Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where are the Science Fiction Books for Kids?

I happened upon a great post decrying the dearth of science fiction novels nominated in the Cybils Awards (Children's and Young Adult Blogger Literary Awards). Out of 134 nominations, only 11 could be considered "real" science fiction - books that relied on science, not fantasy.

Given that I'm writing a middle grade science fiction novel, this confirmed what I had observed on the bookshelves: namely a lack of true science fiction books for kids. The racks are teaming with them in the Adult aisle (also simply known as the "Science Fiction" section), and there are even a few notable successes on the Young Adult shelf (Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series comes to mind), but there is a yawning void on the Middle Grade shelves where science fiction should be.

No lack of dragons, wizards or fairies, though.

Beyond my self-interested question of whether publishers will buy MG SF, I wonder why there isn't more of it? Middle grade children love science fiction when it's packaged in a visual media - Star Wars, anyone? Building space vehicles and fighting aliens is a full time occupation for many 8-12 year old boys. And science these days rocks, compared to when I was a kid, when we were still impressed when the Space Shuttle launched and came back in one piece. Today, DNA analysis is commonplace, there's probably some wacko out there that's actually cloned a human being, and scientists are creating miniature black holes inside of the Large Hadron Collider. This is cool stuff, people, and it's old hat. Been done. The future is even brighter and shinier.

Or is it?

Even bringing dystopian science fiction into the fold, there's still not much on the middle grade shelves. The future shouldn't be any scarier than it's ever been. When I was a kid, dystopian novels by Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin were some of my favorites. These were admittedly adult books, but even the kids know that as soon as the robots become sentient, we're all doomed anyway. No sense shielding them from the apocalypse.

Seriously, kids these days are steeped in a science and technology oriented world. Admittedly, my kids are on the geekier side of normal, more likely to have a favorite physicist than a favorite ball team. But they're not the only ones. The Science Channel has a whole series called Sci Fi Science, where you can learn how to design a light saber, or how to travel to a parallel universe. There's no lack of cool science things out there.

So, why not in the kidlit? Is there just a subset of the universe that writes children's books, and another subset that loves science, and the two intersect only in a small sliver of the planet somewhere in Idaho? I'm exaggerating, of course, and there are middle grade science fiction books out there. Two that I stumbled across went immediately on my TBR list:

Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel by K. A. Holt.

The Emerald Tablet, PJ Hoover

If you can rec some middle grade SF books, please drop me a comment so I can add it to my list. If I get enough, I might even stop complaining.

And if you have a theory about the lack of MG SF on the shelves, even if it involves mutant cyborgs from the future that have wiped our brains, rendering us incapable of writing children's science fiction and thereby eliminating the possibility that we will stop them from world domination . . . please let me know.


  1. Ender's Game (and Orson Scott Card in general), though I'm not sure if he's MG (though Ender definitely was the right age) -- can't think of much in recent history (EG's about 25 years old now - wow), but I was always more into those dragons than the space/scientists types.

  2. Ender's Game is one that think really is YA due to mature themes, but a lot of younger kids read it. I think it's a fantastic book, although I haven't read it in a long time. Time to re-read

  3. Wow. I don't think I ever really thought about this, and MG is my favorite genre. Shame on me! I know there's MY STEPMOTHER IS AN ALIEN, but I don't know how sci-fi it is. The Deltora Quest books are a wonderful fantasy series.

  4. I don't have a good explanation either. But I had to say that I love that your boys are more like to have a favorite physicist than a favorite baseball team. Our house is the same way.

  5. Shannon - If it has an alien, it's SF. It's a cardinal rule of science fiction. :)

    Sarah - Worm Burner (8) wants to be a theoretical physicist like Dr. Michio Kaku when he grows up. I have to say he's pretty awesome, and even has wild scientist hair (Kaku, not Worm Burner, although some days . ..). I love that your house is into the science too!

  6. Try some Monica Hughes. She's an exceptional Canadian author. "Devil on My Back," "Keeper of the Isis Light," "Invitation to the Game," and "The Crystal Drop." are all favorites of mine.

    I'm doing my little part to fill the void too. I'm about ready to look for an agent for my middle grade post-apocalyptic novel. I was dismayed to find that there are so few agents who will look at both sci-fi and MG!!! Maybe THAT'S the problem.

    I'm delighted to meet another sci-fi writer. Best wishes for your success!

  7. I will definitely check out Hughes - thanks! And I haven't actually launched the epic search (soon, very soon), but I thought that if an agent said "MG" that pretty much encompassed all genres. Do you think they have to specify both (or are they "excluding" MG SF?)?

    Best of luck to you on your search!

  8. I didn't read this book, but Neal did and he really liked it: George's Secret Key to the Universe by Stephen and Lucy Hawking. It says it's for ages 9-12, and I assume it's science fiction. I know it spurred Neal into an astronomy phase in 2nd grade.

  9. What about P.J. Hoover's Emerald Tablet series? Those have some great science mixed in with the fiction -- I think she's a former scientist, too.

  10. There really isn't much sci fi for middle grade kids being published... As well as what's been mentioned, The Softwire series by PJ Haarsma comes to mind, and Pamela Service's Alien Agent series.

    I do regular posts of new releases of science fiction and fantasy for children and teenagers, by the way (three times a month), but it's rare to see true sci fi.

  11. Charlotte - I've read Haarsma's first book, but I'll have to check out the Alien Agent series. I'm going to keep an eye on your blog, but thanks for verifying the sparseness of SF.

  12. I have been thinking about this issue for a while. My conclusion is that sci-fi has "inflated" to the point where it can hardly be mistaken for fantasy. The line became a grey area some time ago, and now even the grey has pretty much vanished.

    What's fantasy? Dragons and magic. What's sci-fi today? Teeming with bizarre space creatures (Star Wars) and limitless technology. Want to inhabit another body (Avatar)? No problem. Travel instantaneously to another place (Star Trek)? Done. Create anything from a cup of coffee to a Van Gogh out of thin air (also Star Trek). Just ask.

    There's a famous 'futurist', an Asian man with long grey hair (you know him, I can't remember his name offhand) who used to appear in various interviews defining the line between 'future science' and 'fantasy'. Now he appears regularly on cable, with the message that ANYTHING the public sees in sci-fi is possible, and offering convoluted explanations as to how these wonders will come about.

    'Sci-fi' themes feed on themselves over time, becoming bloated, inflated, and silly. Eventually the public's eyes glaze over, and we need a reboot. That happened recently with Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek (though the latter rather less successfully - Star Trek did not really solve their bloat problem).

  13. Susan--I've noticed this gap, too! The exceptions I'm thinking of are Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is an Alien series and, more recently, Philip Reeve's tongue-in-cheek steampunk sci-fi books, starting with Larklight (though he cheats on the whole breathing-in-space thing). Oh, another tongue-in-cheek work is Mark Teague's retro flying saucer book, The Doom Machine.

    I think that in our culture in general, sci-fi seems sort of hokey and 70s- or 80s-ish these days. Maybe the real info we have about space makes alien encounter movies seem too fantastical for the very nonfiction-type kid readers who might prefer sci-fi to books about wizards. Plus, it used to be you could write sci-fi without being a rocket scientist, but now readers are too informed to accept books where the authors cut corners on the tech. Which makes hard sci-fi even more of a specialty from a writing standpoint.

    And the new wave of sci-fi in kids lit is all YA, dark dystopian stuff like The Hunger Games (which you alluded to). Seems like a better fit than cutesy green MG aliens, perhaps.

    One of my favorite individual sci-fi titles, which could be called upper MG, is Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle.

  14. Snitch - "Science Fantasy" is definitely more mainstream than hard SF, I agree. Dr. Kaku's series on "scifi science" is intriguing and I think leaves the impression that ANYTHING is possible. I wonder if part of the loss of lustre in SF is the mere fact that science and technology is racing ahead at warp speed (sorry, couldn't resist), and we're living in a technologically overwhelming (in many ways) age. But I also see this as a failure of imagination - Heinlein was revolutionary because he was truly out-there, for his time. Where are the visionaries of the future today - and is it always dark?

  15. Kate - Thanks for the recs! I have Reeve and Coville on my TBR list, but I'm going to have to check out Pournelle! I've read his adult SF, and I didn't know he did MG!

    The dark YA dystopian stuff I think might be a reflection of the times - teens today came of age in the 9-11 era. This is not bad, though. I preferred my angsty teen stuff in the dystopian form as well.

    And you make a good point about having to be a rocket scientist to write SF! (ha! fortunately for me) Maybe it's the "hokiness" as you put it that puts people off? Oddly, I think this is true of the adults, but not the kids, who have no problem with hokey, and actually are the original founders of hoki-land. (just check out 3rd grade humor)

    Thanks for stopping by! I love it when teachers visit my blog!

  16. Here's a couple of good sci-fi for middle graders/YA:
    The Roar by Emma Clayton. A remarkbale and thought-provoking dystopian sci-fi book that kids LOVE. It's all the more remarkable because it's a debut novel! This book has garnered more comments on our Boys Read blog than any other. Check it out at http://jaja-cas.blogspot.com/2009/04/roar-by-emma-clayton.html and be sure to read the comments.
    Another good one is Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, the Uglies man. It's good for middle graders and young YA's. A good alternate-history story about WWI, with basis in history and science. Check out my review at