My reading tastes have changed a lot over the years. When I was young, I made my way through all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley High, and Babysitter’s Club books. In college, I was super into war novels. At one point, I went through a Bret Easton Ellis phase. There was also a long span of time during which I really dug essay collections by white dudes making jokes about their dysfunctional families and their depression. (I don’t know, y’all; it was a whole thing.)
But if there’s one thing that’s remained true since early childhood, it’s that I love — above all else — narratives that hint at other worlds, that help me sustain a sort of faith in magic, and that show the power of imagination.
The books that simultaneously do all three? They tend to be my absolute favorites, even still at the age of 42. And when I stumble upon a book that reminds me of — or straight-up pays homage to — one of my childhood favorites? I lose my shit. (In, like, a good way. A way that involves literal squeeing.)
If, like me, some of your favorite childhood books were magic-tastic fantasies, have I got the list for you. Below, I share some of my favorite childhood reads, and then give recs for adult-level books that scratch that same itch.
Because even though (or maybe directly because) I spend the majority of my days feeling exhausted and burnt out by the absolute tedium of my day-to-day, and horrified by and/or angry about the absolute awfulness of the daily news cycle, I still like to settle into stories filled with wonder and joy and possibility.
If You Loved The Neverending Story, Try…
The Shadow Glass by Josh Winning
Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was my ultimate ride-or-die when I was young, and I’ve read it approximately eleventy-billion times over the years. I mean, it kicks off with a young outcast who finds a safe haven in a bookshop, where he comes upon a book that ends up being a door between worlds. Book nerd paradise, amiright? So I flipped my lid when I came upon the ’80s-tastic Shadow Glass, which is a full-on homage to all my favorite ’80s books and films, and which has incredibly strong Neverending Story vibes. In this dark fantasy, puppets from a cult favorite fantasy film come alive, threatening our world. How does the protagonist save the day? He totally pulls a Bastian Balthazar Bux! IYKYK.
If You Loved The Phantom Tollbooth, Try…
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is such a quirky, unique little read. In it, a very bored little boy travels to another world through a tollbooth that magically pops up in his bedroom because, well, what else is he going to do? As he trundles along on a journey filled with nerdtastic wordplay, he starts to realize that the world isn’t so boring after all. In my old age, I’ve read a few books that remind me of this old favorite. But for now, I’m going to highlight The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which features a young girl forced to live a very constrained life in the house of her wealthy benefactor until she discovers that there are magical doors scattered across the world that lead to other worlds. But these doors reveal more than what seems like endless possibility. They also give her a glimpse into the lives of the parents she barely knew…lives filled with love and adventure.
If You Loved Watership Down, Try…
The Bees by Laline Paull
I read Watership Down numerous times when I was young, captivated by its dark tale of rabbits who must embark upon a long journey in order to find a new forever home. (I enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH for its similar themes.) Now that I’m all grown-up, The Bees is there for me. It’s about a worker bee, navigating the hierarchical structure of her hive, who risks everything by challenging the status quo.
If You Loved The Indian in the Cupboard, Try…
Eve, Vol. 1 by Victor LaValle, Jo Mi-Gyeong, and Brittany Peer
OK. The Indian in the Cupboard and Eve are two very different animals. One is about a young boy who discovers he’s able to use a magical cabinet to bring his toy Indian to life, ripping the poor Indigenous guy out of his old-timey world and into the present. The other is about a badass girl brought to life in order to save a dystopian world, her sentient (and terrifying) teddy bear at her side. One of these books is filled with problematic stereotypes. The other is Eve. But what I loved about this childhood read — and what I now love about Eve — is that they exist in worlds in which our favorite toys can become our totally-alive sidekicks.
If You Loved The Castle in the Attic, Try…
Fairy Tale by Stephen King
If there’s anything I’ve learned from putting together this list, it’s that I really loved portal fiction when I was young, whether the portals took the form of books, toys, or literal doors. As with The Indian in the Cupboard, in The Castle in the Attic, a toy acts as a portal between worlds. In this case, a toy knight comes alive in a child’s hand and convinces the child to travel to his world, where they embark upon an epic quest to save a fairy tale kingdom. In King’s book, a boy travels through a hole in the ground and finds himself in a fairy tale kingdom that also needs saving. Fairy Tale might just be my favorite of King’s recent books.
If You Loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Try…
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
If you enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and all the other Chronicles of Narnia books, Every Heart a Doorway could be right up your alley. I loved this series because, hell, who doesn’t want to imagine that they could walk through their closet and end up in a magical world? I spent much of my younger years — probably thanks to this book — searching my home for secret passageways that led somewhere cooler than where I was at. Anyway, McGuire’s book from the Wayward Children series is a grownup version of this, in which children returning from other worlds come back changed…and aching for what they left behind.
If You Loved The Dark Is Rising, Try…
Once & Future by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora
I think my childhood embrace of the Dark Is Rising series was the first hint that I would grow up to love darker literature. In this series, a group of siblings discovers an ancient map that ends up drawing them into a battle between good and evil, during which one of them eventually discovers he is destined to wield a powerful magic. In Once & Future, meanwhile, a young (incredibly sexy, for an illustrated) man discovers his grandmother is a retired monster hunter. When she’s suddenly forced to come out of retirement, he’s brought along for the ride, coming into his own as a monster hunter in his own right.
If You Loved Bridge to Terabithia, Try…
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
I’m fudging the rules on this last one. Though Bridge to Terabithia is not technically a fantasy novel (it’s billed as realistic fiction), it’s always lived in the realm of the magical for me. That’s because the two children at the center of this book repeatedly leave the “real” world behind to dwell in a magical world of their own imagination. When the boy in this story loses his friend in a tragic accident (an event for which he blames himself), he finds himself unable to make his way back to this magical world. I guarantee that this book will emotionally destroy you. Despite that, it was one of my most treasured books when I was young, and I still have a copy on my bookshelf. In Pan’s book, meanwhile (technically YA, but aren’t young adults just younger…adults?), a woman blames herself for her mother’s death and turns to a bit of magical thinking in order to reconnect with her.
Still hungry for grownup reads that harken back to your childhood? Check out this list of 9 more books that are adult versions of your childhood favorites.