12 May 2004

SF for Kids

Alan Lattimore reports that on a recent visit to a local school's Scholastic Book Fair, he found no titles that were actual science fiction under any traditional definition of the term. Plenty of fantasy, some horror, some thrillers ... but no science fiction.

Elsewhere I've read of some attempts to create new lines of science fiction books for the YA market, but I don't remember where I saw them and I'm too lazy to go searching at the moment. There have been some excellent non-Harry Potter fantasies published over the past ten years, but science fiction seems to have nearly disappeared.

Even though I would like to see more genre bending, I've come to realize that I really don't want genre bending that destroys the "pure" forms of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. This is less a logical thought than a nostalgic one: When I was first getting interested in reading, the things that excited me were pure genre books. I started with horror, discovering Stephen King, the first author writing for adults whom I read with excitement. I moved on from there to various other horror writers, magazines like Night Cry (anybody remember that one?), etc. Then I discovered science fiction, and it was love at first sight. I hated fantasy for some reason -- too fascinated by technology, I suppose, and magic just seemed liked a cop-out. When I abandoned science fiction, it was for mainstream fiction, particularly works with a weird, surreal bent. It's only recently that I've discovered I actually like fantasy, so long as it doesn't have too many elves and fairies.

The type of kid who likes science fiction is not necessarily the type of kid who will like fantasy. And there's nothing wrong with that. Most young human brains need to start with something specific and then their tastes can diversify. If science fiction isn't available to kids, then we are losing the chance to hook certain types of people not only on science fiction, but on reading.

Working at a high school, I've seen plenty of students who are labelled as poor readers devote days of reading to Ender's Game or Neuromancer. I've seen other students who are skilled readers but who don't read, who think no book can compete with a video game, and they've been surprised to discover that Philip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin (particularly The Dispossessed) really are worth taking a break from the X-Box to read.

There are plenty of science fiction books that kids read -- the ones I mentioned above, plus countless others, including Star Wars and Star Trek novels. But what is there for readers who aren't quite ready for writing aimed at adults? There are thousands and thousands of books for elementary school kids, but which ones are science fiction? (Please make recommendations in the comments -- it would be great to compile a list.)

As a teacher, I find it much easier to help students learn to appreciate and even love the sorts of things we English teachers are supposed to venerate -- The Great Works of Literature -- when I'm teaching students who read for pleasure in at least a little bit of their spare time. It's just about pointless to try to teach complex and demanding works to students who only read books assigned to them (I don't even like assigning books -- results are almost always better when people have some choice over what they read).

Much as I want to see more works which mix and match genre tropes, which interrogate and explode all the conventions of popular literary genres, we need the pure genres themselves to have dedicated and enthusiastic readers and writers so that a healthy dialogue develops between various types of writers and readers. The genres need readers for writers to write toward, and therefore some people to be excited by the possibilities of science fiction when they are young. Society in general is, I think, better off when more people recognize that books can be interesting, fun, and stimulating; science fiction is one way for some people to recognize that early on.

What's the solution? Cooperation, I think. We need to identify works that already exist and get them in the hands of parents, teachers, and, most importantly, kids. We need to support and encourage writers who decide to write for the younger markets. We need to share our enthusiasms.