The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
It was often alleged that the craze for Harry Potter books throughout the 1990s fuelled an awakening in the art of reading. I was doubtful at the time, even more so now. The Harry Potter generation has not migrated from screen, albeit computer or television, to the printed book, and no evidence has been presented to me to show that this generation is now reading books on Kindle. So it was a fad (a welcome one if a bookseller, as it helped pay the rent), but socially perhaps a missed opportunity by parents and teachers alike to turn the tide away from more immediate forms of entertainment and towards the written word. As a bookseller of the time, I was asked frequently what book to recommend once Harry Potter fatigue had set in. Here are a few suggestions, not culled from an all-time list (although the first four should be seen as classics of any generation), but rather books that might have tickled perhaps the fancy of a teenager, with a penchant for fantasy, in the 1990s. So perhaps the list is dated, it is certainly kitsch and a smidgen nostalgic, and I doubt even if these books are still on the hit list in school libraries now. As an aside, if asked about the genre of teen fiction, I’d say: forget it. By the time a child is on the cusp of young adulthood, Daphne du Maurier, Eric Ambler or Alistair MacLean have still all that is needed.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Simply the finest series of children’s books published in recent times. The three books – The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – can be reread many times, each time affording fresh discovery. Also it is multi-layered, allowing children of each age bracket to extract as deep a meaning as they are able (or wish to); a more clever word might be allegorical. Pullman’s inspiration comes from archetypal myths, as well as from Milton and Blake, and his aim is to create his own rich, if violent, fantastical universe; it is the best antidote to C.S. Lewis, a humanist riposte to the tales of Narnia. Forget Harry Potter, this is the publishing phenomenon of the 1990s, and its place in the canon is assured.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner
The flowery owl pattern on the old dinner service, which Gwyn finds in a loft, obsesses Alison. Its discovery marks the start of an extraordinary chain of events that affect not only Gwyn and Alison, but also her stepbrother Roger, for there is a power stirring in the remote valley that dates from a sad and distant myth – a tragic Welsh legend that has begun to repeat itself. Gwyn tries to shake off his involvement by running away, but he cannot escape, and he is made to realise that only by facing up to the myth can it be resolved.
Alan Garner is perhaps the most sophisticated of all children’s fantasists. If difficult to come to terms with at first, his books are ultimately rewarding and are true masterpieces. Other titles by him include Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Stone Book Quartet.
The Worlds of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones has never been the household name that J.K. Rowling has become, but has written a veritable library of titles, all of which are highly original. She carefully grounds her magic in reality: magic does not come easily but is contained by circumstance. Hence her witches and wizards can work their magic in some situations, not in others. Her prose style avoids the excess of her some of her rivals, and the children in her books speak and act like the real thing.
The Chrestomanci is a kind of Minister of Magic who crosses between worlds to sort out magical problems. Magic is as common as mathematics – and twice as troublesome in the wrong hands!
Charmed Life is the first volume of this series, first published in 1977. Everybody says that Gwendolen Chant is a gifted witch with astonishing powers, so it suits her enormously when she is taken to live in Chrestomanci Castle. Her brother Eric is not so keen, for he has no talent for magic at all. However, events are not what either of them expects and sparks soon begin to fly…
In The Magicians of Caprona we learn that in the world of Chrestomanci anything can happen. This adventure takes place in the Italian Dukedom of Caprona, where music is enchantment and spells are as slippery as spaghetti!
Discovering that he has nine lives and is destined to be the next ‘Chrestomanci’ is not Christopher’s plan for the future: he’d much rather play cricket and wander around his secret dream worlds. But in The Lives of Christopher Chant we learn that destiny is difficult to avoid.
Between two of the books Mr Crossley was marking was a note – “Someone in this class is a witch”. The note might be true – for this was a school for witch-orphans. The last thing Miss Cadwallader, the Headteacher, would want in the last book of the series, Witch Week, was visit from the Divisional Inquisitor…
Howl’s Moving Castle (in which a young girl discovers that being turned into an old woman is liberating) and Archer’s Goon are also outstanding works of children’s fantasy.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Tom is staying with his dull aunt and uncle. One night as the clock strikes thirteen, Tom finds all has changed, and when he opens his aunt’s back door, he discovers the most wonderful of gardens where he meets Hatty, a similarly lonely child from another time. Every night he sneaks outside into a world that no one else knows about…
Published in 1958, Tom’s Midnight Garden is now regarded as one of the finest children’s books of all time. It deals with the notion that even the very old must have been young once (!), and that time can never be defeated: Tom eventually accepts that he can not stay in the garden forever and that Hatty no longer needs his ghostly presence once she has a life of her own.
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
One of the most thoughtful of ‘time slip’ storie, Charlotte, at boarding school in the 1950s, changes places with Clare, who slept in the same bed towards the end of the First World War. ‘Time slip’ stories enable children to imagine witnessing historical events, and this story feeds this fantasy before showing that in fact everyone has to stay in their own time and be satisfied with their lot!
This book was published first in 1969 (although copies for ale these days contain revisions made in the mid-1980s), and is the third in a series, although a stand alone read.
Rock band The Cure released a single in 1981 called Charlotte Sometimes; the lyrics refer to episodes that conclude the book, and to the opening paragraph: “By bedtime all the faces, the voices had blurred for Charlotte to one face, one voice… The light seemed too bright for them, glaring on white walls.”
Shadow of the Minotaur by Alan Gibbons
‘Real Life’ or the death-defying adventures of the Greek myths, with their heroes and monsters, daring deeds and narrow escapes – which would you choose? For Phoenix it is easy: he hates his new home and the new school where he is bullied, and he is embarrassed by his computer geek dad. But when he logs on to The Legendeer, the game his dad is working on, he can be a hero. He is Theseus fighting the terrifying Minotaur, or Perseus battling with snake-haired Medusa.
Shortlisted for the Carnegie medal, Shadow of the Minotaur was winner of the Blue Peter Book Award in the ‘Book I Coudn’t Put Down’ category in 2000, and has quickly established itself as a classic. Two further books follow in the Legendeer series: Vampyr Legion and Warriors of the Raven.
Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl introduces a twelve-year-old boy whose startling intelligence is put to use in many underhand ways, and his most daring exploit now is to steal one tonne of fairy gold. A raft of enjoyable follow-up books came in its wake.
Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence, based on an old fairy story, is a work of formidable power.
Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle – Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr (the last still only in hardback) – tells the story of Eragon finding a polished stone (which is in fact a dragon hatchling) in a forest.
Meggie, in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy, discovers that when her father reads aloud from books, they quite literally become alive.
In Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant, Stephanie’s Uncle Gordon, a writer of horror fiction, dies and leaves his estate to Stephanie, who learns that while he may have written horror, it certainly wasn’t fiction!
George, on a museum field trip breaks a small stone carving – a dragon’s head comes off in his hand, and from then on, stone creatures are after him… Read what happens in Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart, and its successors, Ironhand and Silver Tongue.
Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams’ Tunnels finds Will Burrows investigating his father’s disappearance down an unkown tunnel, where they unearth a terrifying secret…
Of course you can always turn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books (if you really need to), but do remember that there is much more to fantasy than philosopher’s stones…