10 Moving and Fantastical Books Like Miyazaki’s THE BOY AND THE HERON

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Megan Mabee has been filling notebooks with her story ideas and favorite book quotes since she first began reading. She enjoys board gaming, rewatching Miyazaki movies, and building Legos with her preschooler. Megan holds a Master of Library and Information Studies degree from UNC Greensboro and a Public Librarian Certification. Megan has worked in a college bookstore and high school library, and she now loves talking books in the public library where she works and as a Bibliologist at TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations.

Ever since the news was released that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki had come out of retirement again to make the incredible film The Boy and the Heron, I began counting down the days to watch it. There’s nothing quite like the promise of a new Miyazaki movie. All of my years of growing up watching Studio Ghibli marathons led me to this moment. From the summers the films aired on Cartoon Network to stocking our family DVD collection with Ghibli classics, to perpetually streaming them on Max now, the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki have stolen my heart from an early age. Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron was no exception.

How Do You Live? by Yoshino

As I stepped into a packed movie theater on the film’s opening night last December, I felt such pride in the Studio Ghibli fandom. My friend made sure to snag us some free movie posters the theater had on hand. It was a night that’ll live in my head rent-free for some time to come. I’m so thankful I live in a world where Hayao Miyazaki continues to make thought-provoking, enchanting, heartwrenching, and inspiring films.

In The Boy and the Heron, we meet Mahito, a 12-year-old boy grieving the loss of his mother in a fire during the Pacific War in 1944. Mahito then moves with his father from Tokyo to the countryside estate of his new stepmother, his late mother’s younger sister. Soon after, a talking grey heron leads Mahito on an epic quest into hidden and fantastical worlds to save his stepmother after she disappears.

Book cover of The Book of Lost Things by John ConnollyBook cover of The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Medium writer Yuri Minamide discusses how Miyazaki draws inspiration for the film from his own childhood, as well as two books, Japanese author Genzaburō Yoshino’s How Do You Live? and Irish author John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. Both stories share themes surrounding adolescents dealing with loss against a backdrop of war.

For those who want to submerge into books like The Boy and the Heron, those titles make for a great entry point. Along with those two, I’ve gathered a list of books below that complement themes and ideas tucked within the masterpiece that is The Boy and the Heron.

Books Like The Boy and the Heron

The Astonishing Color of After Book CoverThe Astonishing Color of After Book Cover

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

When I consider which book reminds me the most of Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, this poignant novel by Emily X.R. Pan immediately comes to mind. It promises many similar elements, including a teen grieving the loss of her mother and visiting a new home where she uncovers more about her family’s past. Reality blends with the speculative as well, as the protagonist, Leigh, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents in the wake of her mother’s suicide and gets periodically transported into memories. Most singularly, though, a bird plays a central role in the narrative: Leigh believes her mother has returned to her in the form of a crane. Like The Boy and the Heron, this emotional, heartbreaking, and powerful novel will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Book cover of The Cat Who Saved BooksBook cover of The Cat Who Saved Books

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa, Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Speaking of animals leading our protagonists on fantastical adventures, this enchanting novel in translation by Sōsuke Natsukawa offers just that. This story features a talking cat instead of a heron, though. Like Mahito, the main character is a teen navigating grief after the loss of a loved one. Introverted high schooler Rintaro Natsuki has just inherited his late grandfather’s bookshop. As he’s about to close down the store, a cat named Tiger arrives and enlists his help saving unread books.

cover of Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Limcover of Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

While the previous two books are set in the real world with speculative elements, this captivating novel by Elizabeth Lim draws readers deep into the fantasy world of Kiata, where Shiori’anma lives as a princess. As with The Boy and the Heron, though, magical birds, a daring quest, and a girl’s complicated and shifting relationship with her stepmother blend together in this epic story. When Shiori’s brothers are cursed into cranes by her sorceress stepmother, Shiori teams up with an animated paper bird, a charismatic dragon prince, and her former betrothed to save them.

the library of legends book coverthe library of legends book cover

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki beautifully merges fantasy with poignant family struggles during wartime, and Janie Chang does an exceptional job with this as well. Just as Mahito must evacuate his hometown and head to safety in the countryside, so too must Lian in this story. At Minghua University in 1937 China, we meet Lian, a student forced to flee with her teachers and classmates in the wake of the Japanese army’s advancements. As they traverse over 1,000 miles across China, the students and faculty carry a priceless collection of ancient Chinese myths. Along the road, though, the mythological beings of these myths may just be coming to life.

The Mermaid From Jeju Book CoverThe Mermaid From Jeju Book Cover

The Mermaid From Jeju by Sumi Hahn

This book by Sumi Hahn also explores grief, loss, love, family, coming-of-age, and the effects of war. Nature arises as another powerful theme in the novel, much like it does in many of Miyazaki’s works, including The Boy and the Heron. In post-World War II-era Korea, Goh Junja is a young deep-sea diving woman on the island of Jeju. Like Mahito, Junja faces the devastating and unexpected loss of her mother, along with new love and the mounting pressures of a tense political climate.

I'm Waiting For You And Other Stories Book CoverI'm Waiting For You And Other Stories Book Cover

I’m Waiting For You and Other Stories by Kim Bo-Young, Translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu

This thought-provoking speculative story collection by Kim Bo-Young includes a number of themes reminiscent of The Boy and the Heron. As Mahito strives to reunite with his stepmother, so too do two characters in one of the stories as they desperately try to make it home in time for their wedding despite getting caught up in missions on opposite sides of the galaxy. You’ll also come across explorations of time travel and fate, as well as mysterious beings weighing in on humanity in the vein of Granduncle in The Boy and the Heron.

cover image of Kindred by Octavia Butler; photo of a young Black woman in a white shiftcover image of Kindred by Octavia Butler; photo of a young Black woman in a white shift

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

It’s such an emotional moment in The Boy and the Heron when Mahito realizes his travel companion through the other worlds, Himi the fire witch, is actually a younger version of his own mother. I find the idea of meeting your family and ancestors through time travel so fascinating, and this plays out in this sci-fi classic by Octavia Butler. Just as Dana is about to celebrate her 26th birthday with her new husband, she’s drawn back in time to the antebellum South. There, Dana will get forced into enslavement on a plantation, save her ancestor’s life, and jump back to her present in the 1970s, only to get sent back to the 1800s to save her ancestor again and again. Butler’s gripping portrayal of racism and sexism will leave you thinking long after you finish reading.

What the Wind Knows Book CoverWhat the Wind Knows Book Cover

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon

Speaking of going back in time and meeting younger versions of your family, this moving novel by Amy Harmon touches upon this idea as well. Grappling with her beloved grandfather’s death, Anne Gallagher heads to his childhood home in Ireland to spread his ashes only to find herself slipping into another time. Now, in 1921 Ireland, with the Irish War of Independence on the horizon, Anne finds herself in the care of Dr. Thomas Smith, the guardian of a younger version of her grandfather.

The Shop Before Life Book CoverThe Shop Before Life Book Cover

The Shop Before Life by Neil Hughes

One of my favorite scenes from The Boy and the Heron involves the little white spirit creatures called the Warawara, looked after by Kiriko in one of the many worlds Mahito ventures into. Once they fly off into the sky, they are born as humans. This intriguing concept reminds me of this cozy fantasy by Neil Hughes. It stars Faythe, who lives in the realm of prelife and becomes an apprentice at the Shop Before Life. There, she’ll help people decide who they want to become in life once they’re born.

Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands Book CoverEmily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands Book Cover

Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands by Heather Fawcett

While the first Emily Wilde book gives me strong Howl’s Moving Castle vibes, this second one includes portal jumping quite reminiscent of Mahito’s journey through the many different worlds in The Boy and the Heron. At one point, Mahito faces multiple doors opening into new worlds and time periods all at once, and Emily Wilde will stumble upon this concept as well, which she calls the “nexus.” Cambridge scholar Emily Wilde and her eccentric, exiled faerie king colleague Wendell Bambleby head to the Austrian Alps, searching for a back door into Wendell’s kingdom, as well as a long-lost scholar who’d been hunting for the nexus.

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