There’s been some discussion on fantasy author Twitter lately about recommending books that will hook people into reading fantasy. Quite frequently, if someone asks for a fantasy recommendation, no matter what they stipulate they’re looking for, the same books tend to get recommended, usually the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Wheel of Time series, and that sort of thing. Someone did a survey, and they found that nearly half the people didn’t get hooked on fantasy because of the usual recommendations. It was something else they read later when they tried again that worked. But there is a very vocal crowd that seems to think there’s something wrong if you don’t immediately fall in love with fantasy because of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.
I personally don’t believe in the idea of one book that totally hooks you. I think it’s more of a process, and it starts in childhood. I started with Disney movies and Dr. Seuss books, which I think paved the way by getting me used to the idea of magic and strange alternate worlds. Someone who didn’t start out with that sort of thing may have more trouble getting used to the idea of things that can’t happen in our world. When I got to the “chapter book” level, I read pretty widely, usually by topic rather than genre — every horse book I could find, for instance. I seem to have gravitated toward books with a fantasy or magical element, whether it was talking animals, witches, or other worlds. I read The Horse and His Boy from the Chronicles of Narnia when I was reading horse books, and didn’t connect it to the series or to the genre. I read all the Roald Dahl books, read a few of the Oz books, and I read The Hobbit when they came out with the animated movie.
Around this time, there was Star Wars, which got me into science fiction, but I think it also laid a lot of groundwork for being a fantasy fan, since it’s essentially fantasy wearing a science fiction costume. Yeah, there are spaceships and robots, but it’s about a group of wizard warriors with magical powers, and there are princesses in need of rescuing. It’s structured so well as a fantasy that it’s easy to rewrite the same story as a fantasy. Lucas himself did it in Willow, and Eragon is basically a scene-for-scene rewrite with dragons instead of X-Wings (incidentally, that survey showed that book as one of the big entry-level books that hooked people on fantasy). I suspect it has a lot to do with the hero’s journey structure that’s so universal.
I didn’t really click into the idea of fantasy as a genre until sixth grade, when I read The Silver Chair and became obsessed with the Narnia books. Around that time, I re-read The Hobbit and moved on to the Lord of the Rings. From there, I got into other fantasy, mostly that written for children. There was Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, then I got back into the Oz books. But I was also reading pretty widely in a variety of genres, and I didn’t glom onto fantasy in a big way, to the point I wanted to write it, until I discovered the Katherine Kurtz Deryni books in high school, and from there I found the Shannara books and a few other of the series that were big then.
I tend to give The Silver Chair credit for making me a fantasy fan, but it was more of a tipping point in an overall process. That’s really how just about anything works. They say you need to introduce a new food to a child at least three times before you can really tell if the child dislikes it. The first time is bound to be a big dislike because it’s new and different. We resist the unfamiliar. It’s not until the second time that the kid can even really try it once they’re past the unfamiliarity. Then the third time they can make a more honest assessment and decide they like it.
With that in mind, I don’t think you can hand a person a book and instantly turn them into a fan of something. It’s a process, and it’s going to vary by background — was the person exposed to fantasy-like stories as a kid? Does the person read fiction at all, or was the last novel they read assigned reading for a class? What kinds of other things does the person like? Maybe start with something in their chosen genre that has some mild fantasy elements, like a paranormal mystery or romance. (Enchanted, Inc., is apparently a really good entry-level fantasy because it appeals to those who like mystery, romance, chick lit, or liked the Harry Potter books but haven’t read other fantasy.) Handing someone who hasn’t read a novel since college a doorstopper of a book that’s the first in a trilogy and that’s full of songs written in made-up languages is probably not going to go well.
One thing we need to be really careful about is the high-pressure recommendation, when we hand someone our absolute favorite book, which is in a genre they aren’t familiar with, and expect it to have the same impact on them as it did on us, with the strong sense that we can’t be friends anymore if they don’t like it and immediately like everything else we like. That’s doomed to failure. Maybe start with something that has lower stakes for you emotionally, and only move on to your all-time favorite book once you’ve laid some groundwork — and then maybe leave off the hype and the importance that book has for you.