Spec Fic for School Libraries

I often come across librarians looking for recommendations of speculative fiction for school libraries that goes beyond the usual YA boundaries (and transcends the current paranormal tropes!). On this page, I’ll identify books I would personally recommend for school libraries (whether intentionally YA or otherwise suitable for adolescents). If I think the book/series is excellent but may have content that some schools might have concerns with, I will note that. The recommendations are split into YA-marketed spec fic and adult-marketed books and I will only recommend books I have read personally (and while I try, I haven’t read everything, so some of your favourites may be missing from this page!). The page will grow, but you also might like to see my Goodreads profile for more awesome books!

KEY: (A) = Australian author (NZ) = New Zealand author (SF) = Science Fiction (F) = Fantasy (H) = Horror

BOLD = Series/Author ITALICS = Book title

Suitable for teens:

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga: while there is occasionally a bit of romance and quite a lot of the time there is violence, Bujold handles both elements in context and very cleverly. Perhaps not for under 14s. Has fantastic characters and thoroughly believable science fiction stories (that sometimes contain an element of high fantasy!). Would not recommend Falling Free (not officially a Vorkosigan book – no Miles!) and possibly Shards of Honor / Barrayar (also published as Cordelia’s Honor) could be left out of a library collection. The books are fabulous to read in order but stand alone well. (SF)

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series: Although the final book of this sequence (Zoe’s Tale), is actually aimed at a YA audience, the rest are not, and may not be suitable for younger readers. I would happily give them to a 15+ reader though. Great science fiction with heart and believable science. These books helped me hook a middle-aged science teacher back on reading (and his 15 year old son too!). (SF)

Glenda Larke’s books: ex-pat Aussie Glenda Larke writes excellent high fantasy books that are compelling and peopled with great characters. Latest series is set in a desert landscape with water playing a huge role. Thoroughly readable. (A)(F)

Any Karen Miller or KE Mills: Another brilliant Aussie author, KE Mills is a pseudonym for Karen Miller. The KE Mills books are a more lighthearted fantasy (almost steampunkish in feel), while Karen Miller writes darker high fantasy, and, interestingly, Star Wars and Stargate tie-ins! *Note, I have not read the tie-in novels. A very prolific author writing excellent stories. Perhaps be a bit cautious with The Empress of Mijak due to an unusual style and some adult content – the KE Mills books are possibly a better bet for teens. (A)(F)

Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series: Possibly my most adored series of books ever. Almost entirely suitable for 11+ (particularly the Dragonsong / Dragonsinger / Dragondrums sequence, as well as the later books, written with or by Todd McCaffrey), sometimes this series is best read OUT of order, with The White Dragon being a particular favourite. I can also recommend another McCaffrey series, the Brain and Brawn Ship series (original book The Ship Who Sang and its sequels, some co-authored), and even the Petaybee books. Early Acorna was okay as well, but sadly, later books in both those series aren’t up to the standards of McCaffrey’s early work. (SF)

Jim C Hines: Jim’s Goblin trilogy is darkly good fun, with Jig the Goblin and his offsider, Smudge the fire spider, going on unusual adventures, with Jig proving himself an extremely unlikely hero! I also really like Jim’s Princess novels (fourth one due next year) but it’s worth noting  there is some (well written) same sex relationships depicted (not graphically). (F)

Robin McKinley: McKinley really is awesome, there’s no other word for it. Most of her books would be suitable for 12/13 up, no problem (many are based on fairytales), but be cautious of Deerskin which deals with a very heavy fairytale retelling (ie: from the original version, not Disneyfied!). McKinley’s vampire novel Sunshine is excellent and should be thrust at all Twilight nutters 14+. And I absolutely adore her high fantasy duology Blue sword / The hero and the crown – highly recommended. (F)

Robin Hobb: I adore Hobb’s books but they can be pretty bleak. The Soldier’s Son trilogy was far too long and really didn’t do anything for me as a reader but the rest are excellent. Probably not for under 15s due to the themes and writing, although the latest books (The Rain Wild Chronicles) actually seem a lot more YAish. (F)

Lian Hearn: Hearn’s fantasy series Tales of the Otori is excellent. I read the last book published first, as a judging copy, and it was just astonishing in style and story. I immediately sourced the first four books and devoured them. Set in a Japanese medieval world, this series has great writing and characters, and a very clever plot. And in writing this I’ve just discovered she has a new book out! Must go buy… *Lian Hearn is a pseudonym for Gillian Rubinstein! (A)(F)

Feed by Mira Grant: A very YAish feel to the characters, but not a YA novel, Feed is a thought provoking and compelling book set in the not too distant future where zombies are a (well-explained) fact of life. Highly recommended. Graphic depiction of violent death (it is a zombie novel after all) and very small amount of bad language. Will be hanging out for the next book in the Newsflesh series, although Feed is completely self contained. (SF)(H)

Deadline by Mira Grant: the sequel to Feed and a must have – heartbreaking, action-packed, completely excellent. (SF)(H)

Blackout by Mira Grant: the final book of the Newsflesh trilogy and just as good as the first two! 14+ recommended. (SF)(H)

Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock series: Not many people can do humour, especially in science fiction, but Haynes does it well. The character of Hal Spacejock (with his longsuffering robot sidekick Clunk) are great fun to read, for adults and teens alike. Now also has a junior series started as well. (A)(SF)

Witches of Eileanan Kate Forsyth: One of my favourite Australian fantasy series. I love the characters in these books, although the plot might be a bit long for some readers. I also enjoyed The Puzzle Ring by Kate, which is aimed at a lower YA audience, and the Chain of Charms series (for even younger readers) is a nice little fantasy sextet. (A)(F)

John Birmingham’s World War 2.0 trilogy: Some of the most compelling science fiction I’ve read (if you class time travel/alternate history as science fiction – some people don’t). Birmingham is a wizard at plausible science combined with mastery of the “what if”. These books are brilliant. Language 15+ (A)(SF)

Terry Pratchett: Pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett is suitable for schools, even though the Discworld novels are marketed at adults. Pratchett is a very clever writer who often writes a very serious story in the guise of a funny romp. Highly enjoyable. And for YA proper, his standalone book Nation was a wonderful philosophical story.

Juliet Marillier: The Sevenwaters series is great dynastic fantasy based in Celtic-ish mythology. Some retelling of fairytales but not all. (A)(F)

Raymond Feist: Magician was the book that got me hooked on big fat fantasy. It epitomises epic fantasy and although that book stands alone, the rest of the Midkemian books are also good. Can highly recommend the first five books (known as The Riftwar Saga and Krondor’s Sons) and can’t rave enough about the companion Empire trilogy (co-written with Janny Wurts). The  Serpentwar Saga was a bit long-winded but still epic, but after that things got a bit silly at times. I’m afraid I still haven’t managed to work my way through them all – a number of the later books were based on the Riftwar games, rather than being fully sprung from the author’s ideas, and I’m not convinced they were all written by Feist either! But the first eight books were great! (F)

David (and Leigh) Eddings: I read The Tamuli first, which was the wrong order to do things. The Elenium is the first trilogy of that world, then The Tamuli books, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. It wasn’t until later that I read Eddings’ original series The Belgariad (which is followed by the further five books of The Mallorean). The Belgariad books really are YA (although they are quite violent, something I didn’t notice until recently rereading them!), and while the Elenium and Tamuli novels are intended for an adult audience, they are quite suitable for school libraries. The Redemption of Althalus isn’t too bad for a massive standalone, but don’t bother with the latest series, the Dreamers quartet – it’s woeful. (F)

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver: I’ve not read Paver’s series for teens, but they are popular and this one, while written for an adult audience, is quite suitable for secondary schools. Creepy and darkly atmospheric, this historical journey to the Arctic will compel.

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Intended for teens

The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa: I only just discovered this series, and am enjoying them immensely. Using many traditional faery characters and ideas, Kagawa takes a fresh, modern approach to the supernatural in this series. (F)

Dave Luckett’s Tenabran trilogy: May be hard to get, but a great little Australian written fantasy trilogy that’s not too daunting in size! (A)(F)

Saltwater Vampires byKirsty Eager: appropriating and relocating a well known Australian shipwreck story, Eager does a good job of this supernatural story – it’s fairly long, so not for the fainthearted reader, but an interesting take on the vampire trope in a uniquely Australian setting.(A)(F)(H)

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett: Pratchett is so very readable – all the Discworld novels would be fine in a school library (some, like this, are particularly aimed at younger readers, but it’s a series one can grow with!). Thoroughly enjoyable for anyone from about age 11 and up, including adults! Perhaps not as tightly written as some of the earlier novels, but still fantastic to read. (F)

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey: Great setting, great story, great book. Not often you see “faerie” with a New Zealand take. One of the worst covers I’ve seen on YA fiction for ages, but hand sell it and they’ll love it! (NZ)(F)

The Shattering by Karen Healey: Another great look into New Zealand landscape with a fascinating “real world” story blended with a magical overtone. Fantastic follow up to a great debut (not a sequel). (NZ)(F)

Genesis by Bernard Beckett: A very cleverly written, intelligent future story. Quite a slim volume and deceptively easy to read, with a LOT to unpack. (NZ) (SF)

Burnt Snow by Van Badham: Uniquely Australian take on magic and witches. Cleverly done and well written. (A)(F)

The White Cat, Red Glove & Black Heart by Holly Black: More on the urban fantasy side of spec fic, The White Cat and its sequel Red Glove are an unusual take on some common-ish tropes and is a great read. Red Glove and Black Heart are darker than the first book, but still suitable for 14+ (F)

Kristin Cashore, Graceling, Fire & Bitterblue: Absolutely loved these books, but a warning about adolescent sex depiction is probably necessary. (F)

Justine Larbalestier: Have yet to read a bad book by Justine. The latest, Liar, is beyond brilliant but is a challenging and confronting read. How to ditch your fairy is fairly light but excellent. The Magic and Madness trilogy must be read in order for best enjoyment. (A)(F)

Meg Cabot’s Mediator series: I adore Meg Cabot and think she writes a rollicking story. Her Mediator books are a clever little series, not too long each for more reluctant readers, with a modern setting with ghosts! Really like these. (F)(H)

Scott Westerfeld: While his Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras books have probably received more popular and critical acclaim, I prefer the Midnighters trilogy, which has a fascinating premise and extremely likeable characters. Have hooked a number of Year 9 kids on these! Really like his New York books, particularly Peeps, but be warned, it has some absolute grossness in it! His latest series, Leviathan (with the first book of the same name), is fantastic steampunk which is probably aimed more at the boy side of the target audience, and younger than previous books. (A)(F)(SF)

The Two Pearls of Wisdom (or Eon as it has been repackaged) by Alison Goodman: I loved this book (it won the Best Fantasy Novel category of the Aurealis Awards in 2008) and the sequel is due soon. Excellent fantasy set in a pseudo-Asian world. Has some challenging themes and discussions of gender and sexuality that are well-explored. Stands alone well, but the sequel is much anticipated! (A)(F)

Eona by Alison Goodman: the sequel was worth the wait! This book is a fantastic follow up and although it takes the story in a slightly different direction than I anticipated, it’s definitely deserves a spot on your shelf. (A)(F)

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan: I could not do a list like this without mentioning Tender Morsels. I adore this book (although I contend that the first half is far stronger than the second) and the fact Lanagan is not afraid to deal with issues many authors shy away from. Yes, it is confronting and even shocking in some ways, but it is powerful and contextual, and is told extraordinarily well. I would recommend you read it before offering it to students, as it won’t be suitable for everyone, but it deserves to be considered on merit, rather than condemned by partial reviews in the press. (A)(F)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: If you can get your hands on the audio book of this (read by Gaiman), it’s a wonderful experience, but the novel itself tells a great story, with fascinating characters. Well deserving of the accolades it received. (F)(H)

The Broken Lands trilogy by Sean Williams: Some of my favourite books for younger teens of the past few years. This trilogy explores some highly relevant themes for the target audience but in a way that is not at all preachy. Highly readable and compelling. (A)(F)

The Laws of Magic series by Michael Pryor: Fantastic steampunk for young adults, although the later books are becoming more mature. Really enjoyable. (A)(F)

John Marsden: If you don’t have the entire John Marsden collection in your library, I’d be very surprised, but if you’ve never heard of Tomorrow when the war began and the numerous sequels, you need to go out right now and buy them. (A)(SF)

The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody: Despite her huge success, I’m not a big fan of Carmody’s fantasy epics, but I do love The Gathering, which is a very creepy novel set in a real world setting. Highly recommend for those not afraid of being frightened! (A)(H)

The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan: Another Aussie author here, The Ranger’s Apprentice series is one of the best high fantasy series for teens (especially boys) that I’ve ever read. Fairly simple stories but action-packed and exciting with appealing characters. Well worth a read! (A)(F)

Tamora Pierce: Pierce’s Alanna books are some of the best known YA fantasy that are aimed particularly at young women. I adored these as a 15 year old, with their depiction of a strong female heroine not afraid to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Some sex mentioned but contextual. (F)

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler: Very clever story that looks at some important issues within a “real world” fantasy context (particularly, in this instance, eating disorders). (F)(H)

Thyla by Kate Gordon: Solidly Tasmanian in setting, this book has a lot to recommend it – Gordon has created an unusual fantasy world set in real-Hobart, with a strong historical element, told by great characters. (A)(F)

Only Ever Always by Penni Russon: A captivating new novel exploring parallel worlds, with utterly gorgeous writing. This is just beautiful. (A)(F)

The Deep: Here be Dragons by Tom Taylor: A fantastic Australian graphic novel of world class standard. (A)(SF)(GN)

Young Warriors: stories of strength edited by Tamora Pierce and Josepha Sherman: a brilliant collection of YA short stories on a “warrior” theme, when sometimes warrior does not mean what you think it might. (F)(SS)

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix: Something a bit different for younger Nix fans, with a foray into far future science fiction. Engaging and entertaining, a thoroughly enjoyable read. (A)(SF)

Entwined by Heather Dixon: Fairytale retellings are very popular at the moment, and this is a great example of the genre and how it should be done. Based on the story of the twelve dancing princesses, I adored this!

Theatre Illuminata trilogy by Lisa Mantchev: a gorgeously packaged series which takes the world of the theatre, and particularly the plays of Shakespeare, and tosses them up with gorgeous magic, compelling characters, and action-packed fun. (Eyes Like Stars, Perchance to Dream, So Silver Bright) (F)

The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper: only in the barest way speculative, but a fantastic alternate historical trilogy set just prior to World War II. Highly recommended! (A)(F)

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Suitable for younger readers

Spider Lies by Jen Banyard: Deserves inclusion as a clever Australian book. Skirting SF to roll gently into Horror I think, this book is a great read that touches on space exploration, with a little extra. (A)(SF)(H)

Hal Junior by Simon Haynes: A fantastic new addition to the rather bare science fiction shelves for this age group, Hal Junior is a semi-sequel to Haynes’ adult SF (also to be enjoyed by teens) but with a much younger protagonist. The action and laughs abound though, in this highly enjoyable story. (A)(SF)

Troubletwisters by Garth Nix and Sean Williams: The first of five books, written by two Australian grandmasters, Troubletwisters harks back to an older style of writing, but engages and thrills with a fantasy that’s just a little scary. (A)(F)

The Kumiko series by Briony Stewart: A beautifully written series drawing on Asian influences to tell stories of bravery. The wonderful girl protagonist is a fantastic element of these lovely books. (A)(F)

The Keepers trilogy by Lian Tanner: Action-packed, exciting, great writing and great characters – perfect for the hard-to-cater for 9-13 year olds! (A)(F)

Speculative fiction for young adults; science fiction books for young adults; fantasy novels for young adults; horror novels for young adults; scifi for kids;

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