Children's SF

Tagged: Theme

Sf written with a specifically juvenile audience in mind is almost as old as the genre itself. The Voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne, over 60 novels published between 1863 and 1920, were largely marketed as for adolescent boys, though they found an adult readership also. Contemporaneous with Verne's works were the early Dime Novels in the USA, also in the main written for children, and it was not long before Boys' Papers with a strong sf content came along, followed by such Juvenile Series as Victor Appleton's Tom Swift stories. The juvenile series written under the floating pseudonym Roy Rockwood, The Great Marvel Series, published much sf between 1906 and 1935. These topics are discussed in greater detail under separate entries in this encyclopedia, as is children's sf written for the Comics.

From 1890 to 1920 at least, and to some extent later on, most children's sf was aimed at boys rather than girls and was largely dedicated to the themes of the Lost World, Future War and Inventions (see also Edisonade). L Frank Baum, writer of the celebrated Oz books, wrote an early work in the latter category – The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale (1901) – but of course fantastic inventions had already played an important role in the stories featuring Frank Reade Jr (see Frank Reade Library).

Children's sf has been and is written for a variety of age groups. Here we generally regard sf written for children of 11 and under as outside our range, although nostalgic reference must be made to the following: the 1927-1958 Freddy the Pig sequence by Walter R Brooks, several of whose later volumes include sf devices; the relatively rare sf excursions, from 1927 to 1955, of the hugely prolific Enid Blyton; the splendidly bizarre Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928) by Hugh Lofting; the Professor Branestawm books by Norman Hunter, beginning with The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (1933), all featuring the ridiculous adventures of the eponymous eccentric scientist (see Mad Scientist); the minor children's classic My Friend Mr Leakey (coll of linked stories 1937) by the biologist J B S Haldane, a fantasy combining elements of magic and sf; a better known classic series for younger children, the seven Narnia books by C S Lewis, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and ending with The Last Battle (1956) – these stories are basically religious allegory cum Fantasy, but contain such sf elements as Parallel Worlds and Time Travel; The Twenty-One Balloons (1946) by William Pène du Bois, an amusing Pacific-island scientific Utopia; and the quirkily humorous Uncle stories by J P Martin, shunned by UK publishers in the 1930s but generating a cult following when finally published in the 1960s.

As noted, the above are primarily for younger children (although many adults still find several of them rewarding reading), but they point up a difficulty which exists also in sf stories for older children: the fact that there is little generic purity in children's literature. Much children's fantasy contains sf elements, and conversely much children's sf is written with a disregard for scientific accuracy, whether from hauteur or from ignorance, which effectively renders it fantasy. Time Travel, for example, has long been an important theme in children's literature, going back at least as far as The Cuckoo Clock (1877) by Mrs Mary Molesworth (1839-1921), and continuing to the present day, through A Traveller in Time (1939) by Alison Uttley (1884-1976), several of the Green Knowe stories by Lucy Boston (1892-1990) and, perhaps the greatest of such novels, Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce; this latter is the moving and subtle story of a boy who travels back in time, always to slightly more recent periods, to find the nineteenth-century child with whom he falls in love growing older, and away from him; finally, in an overwhelming surprise ending, she meets him in the present day. But in all these examples the time travel is an essentially magic device used in the service of fantasy.

Indeed, sadly for sf purists, most sf works of distinction since the 1960s have been at the fantastic end of the sf spectrum. A fine piece of such peripheral sf is Earthfasts (1966) by William Mayne, one of the best children's writers of the period, in which an eighteenth-century drummer boy emerges from the ground to be met by a sceptical, scientifically inclined present-day youth.

There may be a sociological reason for the comparative scarcity of good Hard SF for children in the recent period, or it may simply be the arbitrary preference of the handful of writers who led the renaissance of juvenile fiction that has taken place since the 1960s. Certainly their creative imagination has fed as fiercely on Mythology as on twentieth-century breakthroughs in scientific understanding – breakthroughs that in the period of the Cold War, with the ever-present threat of nuclear Disaster, seemed equivocal in their results. Signs of the renaissance are many: children's books generally and books for adolescents specifically are less patronizing; they more commonly contain a sardonic or even ironic realism; they have become, overall, more subtle, more evocative, more various, more original and more ready to confront problems of pain, or loss, or even sexual love. The new realism is evident even with those writers of Heroic Fantasy who have followed in the footsteps of J R R Tolkien; notable among them are Joy Chant (1945-    ) and especially Patricia McKillip, although the latter, whose spectacular debut years were devoted to fantasy, seems to write better the further she keeps her distance from sf.

The key theme in children's sf is Magic, and several important children's works are discussed in that entry. Sometimes the magic is given a kind of pseudoscientific rationale, with talk of dimensional gates and so on, as in Andre Norton's many Witch World books, some of which are among her best work; e.g., Warlock of the Witch World (1967). (Norton has also written many colourful books for adolescents which are towards the hard-sf end of the spectrum, sometimes dealing with relations between Aliens and humans.) Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), have combined sf and fantasy by making her magic obey such rigorous laws that it may be seen as a kind of Imaginary Science; it adheres, for example, to the law of conservation of energy.

Many critics regard the Earthsea books as the finest sf work for children of the postwar period. Some of Alan Garner's novels would also rank very high. Apart from using teenage protagonists, Garner's Red Shift (1973) is an adult book in every respect, narrating a battle against intellectual and physical impotence considerably more demanding than would be found in most supposedly adult romances. It qualifies as marginal sf through its consistent use, from the title onwards, of scientific metaphor and because it depends structurally on a form of psychic Time Travel (focused on a neolithic stone axe).

More recently the work of Diana Wynne Jones has also been consistently distinguished, more playful than Le Guin's and more ebullient than Garner's, but as fully aware as either of the difficulties of life both for children and for grown-ups. Much of her work, which treats generic boundaries with disdain, is more fantasy than sf. The more science-fictional books include The Homeward Bounders (1981), Archer's Goon (1984) and A Tale of Time City (1987), which, with varying degrees of science-fictional rigour, all revolve around causal paradoxes and problems created by travel through time or between alternate worlds, and often with more narrative sophistication than is common in sf for adults. The lunacies of book marketing have never been more clear than in the consignment of such distinguished works as the above, and many others, to what Le Guin has called "the kiddylit ghetto". The paradox is visible in the fact that occasionally US editions of UK children's books have been marketed as for adults, and vice versa.

Other important children's sf writers at the fantasy end of the spectrum whose works are discussed in greater detail under their own entries are Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson, Tanith Lee, Madeleine L'Engle and T H White. Australia seems to produce such writers more liberally than it does their counterparts for adults: interesting work has been produced by Isobelle Carmody, Lee Harding, Victor Kelleher and Gillian Rubinstein. Most Kelleher novels are impossible to pigeonhole with any confidence as either sf or fantasy; they have elements of both, and do not appear to suffer as a result. Rubinstein's tone falters – it is a sadly common symptom of writers of sf/fantasy for adolescents – when she approaches pure sf motifs, such as the visiting Alien in Beyond the Labyrinth (1988), but her books remain hard-edged and angry.

When we turn to hard sf, most work for children has been less distinguished. Carl Claudy wrote some exciting books in the 1930s; W E Johns, besides giving his air-pilot hero Biggles an outright sf adventure in Biggles Hits the Trail (1935), wrote a separate sf series beginning with Kings of Space: A Story of Interplanetary Adventure (1954) and continuing into the 1960s; E C Eliott's Kemlo space adventures, beginning with Kemlo and the Crazy Planet (1954), spanned the same period and had some popularity. More recent writers of some quality whose production has been in significant part for children are Paul Capon, John Christopher, John Keir Cross, Tom De Haven, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Nicholas Fisk, Douglas Hill, H M Hoover, Monica Hughes, Philip Latham, Alice Lightner, M E Patchett, Luděk Pešek, John Pudney, Donald Suddaby, Jean and Jeff Sutton, Hugh Walters, Robert Westall, Leonard Wibberley and Cherry Wilder. Between them even these more recent writers span close to 40 years of hard-sf adventure writing for children. Christopher, Engdahl, Fisk, Hoover, Pešek, Westall and Wilder are probably the most important names here, along with Andre Norton. Between them they have written much thoughtful and stimulating work, but the extent of the list is disappointing when set alongside the quantity, range and variety of adult sf from the same period. The difficulty is, of course, that the intellectual level of a book is not necessarily expressed by a marketing label. Much adult sf – the works of E E "Doc" Smith or Isaac Asimov, for example – is of great appeal to older children, and is to some extent directed at them. To the degree that older children are able to enjoy adult sf that is well within their reading capacity, the size of the potential market in sf specifically labelled as juvenile obviously dwindles.

By far the most celebrated case of the unreal distinction between "juvenile" and "adult" concerns Robert A Heinlein, almost half of whose novels were originally marketed for children. They have been re-released for many years now as if for adults. There are thirteen in all of these "juveniles", among the best being Starman Jones (1953), The Star Beast (May-July 1954 F&SF as "Star Lummox"; 1954) and Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957). Heinlein's direct style, his solid science, the naturalness and ease with which he creates a societal background with just a few strokes, all help to make his juveniles among his best works; but their basic strength comes from the repeated theme of the rite of passage, the initiation ceremony, the growing into adulthood through the taking of decisions and the assumption of a burden of moral responsibility. This theme Heinlein made peculiarly and at times brilliantly his own; his is the most consistently distinguished of all hard sf written for young readers.

Heinlein is exceptional in that there was no falling-off in quality when he wrote for children. Other sf writers could not quite manage the trick. Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr books, initially written under the pseudonym Paul French, are well below his best; James Blish's juveniles are generally disappointing, with the notable exception of A Life for the Stars (September-October 1962 Analog; 1962), the second of the Cities in Flight tetralogy; Ben Bova, Arthur C Clarke, Gordon R Dickson, Harry Harrison, Evan Hunter and Robert Silverberg all write better for grown-ups, although Hunter's children's books are unusual and interesting. Alan E Nourse, on the other hand, seems more relaxed when writing for younger people, and some of his best work is in his future-Medicine books such as Star Surgeon (1960).

A more recent writer, Robert C O'Brien, wrote two distinguished sf works for children. The witty and sympathetic Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), about experimental rats which have developed super-Intelligence, is for younger children, and in the talking-animal line is preferred by some aficionados to Richard Adams's more celebrated Watership Down (1972). O'Brien's Z for Zachariah (1975) is a Post-Holocaust novel for older children; humane, touching and sometimes frightening. Also excellent, and very funny, is the Book of the Nomes trilogy by Terry Pratchett, beginning with Truckers (1989), about aliens trying to live invisibly in a human world.

Certain sf themes crop up again and again in recent sf for adolescents. Post-holocaust stories and stories of rebellion against totalitarian societies (which often practise degrading forms of social engineering) are both very common, as in the work of John Christopher, whose sf for children deservedly won him a new readership when he ceased writing sf Disaster novels for adults. Stories about contact between humans and aliens are often used to impress on children an attitude of cultural open-mindedness which has a clear bearing on problems of racism, sexism and other isms of the real world. Cherry Wilder's Torin series is of this kind, but Wilder knows better than to preach. This is more than can be said of much modern juvenile sf, which has perhaps become, from the mid-1970s, the most ethically intransigent and propagandist since the juvenile fiction of the Victorian era. The familiar voice of the children's author calling for universal harmony can, paradoxically, come to seem hectoring; the list of "antis" is often and easily extended by many children's authors – nostalgically looking back to the seemingly more self-reliant lifestyles of a past age – to include anti-technology and anti-science (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF).

The theme of Psi Powers is often found in conjunction with work of this sort. It appeals strongly to children, whose sense of weakness and entrapment in a world where they are by and large subject to adult control, whether wisely or not, can be eased by intimations of an inner superiority – and sensitivity – that may be available to them. Typically psi powers (from within) are seen as opposed, and morally preferable, to scientific and technological powers (from without). Isobelle Carmody's Scatterlings (1991), for example, has an urban scientific elite, remnants of those who polluted and nearly destroyed Earth through greed, opposed to the rural, tribalized but radiation-resistant and honest folk descended from the greenies and working-class outcasts the original scientists exploited. Ecology-conscious people versus corrupted technocrats; country versus town; psi powers versus science: these had, by 1990, become the dominant themes of adolescent sf as a whole. The ecology theme now appears almost as a religious motif in sf, and indeed, in the Gaea-worshipping form it sometimes takes, it has already become a secular religion in the real world.

An important commercial area of sf publishing for juveniles is series books, often based on films or television shows. The Star Trek and Star Wars books and the Doctor Who books are two of the longest-running and most successful (the first two series are not specifically marketed for children, but the third is or at least used to be); they contain less hackwork than most of their competition in this sort of area.

Some distinguished writers of juvenile fiction are not given separate entries in this volume, even though their work may contain some sf imagery. In past editions of the encyclopedia we did not have the space to give comprehensive coverage to children's writers, and our emphasis is on sf rather than fantasy; although online publication has eliminated space restrictions, much of the present text still reflects the constraints of the print versions. But many writers of sf for adolescents do receive entries, often because they have also written sf for adults or because, like Alan Garner, their work is likely to have repercussions in adult sf. There are also such special cases as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, opening with The Bad Beginning (1999), a partially Gothic series presented as children's fiction but knowingly aimed at older readers. [PN/DRL]

see also: Carnegie Medal.

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