Five YA Fantasy Novels to Help Your Kids (and You) Escape Reality
But don’t forget to wash your hands
You could fill the time by endlessly scrolling through cancellation updates. Or you could escape into one of these five wonderful young-adult fantasy books. All feature beautifully imagined alternate universes that will make you forget about your inability to secure hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and bread. (Remember, wash your hands, especially after slaying wolves.)
The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu (Putnam/Penguin, March 3, 2020)
Trees grow upside down in the kingdom of Back, inhabited by a blue-eyed wild prince clothed in black bark and silver leaves. Nannerl Mozart, younger sister of the musical prodigy and a talented composer in her own right, dips into this rich fantasy world to help keep her brother’s reputation from eclipsing her own.
The real-life Nannerl was indeed a gifted musician who dropped her career at 18, and she and her brother created and named their own fictional universe of Back. That was the springboard for Lu’s fictional riff. The expectation that girls ought to marry and mother in lieu of all else drive the twin narratives in this story, with Nannerl’s life in 18th-century Europe alternating with her adventures in Back.
The author of the New York Times-bestselling Legend and Young Elites trilogies, Lu has her faerie prince offer Nannerl a Faustian bargain in exchange for a path towards fame. “I can help you, Nannerl, if you help me,” he beckons.
The Vanishing Deep, Astrid Scholte (Putnam/Penguin, March 3, 2020)
Tempe spends her days diving, hunting for treasure below the water that vanquished her planet centuries ago. She’s raising money to pay the Palindromena research facility to revive her dead sister for the prescribed 24 hours. Tempe wants to know what happened to their parents, and she believes Elyse was responsible for their deaths.
And what a 24 hours it turns out to be. Elyse persuades Tempe to break her out of the facility, so they can hunt for the real story behind their parents’ demise and Palindromena. The two go on the run, pursued by Palindromena operatives at every turn.
A fast-paced plot fuels this dystopian tale, but the heart of it is two sisters’ reconciliation with their past. Scholte, the author of Four Dead Queens and a visual effects producer for film, knows how to build a scene, and her storytelling is equal parts evocative and addictive.
Red Hood, Elana K. Arnold (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, Feb. 25, 2020)
This is a twist on Red Riding Hood, not the scarlet cloaks of Margaret Atwood’s handmaidens. But Arnold’s feminist take on the Grimms’ fairy tale nevertheless recalls both, hinging on lunar and menstrual cycles and a 16-year-old channeling her rage to fight back.
Sixteen-year-old Bisou lives a mostly quiet existence with her grandmother in Seattle. But on the night of her homecoming dance, she runs from an unexpectedly embarrassing interlude with her boyfriend and encounters a wolf. Hopped up on adrenaline, she kills the snarling beast. Only when she gets to school the next day and discovers that bro-boy Tucker was found dead in the woods – with identical wounds to the wolf she killed – does she fully start to grasp her power.
Arnold was a National Book Award finalist for What Girls Are Made Of and a Printz honoree for Damsel. While Red Hood is a propulsively spooky tale full of girl-vs.-wolf set pieces, it also delves into the politics of relationships in the #metoo era. The novel celebrates women’s rightful revenge at their treatment by unsavory men. It also has one of the most frank depictions of menstruation I’ve seen in a YA book, a welcome rejection of one of our last taboos.
A Phoenix First Must Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell (Viking, March 10, 2020)
Billed as “Beyoncé’s Lemonade meets Octavia Butler,” Caldwell’s thrilling anthology centers black protagonists in stories of fantasy, sci-fi and magic.
Caldwell writes in her foreword that as a young sci-fi fan, she never understood why there were so few protagonists who looked like her. There were plenty of stories about slavery and other hardships, but few that imagined futuristic worlds with black women.
A Phoenix First Must Burn aims to rectify that by collecting 16 stories from well-known authors like National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo and finalist Ibi Zoboi, along with emerging talents like Karen Strong, whose Just South of Home won best middle-grade novel honors last year from Kirkus Reviews.
That means sixteen magical worlds to explore, from the haunted West envisioned by Rebecca Roanhorse to Dhonielle Clayton’s hearts that turn to ash when soul mates split: “When soul mates break up, the shock in the universe has consequences,” Etta’s mother explains. All are worthy of a visit.
The Queen’s Assassin, Melissa de la Cruz (Putnam/Penguin, Feb. 2, 2020)
You could say Shadow and Cal meet cute, as you do when you’re a wannabe assassin and the real thing.
Shadow grew up as part of the Guild, the organization that protects the royalty of Renovia. Her mother and aunts expect her to eventually join the court, not the Guild, but she’s got eyes on a job like Cal’s. He’s the Queen’s assassin of the title, protecting the monarch at all costs, and he’s also sworn to find the missing Deian Scrolls, the source of all magical knowledge.
An unexpected attack brings the two together. Shadow gets her wish, learning on the job and occasionally summoning her magical powers, while they both try to figure out the shifting alliances of Renovian royalty. Love is nigh, and it’s great fun waiting for the inevitable frissons of romance to erupt amid the summoned attack owls and forged wax seals.
Fans of high-stakes court intrigue will find plenty to enjoy here. De la Cruz, the creator of New York Times-bestselling Blue Bloods and Witches of East End series, deploys her gift for world-building, depicting castles, jails and forests in rich, robust detail. Luckily, it’s the first of a planned duo.