There are three books for children that have been purchased at least 100 million times. The bestselling is Antione de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince, published in 1943. The second bestselling is J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published in 1997. The third bestselling is J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, published in 1937.
All three of these books fall into the fantasy genre, and all three were published from the mid-twentieth century onward. But while it sometimes seems like children's fantasy and its popularity is a distinctly modern phenomenon, fantasy books for children conforming to what we would recognize as the modern conventions of the genre actually emerged around 150 years ago. While none of these early fantasy books have sold even 15 million copies each, without them the genre fantasy genre--and therefore some of the most successful books of all time--simply wouldn't exist.
Below, you'll find some of the best and most important early modern fantasy books for children, covering books from around 1870 to around 1920. All of the books featured are currently in the public domain, so they are free to read, share, and study.
George MacDonald is often credited as the first author of a modern fantasy book for adults, and his 1872 book The Princess and the Goblin
is one of the first modern fantasy books for children. It follows the story of Irene, the lonely young princess of a kingdom plagued by goblins who live underground in the mines. Curdie, a young boy who works in the mines, knows things about the goblins that others don't--including their plan to kidnap Princess Irene. The Princess and the Goblin
still stands out as original and inventive today in the genre it helped to create.
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
is perhaps the first true children's fantasy book, predating The Princess and the Goblin
by seven years. But since Sparrow Tree Square already featured Alice
in Classic Public Domain Children's Books
, highlighted here is Carroll's lesser-known children's fantasy book: Sylvie and Bruno
. Revolving around the adventures of an unnamed narrator with princess Sylvie of Fairyland and her little brother Bruno, the book is very different from Alice
but every bit as engaging.
The children's fantasy genre began in the United Kingdom and early fantasy books are primarily by British authors, but L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
is distinctly and self-consciously American. Baum intended the story of Dorothy's journey from Kansas to the land of Oz to be an American version of a fairy tale, featuring places and objects recognizable to American children. The result was an instant bestseller, and continues to captivate children in America and elsewhere to this day.
While Baum, Carroll, and MacDonald often set their stories in worlds unlike ours, E. Nesbit set Five Children and It
in the ordinary world of a middle-class British family. The titular five children--siblings Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane, and Hilary--are playing in a gravel pit by their new home when they find a sand-fairy, or Psammead. The Psammead grants the children one wish a day, and the infusion of magic into their everyday lives brings about humorously unexpected consequences. Nesbit's juxtaposition of the ordinary with the fantastic has been an inspiration for authors such as P. L. Travers, C. S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Diana Wynne Jones, and J. K. Rowling.
Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill
is unique amongst early children's fantasy and even amongst contemporary fantasy books in the way it combines genres. The books focuses on ordinary siblings Dan and Una, whose meeting with the fairy Puck is reminiscent of E. Nesbit's fantasy stories. However, the figures Puck summons from the past to tell stories of England's history lend the book an air of historical fiction. The presence of Puck himself and a story of fairies' doings also infuse elements of traditional fairy stories.
Many modern editions of J. M. Barrie's novelization of his own play bear the play's title of Peter Pan
, but technically Barrie titled the novel Peter and Wendy
. It's the last in a chain of works Barrie wrote about Peter Pan: the character was introduced in a portion of his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird
, and this portion was republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
. Both the 1904 play and the 1911 novel relate the adventures of the Darling siblings with Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, in Neverland. The children's encounters with Indians, pirates, mermaids, and fairies combine elements of adventure stories with elements of fantasy.
A. A. Milne is most famous for his books about Winnie-the-Pooh, but he wrote in a wide variety of genres throughout his career. One of his lesser-known books, Once on a Time
, is a modern take on a fairy tale that focuses on the fictional feuding kingdoms of Euralia and Barodia. Milne's twists and subversions of fairy tale conventions are both interesting and highly humorous, and the book's introduction alone is worth a read for its insight into the nature and value of children's literature.
The books featured here so far are all predominantly prose (Puck of Pook's Hill
is interspersed with poems), and we usually think of fantasy literature for children as stories and novels. However, fantasy can take the form of poetry as well, and perhaps no one wrote better fantasy poetry for children than Walter de la Mare. His 1922 collection Down-Adown-Derry
is devoted entirely to fantastic and supernatural subjects, and is divided into sections titled "Fairies," "Witches and Witchcraft," and "The World of Dreams." The eerie and mysterious tone of de la Mare's poems will captivate both children and adults who like fantasy of the spooky variety.