Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Fantasy Books

One of the best ways to become a better writer is to study your favorite books. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from some of my favorites middle grade fantasy novels.

For a lesson in getting readers to root for a character: Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris

Christian cares so much for Princess Marigold, but he’s a lowly boy who was raised by a troll in a forest cave. He doesn’t stand a chance with her! BUT he’s also incredibly kind and goes out of his way to help the lonely princess. We can’t help but hope everything will work out for him. Even when it looks like he might rot in the dungeon during Princess Marigold’s wedding.

For a lesson in having characters announce their strategies and then seeing them fail again and again (aka the try-fail cycle): Treasure Hunters by James Patterson. 
Okay, this one isn’t a fantasy. But James Patterson just did this so well! Everything is going wrong for this group of siblings. Their mom is missing, its seems as if their father was swept off their boat in a storm, they need to follow clues to find a treasure, and scuba diving surfer dude henchmen are hot on their trail. They keep coming up with plans and things keep going very, very wrong. 
For a lesson in creating distant, unlikable characters who readers grow to love: Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo

Charlie’s Uncle Paton is a recluse and doesn’t seem to care a bit for Charlie. But as Charlie learns about his own gift he also learns his Uncle is a power booster, someone who makes electrical objects, like light bulbs explode. And his uncle can’t control his powers. Paton hides away to keep himself from hurting others. When the people at Bloor Academy keep Charlie there, not letting him return home, Uncle Paton stands outside the school and demands for him to be released. When they don’t and Uncle Paton intentionally uses his powers, it’s crazy awesome. Seriously. The. Best.

For a lesson in creating an ending that makes readers want to stand up and cheer: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
Warning! Spoiler ahead. That scene at the end when the fairies become human-sized amazonian warriors ready to do battle with the demon, witch, and imps is brilliant. When I read the book for the first time I really did feel like jumping to my feet and cheering. 
For a lesson in writing adventure and action: Larklight by Phillip Reeves and also the sequels Starcross and Mothstorm 

These steampunk novels with an alternative history where Sir Isaac Newton discovered the means to make space travel possible are a fun mix of science fiction and fantasy. They’re full of space pirates, strange creatures, dastardly villains, and loads of sword-fights and musket-fights.  

For a lesson in world building: The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

These books are set in an interesting world called The Edge and full of flitterwaifs, rotsuckers, banderbears, and a multitude of other strange and interesting creatures and plants.

For a lesson in creating quirky characters (and a super long title): 
The Strictest School in the World: Being the tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy, and a Collection of Flying Machines Mostly Broken (The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones) by Howard Whitehouse
An aviatrix, an unbreakable boy, and a super strict school, St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies with a terrifying, mysterious method for keeping the girls in line all make for a fun book. The characters are so wonderfully eccentric. 
For a lesson in writing descriptions: The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet
This book is full of unique similes and descriptions. 
“She stretched one hand out (the air was as thick as syrup; her arm moved with the slow grace of an aquatic plant) and tried to say something, but her voice was gone, too.” Anne Nesbet, The Cabinet of Earths

For a lesson in giving characters tools they’ll need to help them win in the end: Princess Juniper of the Hourglass by Ammi-Joan Paquette
This is such a fun story! And I love how Princess Juniper and her guard change clothes and places in so that the princess can escape riding in her carriage and how they do something similar in the final battle to help the princess win. 
For a lesson in writing quirky humor: Whales on Stilts (or any other of the Pals in Peril books) by M.T. Anderson, Muddle Earth by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
It’s not surprising to anyone who knows me that I love to laugh. And these books definitely make me giggle! A villain creating stilts and laser beams for whales in order to take over the world. And a boy transported to a strange land where he’s needed to rescue all the missing wizards from the evil mastermind, Doctor Cuddles. Silly fun! 
For a lesson in creating unique magic systems and magical worlds and every other lesson in how to write brilliant fantasy: Any and every book by Diana Wynne Jones
She’s my absolute favorite of favorites. Howl’s Moving Castle, The Chrestomanci Chronicles, House of Many Ways…she’s amazing. And I’ve got my fingers crossed that someday I’ll get to hang out with her in heaven. 
To read more about more books with brilliant writing lessons, check out Elaine’s post which started this fun series! 
Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

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