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The Campaign for Shiny Futures

When Roger Sutton asked me why science fiction for teens did not get the same attention or respect as fantasy, I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Because it’s written by the ignorant, published by the ignorant, and reviewed by the ignorant — present company included.”

Here’s why. The notion that SF for the young does not receive respect forces us to ask three questions: Not respected by whom? What do we mean by SF for the young? And was it always this way?

For almost any science fiction reader over forty, science fiction “for the young” means Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. There are others, but these two are the gold standard. Norton began her career writing mainstream adventure for boys (which is why she changed her name), then continued with a long line of juvenile adventure science fiction through the 1960s aimed mainly at boys, along with her classic Witch World sequence, which became very popular among second-wave feminists as well as kids. Heinlein began as a short story writer for magazines and was offered contracts for his juveniles or “family books” by Scribner’s on the basis of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post (family reading is a category that has disappeared but needs to be re-examined), and in the 1960s and 1970s gave those up and switched to novels for the expanding adult paperback market. In their juveniles, both writers used the trajectory of the career book: the protagonist would leave home, enter the workplace (sometimes an actual workplace, sometimes a new society), and acquire the skills to survive and prosper. There was very little romance, and, in Heinlein’s books, while marriage might be flagged for the future, clever girls mostly went off to be clever.

Heinlein and Norton remain respected by anyone in the SF field who actually knows its history. Unfortunately, the number of people in children’s literature who know anything about science fiction is tiny. I think I know all of them. Which explains a truly awful incident when, as a student, I couldn’t suppress my shock when the Esteemed Academic teaching a short course on children’s SF had not heard of Heinlein and Norton. In children’s literature, this kind of ignorance is taken for granted and accepted: where other genres receive specialist reviews, SF for children is frequently reviewed by non-specialists who assume that they can use much the same criteria as they might for a teen romance. This has very real consequences: whenever I point out that a so-called work of children’s or YA science fiction is a terrible piece of science fiction, I receive the unthinking putdown (and it is a putdown): “Oh, but kids like it!” By which they mean: kids who read like me. Kids who don’t like science fiction.

One of the ideas that Roger mentioned, and which many of us in SF have noted, is that science fiction readers read “up” and disdain kids’ books. Roger wrote, “Mary K. Chelton, co-founder of VOYA — our YA librarians magazine — told me many years ago that SF attracted the brainiest kids, who tended to read adult books anyway.” This has not always been true. Between 1950 and 1970, the books that were written and published as science fiction for children and young adults attracted those who would go on to read adult science fiction: authors such as Ben Bova, John Christopher, and Pamela Sargent turned readers of juvenile SF into readers of adult SF. (Furthermore, like their counterparts in fantasy, these books continued to be read and enjoyed by adult SF readers.) So why did this stop being true during the 1980s and 1990s, when SF for children and teens became less and less popular among SF readers? Why did Chelton observe that moving on to adult science fiction meant leaving SF for children behind? Could it be that there was something wrong with the books that were being marketed as SF for children?

Most of the writers of science fiction for children and teens before about 1970 also wrote for the adult market. In their fiction for younger people, Heinlein, Norton, and their contemporaries wrote with an eye on concerns very similar to those found in adult science fiction: the world of work, the world of changing technology, and the bright new opportunities promised by these things. They could do this for two reasons. First, the world of teens was much closer to the world of adults than it is today. Norton and Heinlein’s audience was either already earning their own living or would be a few years in the future. Now the fifteen-year-old reader might be a decade away from the professional workplace. Second, Heinlein and Norton shared the values of the adult SF market and assumed that their role was to introduce younger readers to that material. They loved what teen SF readers loved: the bright shiny promises of the future.

For The Inter-Galactic Playground, my forthcoming book about children’s reading and science fiction, I’ve read around four hundred books published for child and teen readers between 1950 and today. From 1970 onward, SF books aimed at the children’s and teen market were increasingly written by “writers for children” who did not also write for the adult field. Their books became increasingly concerned with those kinds of issues associated with the new YA subgenre, a genre with very different values from the old juvenile SF. The passage from juvenile science fiction to YA was not seamless: YA was not simply a fashionable new category, it described a different ideology of teenagehood and the teenage reader. In the new YA novels, adulthood as defined by the world of work was replaced by adulthood defined by the world of relationships. And perhaps because of YA literature’s preoccupation with social problems, science fiction for teens became increasingly a place for adults to warn the young about the future. At first glance this might be seen as introducing a healthy skepticism, but it was relentless. Very few SF books published for the teen market since 1970 saw the future as something to look forward to, and the downbeat books are not merely skeptical, they are downright doom-mongering and disempowering. (Saci Lloyd’s new The Carbon Diaries 2015 is a good example: the fascinating tale of the protagonist’s contributing to political change through the reduction of her own carbon use is replaced partway through with a catastrophic flood she can do nothing about — not a lot of point in saving that carbon, then.)

As Perry Nodelman noted in an article in Science-Fiction Studies 12 (1985), instead of an attitude that basically said, “Whee, kids! Look at all this bright shiny new New!” young readers were taught that innovation, new technology platforms, genetic engineering, and birth control would all rot their minds, sap their human spirit, and turn them into soulless and uncaring vegetables. Consider M. T. Anderson’s Feed, a book that is beautifully written and offers a brilliantly visualized future but clearly regrets the day we all stopped learning The Odyssey by heart and began writing things down, where they could be looked up by the ignorant. Or all the many books that argue that the solution to current crises is to retreat to pastoralism and spirituality.

So we have a bunch of readers who want stuff that tells them about the world, and the future, and what they can do to take part in it, and they are mostly being told that it’s really depressing, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and now is the best of all possible worlds. Is it any wonder they head for the adult shelves? The potential readers of SF written for teens have little respect for it, because they themselves can compare it to what is on offer for adults and know it does not match up.

How has this been allowed to happen? Partially, it is this strange insistence — encoded in that phrase “But children like it!” — that all children are the same. No one honestly believes this, but the rhetoric in the field doesn’t distinguish between “the child reader” (roughly understood as any child given a book and told to read it) and “the reading child” (from whose hands you have to remove the book so that they can eat). And it doesn’t distinguish between what different children read for or take into account that SF readers might have different criteria and priorities than the reader of realistic or fantasy fiction. Currently, we live in a world where fiction that provides “insight into the human condition” (usually defined as emotion) is lauded as having the ultimate literary value. This is not a given but part of the current cultural moment. Other values — learning about the mechanics of the world, for example — which were once celebrated, both in education and hierarchies of reading lists, are received uncertainly. We may want children to learn science and languages, but our societies regard children and adults who enjoy doing that as a bit odd.

The conflation of all children into one pool is improper, as a general principle, but when dealing with the children who like science fiction, it ignores the issue that those children — and their adult counterparts, readers and critics alike — have developed their own system of genre-specific criteria. Book after book on children’s and teen reading has assumed that it knows what children read for, and in the process has constructed an ideology of what children should read for. Repeatedly, the emphasis is on character, on empathy, on story, and on “relevance” (a word I have come to loathe for all its patronizing assumptions). Relevance to what children and teens are interested in? But which teens? What interests? And shouldn’t we be tempting readers to new interests? One of my science fiction correspondents, the very well respected SF and fantasy author Jo Walton, wrote that a book about meeting and communicating with aliens was very relevant to a child who regarded every other child in the school as an alien. As part of The Inter-Galactic Playground I undertook to survey a large body of SF readers. More than nine hundred responded to an online request. The results suggested that SF readers remembered their young selves wanting literature that taught them something about the world. Relationships of any kind were low priorities compared to ideas and information. The emphasis on emotional learning, and on emotion as the center of the narrative, distorts how science fiction for teens is understood, respected, and recommended.

When it is respected, it is not necessarily for the values that its readers recognize. For example, only one of the bibliographies I’ve read (Diana Tixier Herald’s Teen Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests, Greenwood Press, 2003) has any time for the child or teen whose interest is not in how terrified Ender feels when he enters Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, but is rather in that magical moment when we all realize that “the enemy’s gate is down.” Ender’s Game is a mathematical, geographical, and strategic figure-ground puzzle that offers a wealth of abstract thought. It’s also intensely didactic. It’s one of the most popular SF books for teens from the 1970s, the very period when teen SF changed, yet it is the exception that proves the rule: although Ender’s Game is about children, it was not published for kids but appeared first in the pages of Analog magazine in 1977 and was nominated for a Hugo as Best Novelette. It was written for adults, published for adults in its book form, and only remarketed as a book for young people in 2002 when Tor — the largest of the SF imprints — decided to enter the YA market. With its extensive digressions into philosophy, religion, mechanics, and strategy, Ender’s Game is the model of what child and teen SF readers want, yet it is not what they were getting (or still get) within the pages of YA science fiction. (There are notable exceptions, but like Cory Doctorow or Philip Reeve or Oisín McGann, they are all authors with strong connections to the adult market.)

All of the above takes us back to critics, librarians, editors, and reviewers. Ender’s Game is a didactic book in which information is prized over emotional response. This structure is almost the hallmark of science fiction. Karen Traviss, a writer who works in her own universe but also writes some of the most successful tie-in novels the Star Wars franchise has seen, fills her books with discussions of everything from weapons to bond slavery, yet her mailbag is stuffed with fan letters from teens. Still, “didacticism” is one of the most threatening epithets that can be directed at an author. Didactic literature is bad literature.

Opposition to “didactic” literature is essentially ideological and has nothing to do with what some child readers want. First, didactic is too often used when the critic actually means pious (although I would point out that many of us enjoyed pious literature while young: C. S. Lewis and Charlotte M. Yonge were both very fine writers of piety). Second, the comment that a book is didactic is often rather prejudiced: we ignore the didactic we like but hit on the didactic we don’t. Ender’s Game, for example, is didactic both in terms of the math, philosophy, and politics it teaches and in terms of its sledgehammer moral messages around Nietzschean notions of the superior being and its arguments for genocide (which are eventually justified in a sequel). Favorable responses to bad YA science fiction often positively applaud the didacticism: what is Neal Shusterman’s recent Unwind if not a didactic anti-abortion argument? (Rehearsed previously in an unpleasant little story by Philip K. Dick called “The Pre-Persons,” 1974.) I lost count of the pro-ecology, anti-science didactic stories published between 1970 and 2000. But contemporary reviews preferred to herald these stories as “timely warnings” rather than condemn them for didacticism.

The review media are part of the problem. The much-vaunted “asset” of children’s literature, that it is not organized by genre, allows there to be experts in “children’s literature” in a way that no one would accept as a claim for expertise in all adult literature. This tendency ill serves a field such as SF whose values are at variance from the mainstream. The provision of genre material by nonspecialists (authors and editors) may serve up texts that are travesties of the genre to which they belong. Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember may be a very popular book, but any child who has acquired the sensibilities of a science fiction reader will quickly tear holes in it: one example only — a wind-up clock that keeps time for 250 years?

Review sources have been conditioned to think of their audience as librarians, teachers, and, to an extent, parents. There are good, historical reasons for this, but as both the buying power and the pester power of children increase, it has become more and more problematic. The Horn Book, for example, reviews mainly hardcovers. Yet my collection of science fiction is overwhelmingly paperback — Bruce Coville, Katherine Applegate, and other popular children’s SF writers sell predominantly in paperback. Indeed, science fiction for children and teens went through a long period (perhaps thirty years) in which it was relegated almost entirely to the paperback market. Only in 2000 did it start coming back into hardcover and begin to be reviewed in the mainstream children’s literature press. The validation of the hard covers did at least lift these books into the review columns, but I can’t say that many reviewers really knew what to do with them.

Can science fiction for children and teens gain respect? Review editors could make sure that their reviewers are not only familiar with the children’s and YA output in SF but that they also understand the rules by which adult SF plays. Publishers should be approaching authors in adult SF to write for teens; reviewers should be keeping a close eye on the science fiction publishing imprints that have begun to feed the children’s and teen field (Tor and Viking Penguin both now have YA imprints, Holiday House has produced excellent titles for children); there should be no distinction made on the basis of packaging — particularly not when that means reviewing only books younger readers cannot afford. Children’s fiction should not be treated as if it is something utterly separate from the adult market: by the age of thirteen, any child who has become a reader is quite likely to be reading simultaneously in both markets anyway, and as “realistic fiction” for teens is judged by the values of its adult counterparts (qualities of characterization, etc.), so too should SF be judged (plausibility of extrapolation, etc.). Some of this is happening: the publication of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve at the end of the last century seemed to demonstrate that there was a market for hardcover far-future, optimistic, and technology-heavy science fiction for children and teens. Yet there remains the issue of values: one of the most successful books for SF-reading teens last year was Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, yet every so often a reader commentator on one of the mailing lists would argue that the teens weren’t very realistic because they were more interested in politics and sabotaging an X-box than in relationships. Reviewers of SF for children and teens need to keep in mind that there is more than one mode of behavior — and definitely more than one kind of teenager.

From the March/April 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Farah Mendlesohn

Farah Mendlesohn is Reader in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature at Middlesex University, UK, co-editor of the Hugo Award–winning Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and author of The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teen’s Science Fiction (McFarland, 2009).



  1. There’s lots of interesting material here. For one thing, I’m going to be a lot more careful about tossing around the word “didactic” now.

  2. Really interesting and thought provoking article. I grew up reading Norton and Heinlein in the 70s, as well as Asimov, Clarke, and others. I’ve wondered for a long time why there’s so little real science fiction being published today for young adults, and you’ve given a lot of food for thought.

    ‘…that magical moment when we all realize that “the enemy’s gate is down.” ‘ – Oh my god, yes. Decades after first reading it, I still remember that “aha” moment.

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