Children's fantasy, like any other genre, is stuffed full of well-worn tropes: plucky orphans, evil witches, wise wizards, dark woods, talking animals, fairies and dragons and boarding schools, retellings of fairy tales and myths. And there's nothing remotely wrong with any of these things: many of my absolute favourite kid's books make good use of them. A tale is all in the telling. My own book The D'Evil Diaries borrows from one of the oldest stories around, that of Lucifer.
All the same, when you read a lot of middle grade, it's refreshing to see writers coming up with brand new worlds in their fiction. Worlds that are like nothing that's come before, that spring almost wholly from the authors' own inventive imaginations. Worlds that one day might become so popular they become tropes in their own right. Here are some of my favourites.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Perhaps the most original children's book ever, with such charismatic and individual characters they have passed into everyday speech. The Mad Hatter, the white rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, walruses and playing card soldiers and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Not to mention the potions for growing big or small, the painted roses, flamingo croquet, and Alice's own wonderful voice: “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
Yes, Pullman took some inspiration from Dante and Milton and the bible, but the ensuing book is wholly original: warrior king polar bears, animals as external souls, the mysterious dust, airship pirates, knives that can cut between parallel universes, alethiometers. A stunning, engrossing universe peopled with terrifying and wonderful characters.
The City of Dreaming Books, Walter Moers
A fantasy world built entirely upon books and the love of reading - what could be more enticing for a bibliophiliac reader? All of Moers' books take place in the fictional land of Zamonia, and the city of Bookholm is his most marvellous - literally - creation. Books here come to life, sometimes as dangerous monsters or terrifying villains, the main character is a dinosaur-like writer, and there is a charming race of creatures called Booklings, who must read books to survive.
Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door, Ross Montgomery
You know this book will be unexpected when the character rushing to school on page one - late, muddy, and in trouble - turns out not to be a schoolboy, but the headmaster. Set in an alternate world called the Cusp, this is stuffed full of inventive details, not least of which are the mysterious Forbidden Lands, which the hero must cross to escape the villains and find his missing father. Brilliantly fresh.
A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge
Hardinge has quadruple the imagination of most writers. In this book alone we have a living, labrynthine underground city, wines that can remove memories, cheeses that make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are no less ordinary: their faces are as blank as untouched snow, and they must learn all the facial expressions that we take for granted. Bursting with invention.
The Undrowned Child, Michelle Lovric
The gorgeous cover might tempt you to think this is a book about mermaids, but they are only a tiny part of the fantastical world Lovric brings to life. In her alternate-history version of Venice, horrifying statues appear out of nowhere and spring to life, the salty-tongued mermaids run subversive printing presses, ghosts good and bad patrol the streets, rats read, librarians turn fluidly into cats, and the heroine sees people's speech in calligraphy floating above their heads.
Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve
Not a fantasy, but a post-apocalyptic steampunk tale with as much verve and wonder as the best fantasy, right from the brilliantly gripping first line: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Reeve creates an outlandish but wholly believable world that is easy to get lost in.