The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany discovers her powers and attracts the loyalty of the Nac Mac Feegle, an army of rowdy blue pixies.
If you’re missing the thrill of a magical world, pick up Charmed Life. It’s not the first book chronologically in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, but it makes an ideal introduction to a parallel world in which magic is supervised by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. In this book, Cat and his sister Gwendolen find themselves studying magic at the Chrestomanci’s own castle.
One of my favorite recent new book series, Lockwood & Co. takes place in an alternate London haunted by ghosts and spectres that can only be seen — and defeated — by children with special abilities. Mysterious Anthony Lockwood hires plucky Lucy and cynical George to join his independent ghost detection agency, where the trio are pitted not only against vengeful spirits but also against the big supernatural agencies run by adults. The Screaming Staircase is the first in the series.
In Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth discover that their grandparents’ isolated country house is actually a preserve for mythical and legendary creatures — one of several secret preserves located around the world. The preserve is governed by strict rules for humans and magical beings, and breaking one of those rules can have serious consequences. Not surprisingly, there are dark forces at work hoping the harness the magical potential in places like Fablehaven.
It’s a little different from a traditional readaloud, but the graphic novel series Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi is a great adventure, following Emily and her brother Navin as they venture into an alternate version of earth to rescue their mom. The series kicks off with The Stonekeeper.
Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.