Opening a book is a magical experience: pages crinkle, a whiff of ink promises adventure, and those first few lines open up a portal into a wonderful new world.
My sense of wonder as a young reader was only heightened by the fact that my sister stole from her current reads to enhance our imaginary games without telling me what she was doing. I played along, blissfully unaware and increasingly amazed by my sister’s endless imagination. Until I eventually read the same books and discovered many things that seemed strangely familiar.
Fortunately, it enhanced my reading experience. There was something delightfully magical about turning a corner while wandering new story paths only to discover a character I already knew.
Magic. Awe. Imagination. Wonder.
Recently, I saw Mary Poppins Returns in the theater, and like both generations of the Banks children, I was reminded to embrace a sense of wonder and imagination in the everyday. I was reminded that it is good to laugh and sing, and that sometimes when the world is turning upside down, we can turn upside down along with it to get a new perspective.
Of course, the movie also got me thinking about books. Wonder is a common tone in middle-grade fiction and is often emphasized in stories for younger readers, but it tends to diminish somewhat in young adult and adult fiction. Grit, shock, and heart-thumping action takes its place. Don’t get me wrong, I heartily enjoy grit, shock, and action as thematic elements, but Mary Poppins Returns inspired me to reflect on fantasy books that appreciate and inspire that same sense of wonder for older audiences too.
I came up with a list of five fantasy reads I enjoyed recently to share with you.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
This series is a staple of the fantasy genre but I mention it now because a recent reread left it fresh on my mind. Of course, it starts off as Middle Grade and ages with Harry and its original audience to Young Adult fiction, but I was struck on my reread with how all the little details fill us “muggle readers” with the same sense of wonder Harry feels.
Rich, vibrant settings like Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and the Weasley home make Harry’s world easy to imagine. All the class details—from the wide variety of plants discussed in Herbology to the many creatures (both delightful and deadly) in Care of Magical Creatures—forever offer something new to be discovered, and like Harry, I found my eyes constantly widening, struck with the magic of it all.
The Electrical Menagerie by Mollie E. Reeder
Recently rereleased with a new cover and an audiobook, this one is a science fantasy/steampunk story about a magician (showman not wizard) and a young producer who enter a competition as a last-ditch effort to save their traveling robotic show from bankruptcy. The character dynamics between the magician, Carthage, and the producer, Huxley, are tremendous. Honestly, you cannot help but love them and their robot butler.
Still, one of my favorite parts of the story is Carthage’s sense of wonder and imagination. His is a magic of creativity and beauty and wonder, and the way his shows are depicted without nitty gritty details to explain exactly how each trick is performed (a magician never reveals his secrets) leaves the reader with as much of a feeling of awe as his in-story audience. Magic.
The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
In this beautiful tale, Tanwen is a story peddler who can weave tales into crystalline figurines to sell. Unfortunately, she must restrict her storytelling to tales approved by the crown or risk being arrested for treason. Later, she finds out that other gifts—like songspinning and colormastery—are also restricted to depict a singular narrative that paints the crown in the best light. So, when the story that Tanwen tells takes a treasonous turn, she becomes a target.
The way this book approaches creativity is enough to spark wonder in anyone. The way Tanwen looks at the world is a delight. As a reader and writer and lover of beautiful artistry in many forms, I was left so inspired by the read.
To Best the Boys by Mary Weber
This one is a new release that just hit stores this week, and it is this month’s choice for the Fantasy Read Along that author Jill Williamson and I co-host on Instagram. If Rhen hopes to cure the illness that is killing her mother, she must enter Mr. Holm’s Labyrinth and compete to win a scholarship in pursuit of a college education in a society where young ladies are expected to stay home.
This is a book of dreams and goals and courage. The magic is woven delightfully into the background and assumed not explained. Throughout the story it remains a delicious mystery so you never quite know how or why it works, like Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory. But it does. And that is part of the wonder of it all, so you are left forever anticipating the magical and never doubting it when it occurs. Beautiful.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
Granted, I was late to the game on this one since I only read it last summer … and of course, it’s been out far far longer than that, so I will spare you the story blurb and only say here that this science fantasy with its fantastic creatures and its Charles Wallace and its fierce Meg who needs help seeing the wonderful in herself, was such a wonder-inspiring read that it quickly became one of my favorites.
Fostering a sense of wonder
This sense of wonder is something I am learning to appreciate more as a reader, experiment with more as a writer, and enjoy more in this world God has created. Our world may groan under the weight and brokenness of sin (Romans 8:19-23), but our amazingly creative God filled it with wonder and beauty first. Wacky creatures to make us laugh, majestic creatures to inspire us, beautiful sunsets to lift our spirits, and stars to lift our eyes to the heavens that declare His glory (Psalm 19:1).
So, when books fill us with a sense of wonder and we marvel at the skill of the author, I hope we will marvel too at the Author of all things who gifted us with our imaginations to sub-create (as Tolkien said in his essay On Fairy-Stories) and to enjoy the sub-creations of others.
What have you read recently?
Even as I am typing this, several other delightful books come to mind, but I limited this list to recent reads so you could share books that have inspired this sense of wonder in you too!