Sci-Fi for Kids Is a Missed Publishing Opportunity

From Publishers Weekly:

While taking a class on fantasy literature in graduate school, I had the idea to go to a local elementary school where a friend worked and count the books in the library to see how many fantasy titles there were. It turns out there were plenty of fantasy books, but my attention was caught by a different genre’s absence: there were barely any science fiction books. I wondered why, and I ended up pursuing the answer for years. I looked at school libraries in almost every region of the U.S., surveyed teachers and librarians, recorded readings with children, and of course read lots and lots of books. Science fiction for children, I discovered, is full of contradictions.

When I looked at very different libraries all across the country, I saw the same low supply of science fiction that I had observed in that first elementary school library, but I also saw a high demand for it. In each library, only about 3% of the books were science fiction. I expected to see a corresponding low number of checkouts. Instead, the records showed that science fiction books were getting checked out more often per book than other genres. While realistic fiction books were checked out, on average, one to three times per book and fantasy books were checked out three to four times per book, science fiction books’ checkout numbers were as high as six times per book. These libraries may not have many science fiction books available, but the children seem to compensate by collectively checking out the available books more often.

The librarians were just as surprised as I was. Library software doesn’t keep track of each book’s genre, and so librarians have no easy way of knowing that science fiction books are being checked out so often. Librarians are, however, aware that there isn’t much science fiction available. There just aren’t as many choices as there are for other genres.

My research has led me to believe that this shortage of science fiction exists simply because adults assume that children don’t want it. There are several larger cultural reasons for why adults find it easy to assume that kids won’t like science fiction. In short, adults often associate children with nature and innocence rather than science and experience, and this bleeds into what adults think children like.

Author Jon Scieszka once told me that his editor asked him to reduce the science in his science fiction Frank Einstein series because it would be off-putting for kids (Scieszka refused). An indie publisher informed me that it doesn’t acquire many science fiction books—even good submissions—because it expects low sales simply due to the combination of genre and target audience. If no adults think that children like science fiction, then no one makes it, no one sells it, and no one buys it because adults are in charge of these processes.

. . . .

Even though, based on my data, children seem to like science fiction, that doesn’t mean they are immune to the stereotypes that adults indirectly teach them about it. Because of the way it is avoided, children may not know that they like science fiction. Indeed, many of the most frequently checked-out science fiction books in school libraries—such as Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series and the Lego Star Wars novels—are often marketed primarily as something else, like adventure or humor.

. . . .

Not long ago, many adults (including professional educators) assumed that children preferred fiction to nonfiction. Around the turn of the 21st century, researchers began investigating the books taught and available in classrooms and found that teachers were avoiding nonfiction—especially science books. Yet when children were asked what genres they wanted, they were highly interested in nonfiction. Following these discoveries, nonfiction has been added to widespread curriculum guidelines and seen greater demand from educators. Publishers have met this demand with increasingly high-quality nonfiction books.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

25 thoughts on “Sci-Fi for Kids Is a Missed Publishing Opportunity”

  1. I read hundreds of books, mostly science fiction, starting in volume during the third grade. Walters, Christopher, Heinlein (I remember pointedly skipping _Podkayne of Mars_ for reasons I no longer remember).

    • Probably for the best, Michael. “Podkayne” was, in my opinion, the weakest of the “juveniles.” Arguably not even in that category – all others were basically “triumph over obstacles,” whereas “Podkayne” was only misery after events she had no control over. (In the original draft, before editorial conniptions, she was to die at the end, from emotional foolishness. Phaugh!)

  2. Right diagnosis, wrong prescription.

    The Golden Age of SF is twelve.

    https://quoteinvestigator.com/2020/10/14/golden-age/

    Any adult who doesn’t understand this doesn’t understand SF.

    SF is about instilling a sense of wonder in tbe reader. In both senses of the word; awe, and curiosity. Kids get it. Adults who don’t understand the genre don’t get it and never will. Which is sad because unlike the pre-STAR WARS era, SF is no longer a subculture but a big part of the mainstream. SF&F combined are, as of 2018, the most watched genres on NETFLIX, even if most of tbe originals are far from tbe best.

    The demand for SF books in libraries *is* a big lost opportunity but not for children’s books, as a good portion of the pre-60’s SF was by design family friendly in today’s parlance. (And the Heinlein “juveniles” belong on every school’s reading list along with Verne.) Much of today’s best follows that lead. None talk down to kids; instead they challenge them. And kids respond and rise to the challenge.

    The nature of the genre is such that on first exposure young readers’ kneejerk reaction is “more!”
    Lucky kids will find a library with at least some. However, focusing on “SF for kids” is condescending to the kids. And counterproductive.

    Kids are smarter than that and they see better on video. 20th Century TREK, STARGATE, 21st Century LOST IN SPACE, most CW DC shows, even tbe Marvel movies…

    By the time they see SF books, they are past “kid books”.

  3. The problem isn’t with authors; there’s a long, loooong tradition of early-stage science fiction authors (not all, by any means!) writing younger-oriented works. Or with librarians, who more than anything else love anything that gets kids reading. Or with the editorial staffs at commercial publishers, who tend to care only if it’s good… and were, themselves, science fiction fans at a young age, back during the late Cretaceous.†

    It’s with the sales-and-marketing staffs (who get themselves promoted to capital-P Publisher in corporate hierarchies ahead of experienced editorial personnel) who are convinced that science fiction doesn’t sell without adult protagonists… and that pre-high-school readers prefer protagonists in their own age group… and therefore science fiction won’t sell to pre-high-school readers. (This is a group of people that has never actually looked at the audience at a Star Wars film premiere. Like for the second one, at which at least a third of the audience was school-aged.)

    I wish this was just conjecture. There’s a lot more than just sarcastic distrust of the marketing memes in commercial publishing. OK, there’s plenty of that too, but there’s a lot of other support for it…

    † I was a teenaged Trekkie, before the first movie came out. Now get off my lawn, you young whippersnappers!

    • Which is funny considering the “family friendly” restrictions were imposed on autbors because SF was supposed to be kid stuff until the late 60’s. A certain anthology kinda rubbed it in…

      • The problem was not with that certain anthology; or when it was done, umm, Again. It was with the sales-and-marketing demand that everything thereafter for a while had to conform to it. Harlan specifically did not want everything to imitate his version; he wanted diversity, variation, etc., as the intro to DV makes quite clear.

        It’s a problem that continues today; just look at how “urban fantasy” exploded and sort-of evolved from its recognition as a separate subcategory, and then look at who did the ‘splody bits. Hint: It didn’t come out of editorial.

    • I am perhaps atypical – but MY Golden Age for SF came when I was between 7 and 9. Trek, Lost in Space, Twilight Zone, Sci-Fi Theatre every Saturday morning (right after Bugs Bunny hour, in my local area)…

      Reading was of the Trinity – Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke. Occasional forays into Van Vogt, Sturgeon, etc. But I also enjoyed Danny Dunn, Miss Pickerell, etc. that were geared to “my” age group.

      Good to know, though, that I could probably come sit on your porch with a decent bourbon, and not be chased off.

  4. There are several larger cultural reasons for why adults find it easy to assume that kids won’t like science fiction.

    This makes no sense. At all. I’m to believe that kids simultaneously love Star Wars, but hate science fiction (well, science fantasy)? In my childhood we had: JEM, He-Man, She-Ra, Voltron, the Little Prince, Robotech, and many other cartoons I’m blanking on. A friend and her mom introduced me to Star Trek. Kids today are all over sci-fi anime and video games. I’m struggling to understand how it’s possible to see the kids like sci-fi in literally ever other media, but somehow think they hate it when it’s between the covers of a book.

    Golden Age of sci fi is twelve? For me that’s only because I didn’t know it existed in book form until a friend had me read her copy of “A Wrinkle in Time,” which I thought was a one-off, a rarity in books. Then she had me read her copy of a Piers Anthony novel, which signaled that no, sci-fi really does “come in books” (said the same way the Hobbits said “it comes in pints?!” when discussing beer).

    Do the librarians just not know any kids? Last Christmas I gave my youngest nephew “Redwall” because he told me he was reading a book about a rat on a space station. He’s apparently into rodents right now.

    I’ve seen mention of “Heinlein juveniles” before, so I checked and it looks like Baen has issued them in paperback. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep the reading addiction going; God knows the schools aren’t going to help on that front. Useless.

    • Today the “Golden Age” might be as low as nine, but in the 60’s/70’s it was about right. 12-14 as the link says. You were no laggard. Discovering SF is still hit or miss.

      As for Heinlein…
      Top five:
      HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL – They keep threatening to make a movie, but…
      TUNNEL IN THE SKY
      TIME FOR THE STARS
      THE STAR BEAST
      CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY

      https://minerva.fandom.com/wiki/Heinlein_Juveniles#:~:text=Heinlein%20Juveniles%201%20On%20The%20Main%20Sequence.%20These,Between%20the%20Juvies%20and%20With%20Other%20Work.%20

      Heinlein admitted formula for juveniles: make the protagonist young, write as normal. 🙂

      If you missed out on those, you may have missed out on Asimov’s DAVID STARR/LUCKY STARR series. It was meant for a TV show in the 50’s. Didn’t work out.
      Good series, albeit a bit inconsistent: it starts out in his Galactic Millieau but ends up in a 50 worlds setting as a sort of prequel to CAVES OF STEEL.

      There really has never been a shortage of SF for kids. Not in books and not in comics. Not with DC having Edmund Hamilton and the Binders in tbeir stable, doing stuff like STRANGE ADVENTURES, TOMMY TOMORROW, and LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES which endures to this day.

      Maybe today’s BPHs have missed the memo but others haven’t:

      https://www.baen.com/study-guides

      Yup.
      Baen, of course, offers up free study guides for teachers and librarians and a few “young adult” titles in addition to the classics and Heinlein books. And they correctly include BEYOND THIS HORIZON as middle school and higher. That was *my* gateway to Heinlein at 14. After that, STARSHIP TROOPERS and the SFBC.

      No missed opportunities at BAEN.

      • Felix, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the “study guides.” All too often, being required to read something turns off people, particularly kids, to an entire genre (or, worse, to reading anything).

        • Ambivalent is fine but most of those titles are top much fun for kids to drsg tbeir feet. Plus there’s no CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED version to cheat with.

          (At least they’re trying to get their books into schools.)

      • I was in third grade when I gave up on the children’s section in the library, and forged my mother’s signature on a form that let me access the adult section of the library. I read all kinds of SF, but I don’t think I ever read anything with a kid as the protagonist.

  5. Heinlein admitted formula for juveniles: make the protagonist young, write as normal.

    That is exactly how I think the better kids books are written, so this is a selling point in using Heinlein for my Get Kids to Enjoy Reading scheme.

    To clarify one point, I was in middle school when I discovered sci-fi books, so I was technically on time. I just would have read them sooner if I had known about them. When my friend showed me “A Wrinkle in Time” I felt wistful because I thought it was a one of a kind book, since I only knew sci-fi in the visual media and video games.

    The Baen teacher guide is cool. Excellent for help in choosing future presents and care packages 🙂

    • I’m older, but I had the same gateway. Our excellent 5th grade teacher read a Wrinkle in Time to us over a period of several days and I never looked back from there. That gave me 3-4 years of runway on what was then available in stores in SFF, and then Tolkien hit the scene, with his hard-core stands-the-test-of time-and-adult-education resonating world building (which I liked even better as a window on knowledge I could learn than the actual plot, good as it was).

      Fun times, fun times. I’m a writer today (after a long career detour) because of Tolkien and his interest in dead languages and the Matter of Britain (and elsewhere).

    • It is hard for kids today *not* getting exposed to SF.
      It is finding the good stuff that is the challenge.
      The biggest problem, still, is teaching kids the joys of reading for entertainment.

  6. I remember Danny Dunn, Miss Pickerell, The Mushroom Planet, Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, Matthew Looney’s Voyage to Earth… as well as the John Christopher trilogies and others that get mentioned more often. I think these – except maybe the J. Christopher books – were aimed a bit younger. Looking back they seem more accessible to a younger reader. What are the modern equivalents, if any? Most I think – Danny Dunn was, last I checked – are out of print, except the first couple Mushroom Planet books and John Christopher’s books. Andre Norton had some books aimed younger, too, although she either didn’t write them when I was the target age, or I didn’t notice them until I was at least mid-teen.

    I was looking for stories, that’s all.
    Not all of Heinlein has aged well. I bounced hard last time I picked one up, and the kid didn’t care for any on our shelves.

    • Well, Danny Dunn is (mostly) still in print – even in Kindle (right now, 25% off on many titles!)

      Snoopy question – which Heinlein title did you “bounce hard” from? Was it the premise, or the change in cultural assumptions? (I can easily see “build a nuclear rocket, go to the Moon, and foil a Nazi plot” to be a real yawner to a modern reader. On the other hand, I can still reread “Citizen of the Galaxy” and find new things to think about – at 62.)

        • “The Star Beast.” Not the best, nor the worst. Perfectly understandable – tastes change as we grow (hopefully, they also grow), as we are exposed to a ever wider variety. If your tastes have gravitated to a more literary style, or more complex plots – well, that was not RAH’s forte. His was geared towards getting the beer money (or the comic book money).

          I do recall that this particular juvenile was one in which he was involved in a rather “vigorous” debate with his editor (see “Grumbles From the Grave”) – whether that affected the quality of the final product, however, is something that I can’t say.

  7. A few weeks ago, I resolved to write some SciFi stories for the 12 and under set precisely because few are available. The ones that have been published recently tend to focus on Earth-based settings, not the Space Adventures I read as a youngster. The demand is there, if authors are willing to fill it.

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