While teen dystopias abound, a recent panel at the New York Public Library, the latest in the Children’s Literary Salon series, delved into the availability (or lack thereof) of science-fiction books for younger readers. Participants on the panel were: Stephanie Whelan, librarian at the Seward Park branch of the NYPL, who also writes a blog about SF and fantasy books for young readers called Views from the Tesseract; HarperCollins editor and author Andrew Harwell; and Jason Fry, author of the Jupiter Pirates series. The panel was moderated by librarian Betsy Bird.
Bird kicked off the discussion by asking Whelan for a broad-strokes overview of the history of the science-fiction genre. Whelan responded that in the early days of SF, authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells weren’t separate from literary fiction. To Whelan, it wasn’t until Tom Swift in the 1950s that the genre seemed to take off, and that subsequent science-fiction books were noticeably influenced by the series because the books “focused on intentions and exploring technology.” She added that there were more than 40 books in the original series, and that many of the inventions created in the Tom Swift books actually exist today. “Things like video phones, and the TASER,” an acronym for “Tom A. Swift Electric Rifle,” originated in the books. To Whelan, the possibility of the technologies present in SF are what separate the genre from fantasy, and engage the imaginations of young readers with what could happen.
Authors writing in the 1940s through ’60s were influenced by Tom Swift, and children at the time often read pulp fiction. With the space age and moon landing, the kids’ science-fiction market exploded. The 1960s and 70s were a heyday for the genre. At that time, Whalen noted, there wasn’t really a YA section, but as the genre grew and began to cover more subjects, science-fiction YA developed, particularly in the 2000s with the growth of dystopian novels.
Author Jason Fry talked about the influence science-fiction had on him as a kid. “I saw Star Wars and my life was never the same,” he said. In sixth grade he began playing Dungeons and Dragons, and reading mostly adult science-fiction and fantasy novels. Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series “were hugely influential for me,” he said, noting the effect that the big themes of morality and power had on him. He also has a distinct memory of reading an excerpt of a story he was so taken with, his mother tracked it down with the help of a local bookstore, “and this was before the Internet, so it was quite a feat,” he said. The book was an English translation from a French-Canadian book entitled The City Under Ground by Suzanne Martel.
Author and editor Andrew Harwell also cited LeGuin as an important influence, as well as the series of “accelerated readers” classic books, Jules Verne, Diana Wynne Jones, Ender’s Game, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Harwell noted that he “read across genres, not just sci-fi,” when he was young.
Whelan recalled spending much of her time as a child at the library, as well as discovering many books on her father’s bookshelves. Among many favorites she recalled H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy in particular. “It had other planets, lawsuits, other intelligences, wow!” Following this, in the 1980s, she noted that there was a lot of science-fiction for younger readers, which is what is prompting her now to “wonder where it’s all gone.”
Bird asked Harwell if there was any hesitation at Harper about publishing SF aimed at younger readers. Harwell responded that in general he sees less opposition to publishing middle-grade SF than publishing SF for teens, and said that the question asked in acquisitions meetings is usually “do we have too much of this on our list?” If not, the book will usually be approved. Early manuscript readers of Jupiter Pirates at HarperCollins often remarked positively to Harwell that the book wasn’t what they were expecting, which to Harwell indicated perhaps a subliminal resistance to the genre, but openness to unique work, and it passed the acquisitions board quickly.
Diversity in SF for Young Readers
Bird then brought up another growing area of interest in publishing: diversity. “What is the state of multicultural sci-fi for kids now?” she asked. Whelan sees more diverse books “coming down the pipe,” and notes that the perception remains that science-fiction is a boy’s genre. But with a recent influx of new writers writing SF for adults, Whelan hopes that this may influence the younger market.
Fry said he has included gender diversity in his books, giving the matriarch of the family captaincy of the space ship, and he believes that “what’s coming next for Star Wars will be transformative,” referring to the racially diverse cast set to appear in the upcoming film.
Fielding audience questions at the end of the panel discussion, Fry was asked if as an author visiting students in the classroom he had perceived any gender disparity in readers of his books. He noted that in speaking to fourth graders, “the bulk of the questions were from girls.” But in sixth grade classes, the girls participated less, and boys asked more questions. His own series contains strong female characters, which he hopes to see more of, but added “I wasn’t smart enough to have thought of that as a strategy. It has more to do with my mother and my wife and my friends.”
Bird pointed to forthcoming books that might be indicating a new trend, including more SF-based picture books, including Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt’s Interstellar Cinderella, coming in May. Whelan mentioned the middle grade Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall that features a world with five distinct genders.
Bird then asked the panel, “Where do you see the genre going in the future?” Harwell responded that he thinks diversity will be big. He’s excited to see more self-aware books that play with or straddle the lines between genres. Whelan thinks that with China’s emergence as a global power, that country will be looking to the future, and expects to hear from more young voices there. She also thinks more work from South America and Africa might emerge.
The panelists voiced hopes that the notion of needing a hard science background to enjoy and participate in the genre goes away, as well as the stigma against the SF in the industry, where it sometimes dismissed as not “real” literature. Whelan hopes science-fiction characters will inspire kids “to do something amazing. I think there’s room for that.”