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Is This Just Fantasy?: The Reading Life

Just Fantasy The Reading LifeBooks and reading have been integral to my identity essentially my entire  life.  My parents read to me since infancy and my status as a bibliophile has been established nearly as long.  We have a fairly infamous home video featuring my toddler self pulling all the books off the shelves in my room and then fiercely babbling at them the way another child might instruct toys.  Even now I will occasionally refer to favorite books by their main characters’ first names and I have been known to reprimand characters out loud while reading a particularly tense scene.  I have always viewed the world through a sort of double vision—there’s my ‘real’ life and then there’s my life in fiction.  The fictional characters and stories surrounding me have been just as influential ‘real life’ people and experiences. Unsurprisingly, many of the reading experiences with the strongest memories attached to them are connected to fantasy fiction.  Here are a few of the fantasy novels that have now become part of my story.

harry potter and the sorcerer's stone coverThe Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (listed on various annual Best Books for Young Adults lists)

Like so many people of my generation, Harry Potter was and always will be a huge part of my reading history.  I read the first book in middle school, just a few years after it was first published in the U.S. and preceded to read all the subsequent novels, growing up alongside the characters.  I’ve spent an incalculable number of hours reading & rereading the novels, engaging in passionate conversations (and arguments) with fellow fans, or reading fanfiction featuring favorite characters.  I’ve found that in times of stress or anxiety, I turn to my trusty Harry Potter audiobooks and inevitably find both comfort and inspiration in joining Harry, Hermione, & Ron on their journeys.

amber spyglassHis Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass (1997 Best Books for Young Adults), The Subtle Knife (1998 Best Books for Young Adults), The Amber Spyglass (- Phillip Pullman

I cannot actually recall exactly when I first read these complex and incredibly rich fantasy novels, especially since I’ve re-read them several times since.  However sometime in late middle or early high school I was first introduced to Lyra Belacqua and her alternative world–and I’ve been a little bit in love ever since.  These novels are multifaceted and intricate; every time I revisit them, I discover new details and layers.  During my senior year of college, I wrote a paper exploring the connection between John Milton’s portrayal of Eve in his epic poem Paradise Lost and Lyra’s role as a ‘new Eve’ in The Amber Spyglass.  While I enjoyed writing many papers during college, there were few I found as satisfying as that one.       

alannaThe Song of The Lioness quartet, The Immortals series, and more by Tamora Pierce (2013 Margaret A. Edwards Award)

I read my first Tamora Pierce novel in middle school, sometime in 7th or 8th grade.  I have a distinct memory of completing Alanna: The First Adventure during the late hours of a sleepover;  the evening had only emphasized the fact that while I wasn’t a complete outcast yet, I didn’t have any real friends. At that point in my life, my sense of self felt as tenuous and confused as my social life.  But when I read about Alanna (and later Daine & Keladry), I was not only transported–I was transformed.  Alanna and Pierce’s other brave, complex heroines refuse to be anyone but themselves;  they embrace their strengths and pursue their dreams despite sometimes overwhelming obstacles.  And when I disappeared into their world, I felt reassured that I could do the same.  

Kelly and Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce and me!

My love for Tamora Pierce’s works also persisted beyond middle and high school.  I made connections with friends during orientation week in college when we discovered our mutual love of these books. While working as a counselor and library assistant at my former high school’s summer ESL program, I introduced a student to the Alanna books on a hunch and was overjoyed when she devoured them.  At the time I was already seriously considering going to graduate school to become a teen services librarian but that experience confirmed my decision definitively.  When Tamora Pierce did an author visit to the school I now work at, it was difficult to tell who has more overwrought with excitement–me or the fans among my students!

the blue swordThe Blue Sword (1983 Newbery Honor), The Hero and The Crown (1985 Newbery Medal), Spindle’s End, and more by Robin McKinley

While Tamora Pierce’s books provided lots of high fantasy action and complex female protagonists, I was always looking for more and Robin McKinley’s many novels fit the bill perfectly.  The Blue Sword The Hero and The Crown are classic high fantasy adventures and coming of age tales full of action and romance while her many fairytale re-imaginings (including Spindle’s End, Beauty, Rose Daughter, and Deerskin) are by turns whimsical, dark, and fascinating.  spindle's endAlso, like the others on this list, they feature compelling and multifaceted heroines. They remain some of my favorite novels to this day and within the last few years I’ve happily recommended to both students and friends; just this past summer, I gave a copy of The Blue Sword to a friend as a wedding/honeymoon present.

gracelingGraceling (2009 Best Books for Young Adults, 2009 Morris Award Finalist) and Fire (2010 Best Books for Young Adults) by Kristin Cashore

During the winter and early spring of senior year of college, I was working on my senior thesis while also nervously awaiting news about graduate school.  Amidst this perfect storm of anxiety, I picked up Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore.  Both novels focus on highly powerful young women who are seeking not only to protect their countries but to discover truths about themselves and their destinies.  I not only fell in love with Cashore’s rich character development and compelling stories, I also felt a strong personal connection with the novels.  I might not possess supernatural powers or be able to save a nation but I too was struggling to discern my future and understand my own potential.

Which books have become part of your story?

-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

One Comment

  1. Tara Kehoe Tara Kehoe

    I couldn’t agree more, Kelly! Great fantasies seem to stick with me in distinct way. I fell in love with Melina Marchetta’s world in “Finnikin of the Rock” and loved all three in the series. Also, Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina” was extraordinary.

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