John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Children's Science Fiction

What Science Fiction & Fantasy books would you read to children?

This is kind of a hard question to answer because the boundaries of the genre called Science Fiction simply does not apply to the kind of books children tend to like.

For example, is ON BEYOND ZEBRA by Dr. Seuss a science fiction story? It has a conceit more imaginative than anything I have read outside the pages of VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by Lindsay: namely, what if there were an additional alphabet, an undiscovered alphabet, beyond the boundaries of the alphabet we know. The idea is just as whimsical and imaginative as the conceit for Scott Westefeld’s MIDNIGHTERS, which asks what if there were an additional hour hidden in the crack of midnight that only certain people could enter. For that matter, how is the conceit of HORTON HEARS A WHO all that different from GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM by Ray Cummings?

DOCTOR DOLITTLE’S ADVENTURES by Hugh Lofting or TREASURE ISLAND by Robert Louis Stephenson are equally beloved children’s books, even though, if we were to define SFF strictly, the veterinarian who speaks to animals is a fantasy element, his flight to the moon is a science fiction element, whereas a one-legged pirate seeking buried treasure has nothing science-fictional about it.

For children, all stories are stories, and the spice of fantasy flavors all of them. A tale about a runaway boy and an escaped slave rafting down the wide Mississippi is no less fantastic or romantic than a tale about a hobbit being hired as a burglar by a throng of dwarfs and trooping off toward the Lonely Mountain.

Keeping in mind the limitation that all children literature has that sense of wonder we grown ups expect from Science Fiction, let us try nonetheless to answer the question.

First, much depends on the age and maturity of the child involved.

For older children, let me recommend most strongly the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. My personal favorite is VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, which I just finished reading to the kids yesterday (at the time of this writing). My life would be poorer if my five year old did not know about Reepicheep and his bravery and courtesy. Had they never seen the silvery sea at the edge of the world, overgrown with lilies, they would have missed a wonder. Since my children are Christians, they are delighted rather than disgusted to recognize Jesus dressed in a pantomime lion suit: and the points the author makes are both profound and very artfully inserted. At no point is there anything trite or trivial or condescending toward the younger reader.

Next, this recommendation will come as a surprise, but I strongly suggest reading THE GAMMAGE CUP by Carol Kendall. This was a favorite of mine when I was young, and I was surprised to discover, rereading it as an adult, how much better it is than my other remembered youthful favorites. It is parable about conformity, but also an adventure tale and a romance. I was surprised at how strongly I loved Walter the Earl, when I read about him once again, for example. Walter is a crackpot antiquarian who finds a cache of magic swords beneath his house, and dresses in plumes and armor when everyone else is dressed in sensible drabs, and he calls on all to remember the battles and glories of the by-gone years. So I should not have been surprised: by growing up, I have sort of turned into him.

Another surprise was VOYAGE TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET by Eleanor Cameron. I remembered adoring these books when I was a child, but upon rereading them, I found them flat, unimaginative, and even dull, and my children likewise. I am not sure why: the idea of the story, that children build a spaceship at the behest of a mysterious munchkin genius named Mr. Bass, is a delightful idea.

If all you know about Oz is the movie, you are in for a pleasant revelation. THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ by L. Frank Baum and its sequels are a joy to read. Since they were written back when books were decent, there is nothing to shock or offend in any of them. They are as full of whimsy and eccentricity as children’s books should be, but the characters, with the exception of the vain Glass Cat, are trustworthy, honest and nice. The R. John Neill illustrations are what make the books live in my imagination for me: I would never read any version which lacked them. Strangely, the first book in the series, WIZARD OF OZ, is actually the weakest and least well written of the lot. I would skip it and start with the second book. Due to my children’s prodding, I also bought other L. Frank Baum books, which are almost forgotten today except by truly devout Baum fans, such as SEA FAIRIES, and SKY ISLAND, and QUEEN ZIXI OF IX. Baum invented the art later perfected by Stan Lee of Marvel Comic, of having his characters from one tale make cameo appearances, or become regular cast members, of another tale.

WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN by Alan Garner was too scary for my children. If yours are a little older or braver, you should try this one, and its sequel MOON OF GOMRATH.

I want to read LORD OF THE RINGS or THE HOBBIT to the kids, but I am waiting for them to be a little older. I certainly do not want them to see the Jackson movies first, lest their imaginations be filled with Jackson’s picture of characters like Aragorn, who, as we all know, looks nothing like Vitto Morgenstern. Also, the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher is on my list of books to try to read, THE WHITE MOUNTAINS, POOL OF FIRE, and CITY OF GOLD AND LEAD.

I have attempted twice to read a Tom Swift Jr. book to my young 'uns, TOM SWIFT AND HIS FLYING LAB and TOM SWIFT AND HIS JETMARINE, but the kids don't seem that enthusied. Again, maybe the spies and superscience type mystery stories is not their cup of tea. Any fan of JOHNNY QUEST should be a fan of Tom Swift Jr: they are practically the same story.

For younger children, I would recommend reading Dr. Seuss books, all but one, for the selfish reason that, if you are a grown-up reading to a child get used to reading and rereading the same book dozens and scores of times. Every book will pall after so many repetitions to jaded adult tastes, except for Dr. Seuss, who remains consistently delightful and whimsical and serious time and again.

My personal favorites are CAT IN THE HAT COMES BACK, which is almost Escher-like, I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW, which is almost Jack Vancian, and of course I delight in the ones that are mere flights of fancy, IF I RAN THE ZOO and SCRAMBLED EGGS SUPER and ON BEYOND ZEBRA and DR. SEUSS’ SLEEP BOOK. We read HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU every year on each birthday, solemnly using the very book grandmother read to mother when she was a child.

The one Dr. Seuss book I cannot stand is the BUTTER BATTLE BOOK, which is a thinly-disguised apologetic for Soviet dictatorship, trying to teach kiddies Carterian cowardice in the face of an arms race. I wonder what the men of Eastern Europe think now of Theodore Geisel, or of any other Western intellectual, who did his best to undermine the efforts to free them. I wonder what the ghosts of all the cruelly slain in unquiet in unmarked mass graves outside Soviet gulags think of someone who painted the difference between Freedom and Totalitarianism to be as trivial as the wars of Lilliput and Blefuscu. It were better to read Patrick Henry to a child, then to teach them such cynicism at so young an age.

THE LORAX is equally as poisonous, but there are not tens of millions of dead people insulted by it, so I can stand it enough to read it. However, I tell my kids the moral of the story is that industrialists who do not husband their resources go out of business as they deserve to; and the point of the seed at the end is to grow more Truffula trees so that the child with the seed can grow up to be the next Onceler, and manufacture Thneeds, which is something everyone needs.

What about Harry Potter? The wife and I read the first and part of the second books to our wee ones, but honestly, some parts are too scary. Harry turns into a bit of a whiner by the last two books, and I am reluctant to let my children enter into the normal hero-worship which Albus Dumbledore evokes, not if someone later on in their lives is going to tell them he is a lavender sort of mage. The attempt to make sexual perversion look normal will be hard enough to combat as my children age, without letting an agent of the forces of darkness in through the postern gate merely because he is dressed in a pointy hat and cracks a few witty jokes. Nonetheless, when the kids are a little older, I would still like them to read some of these books. I feel about Hermione and Harry and Ron the same way I feel about Reepicheep: my kid’s lives will be poorer for not having known them.

Here is what Orson Scott Card says about Harry Potter:

A story so powerful, a book so brilliant in its artistry that it has made readers out of a famously illiterate generation and struck terror in the hearts of the elite of the writing profession.

Month after month the Harry Potter books rode the top of the New York Times bestseller list. As each new book in the series appeared, it joined the others, so that the first, second, and third positions were often occupied by Harry Potter.

The American literary elite was so mortified by having the lists dominated by a children's book series that they kicked it off the NY Times list entirely, putting the Harry Potter books on a new "children's" bestseller list -- a childish, cowardly, mean-spirited move that would have discredited the NY Times list if not for the fact that it was already a joke.

What infuriates the literati? Oh, they talk about how Harry Potter is just a fad, how children's books aren't "literature," how these books are proof that English-language readers are even dumber than they thought.

But the truth is, in fact, the opposite. Unlike Pokemon or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Harry Potter movement is reader-driven. Kids who thought they hated to read because they had hated everything anybody tried to make them read in school suddenly became avid readers of big thick books that were extraordinarily demanding, not just in vocabulary and syntax and culture, but in moral reasoning and character development.

Harry Potter is making a generation of children smarter and better.

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