Fun, Feel-Good, & Empowering Middle Grade and YA Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

In the last few years or so, I’ve found myself really diving into the world of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) and all the different kinds of stories under that umbrella. These have been a great escape from *waves hands* all of this, and even when the stories have incorporated more serious themes, it just feels different to me when it’s in an SFF book. Empowering, feel-good, or even fun SFF can be really great to read any time.

My son is getting older and he’s at that point where, while he isn’t quite ready to read middle grade chapter books yet, he loves listening to me read them to him. (Right now, for independent reading, his level is more the Magic Tree House series — a different kind of SFF, if you will). So I’ve been on the lookout for middle grade fantasy that we can read together that won’t scare him or be too complex, but is still fun and empowering, with feel-good messages. In my quest to find these books, I’ve been reading widely and loving it.

I’ve put together a list of middle grade and YA SFF books that I think are fun, feel-good, and/or empowering — they’re just a delight to read. That doesn’t mean they don’t also deal with serious themes, though. It’s just that overall, they’re joyful.

If you’re looking for even more SFF from which to choose, check out this post on speculative short story collections and this post on middle grade books for D&D fans.

Middle Grade Books

Cover of The Lost Ryu by Cohen

The Lost Ryū by Emi Watanabe Cohen

Set in Japan, Kohei Fujiwara knows that the big ryū, or dragons, don’t exist anymore — they disappeared after WWII. Now there’s just the small, handheld ryū everyone has. And while he loves his ryū, he knows that he remembers seeing a big one alongside his grandfather, Ojiisan, impossible as that may be. When he was little, Kohei used to think that if he could go on an adventure and bring a big ryū home, Ojiisan would smile again. But Ojiisan is really sick, and time is running out. Then he meets his new neighbor, Isolde, and her Yiddish-speaking ryū, Cheshire — and just maybe, he’ll be able to go on that adventure after all. It’s a whimsical book about family, intergenerational trauma and healing, magic, and love.

cover of Aru Shah and the End of Time

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

This is the first book in the Pandava series. Inspired by the tales she grew up with, Chokshi has written a really fun adventure about a 12-year-old named Aru, who…doesn’t always tell the truth at school. When everyone else goes on fancy vacations for the fall break, she’s stuck waiting at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture for her archaeologist mom to come home from a work trip. One day, some of her classmates show up. They don’t believe her claim that a lamp is cursed, and when she lights it to prove them wrong, the consequences are devastating. Can she stop the demon she’s unleashed and make things right?

cover of Ravenfall by Kalyn Josephson

Ravenfall (August 30th) by Kalyn Josephson

Annabella’s psychic family has always known that even among them, she’s different. Each of them contributes to the family B&B with their special abilities, but Annabella’s ability to foresee death isn’t very useful. That is, until Colin shows up. He’s looking for his older brother and the creature that killed their parents, and so they set off on a journey. Along the way, the secrets they find will change everything. Magic and folklore help make this a fascinating and action-packed story, and its humor brings some levity to heavier themes. While it can be on the serious side, it’s also really immersive and has some serious cozy vibes. This is one you’ll want to re-read in the fall, too.

cover of The Midnighters by Hana Tooke

The Midnighters by Hana Tooke, illustrated by Ayesha L. Rubio

Ema is different from the rest of her family. They’re famous scientists, and understandably very science-minded, and she’s…a little bit psychic and very superstitious. When she’s sent to live with her uncle in Prague, she meets a girl named Silvie — who sees the person Ema really is. They become friends, and soon Silvie is helping Ema work through her many fears. But when Silvie goes missing, Ema must work up the courage to explore her surroundings and find her. This is an adventurous, smart, and wonder-filled story that includes themes of friendship and overcoming fears.

cover of Maya and The Rising Dark

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya sees things no one else does: strange creatures roaming the streets at night, and a shadow man in her dreams. Her father’s told her stories, but they’ve always seemed so unrealistic. When her father goes missing, she finds out that he is an orisha, a god, and a guardian of the veil between this world and the Dark. In addition to that, there’s an army waiting to invade the human world. It’s up to Maya to not just rescue her Papa, but also save the world. This is such a fun book based on West African mythology, with magic and friendship and lots of action.

cover of The Two Wrong Halves of Ruby Taylor

The Two Wrong Halves of Ruby Taylor (August 9th) by Amanda Panitch

Family conflict, hundred-year-old curses, personal identity — it’s all in here. Ruby Taylor’s Grandma Yvette obviously prefers her cousin Sarah over her. Ruby thinks it’s because her mom’s not Jewish, so Grandma Yvette doesn’t think she’s “Jewish enough.” But then Sarah starts acting out and getting into trouble, and Ruby thinks she may be possessed by an evil spirit called a dybbuk…which Ruby might have had a hand in. Only a “pious Jew” can defeat a dybbuk — so how can Ruby save her cousin? This is a sensitively done, layered story about never feeling enough, finding where you fit in with your family, and figuring out who you are — all with a twist of fabulism and fantasy.

Young Adult Books

cover of See You Yesterday

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

You might be surprised to see this one on here, since it may not be what you initially think of with SFF, but since the book revolves around a time loop, I’m including it here. When Barrett heads to college, she hopes it will be a fresh start. Except her roommate is her high school frenemy and she messed up her interview for the school paper. After a particularly disastrous night on September 21st, she wakes up the next morning to find that it’s September 21st again. And who should be stuck in this time loop with her than the guy who embarrassed her in physics class, who she finds out has been in the loop for months. As they work together to figure out a way out of the loop, they get to know each other and even like each other…a lot. This is a fun romance with compelling characters and interesting story twists.

Wicked Fox Book Cover

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Looking for a fun fantasy romance? Here it is! Gu Miyoung is a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox that eats the energy of men to stay alive. Because no one believes in the old myths anymore, and because there are so many bad men no one would miss, she’s escaped detection in Seoul. When she stumbles upon human boy Jihoon being attacked by a goblin in the forest one night, she rescues him against her better judgment. As a result, she loses her nine-tailed fox soul. But Jihoon saw her tails. He knows what she is. Despite this, they become friends (and more) — and when a shaman tries to reunite Miyoung with her bead, she must make some choices that will determine the rest of her life.

With so many great SFF books from which to choose, which one will you read first?