I’m bringing back an old flashback for this one. Coming up on a hard anniversary this week and missing my dad. It immediately brought to mind a particular book, so I’m revisiting it tonight in memory of him.
You’re a prospector working on far distant alien world finding precious stones to sell and earn a profit. And then you encounter something small and fuzzy with big eyes and that stands on two feet and says “Yeek!” It isn’t long before you’re convinced the creature is intelligent, possibly a sentient native to the very planet. And that would spell big trouble if word got out . . .
Do you remember:
Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (Avon, 1962)
I’m fully aware that this book is not geared to middle grade readers. That said, I didn’t really pay attention to things like that growing up. Way back in my voracious reading youth, I didn’t always have the ability to snag books from the library. Sometimes I ran out. That’s when I often turned to fairy tales from my mother’s and father’s collections. Or some of the other classics they had collected. But my dad had one book that stood out for me. It was a rather worn looking paperback, not very thick. It had a silver haired guy on the cover holding some kind of gun . . . and a handful strange fur covered creatures with big eyes all holding what were clearly weapon like things of some sort. I was fascinated. I hadn’t read much science fiction yet, but I knew I liked the genre.
It’s rather hard to label this book even as YA given that all the human characters in the book are adults–though I sometimes like the fact that books back in this time weren’t quite so segregated by age. Fifth grade me sat down and read this book in its entirety and enjoyed the heck out it. It’s got some great classic SF tropes of humans traveling to other worlds, aliens and future technology. It’s main plot is not a gigantic battle in space or some kind of military fight, but a court battle over the rights to the planet itself. You read right. I fell in love with a book where a huge chunk of it involves a court battle.
Little Fuzzy takes place on the planet Zarathustra, a planet that’s been ruled to have no sentient life and therefore is ripe for plundering by the Zarathustra corporation. Jack Holloway is a sunstone prospector on the planet, blasting into mountains of stone to find the precious sunstone gems that glow when exposed to heat. If you’ve never read the book, here’s a quick description: Little Fuzzy takes place on the planet Zarathustra where Jack Holloway is a sunstone prospector. His life is about to change when Jack Holloway comes back to his home to encounter a little bipedal creature covered in fur. It’s a creature no one has ever seen before . . . and Jack becomes convinced quickly that this creature is intelligent. When a whole group of them show up on his doorstep (if you feed them Extee 3 they will come) Jack realizes that these beings use tools and are quick studies of how to operate everything in his home. He’s become convinced they’re more than mere animals . . . they’re sapient. That’s going to mean a world of hurt for the Zarathustra company if it’s proven true. The corporation has no obligations to protect the planet or explain their actions on the surface because it’s been determined there are no “natives” to contend with. And company execs are ready to do everything it takes to see that the Fuzzies never get declared as being sapient creatures. Jack Holloway is going to have a fight on his hands to protect his new friends.
Frankly, I’d happily drop this book in any middle grade reader who was a huge science fiction fan and up to the challenge. I’ve reread this tale every few years since and still have my father’s old dogeared, yellowing copy. Dad didn’t talk a lot about science fiction while I was growing up, but this book made it clear he did read it, and it helped turned me into a life long fan. It’s a great underdog story of the independent prospector and the rather helpless and cute aliens fighting the big-bad company. And winning. Jack Holloway is an every-man sort of likable. A bit of a curmudgeon and a loner, but with a huge soft spot. The Fuzzies are enchanting and lots of fun to discover along with Jack as he follows their antics. I will caution that there’s definitely some darker stuff in here too, so it’s not going to be a good fit for all kids.
H. Beam Piper also wrote Fuzzy Sapiens (1964) which continues the trials and tribulations of Fuzzy-human interactions directly from the time-line of the first book. I’ve read it through a few times, but it just doesn’t quite have the same qualities to it that won me to the original story. After his death, another manuscript was discovered and published titled Fuzzies and Other People (1984). This one also directly follows in the timeline and does some good towards redeeming a story that went downhill in the second book.
After Piper’s death in 1964, there were rumors of a third manuscript, but none surfaced immediately. Ace Books had William Tuning write Fuzzy Bones which continued the story after Fuzzy Sapiens. This was published in 1981, only to have Piper’s original third manuscript surface in 1984, rendering Tuning’s book oddly out of sync with the story. A second story was written by Ardath Mayhar: Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey (1982) which takes the story to the perspective of the Fuzzies themselves (who call themselves the Gashta) and how the human invasion of the planet looks from their perspective. In 2011 Wolfgang Diehr wrote two more sequels to Piper’s original trilogy, proving that even so many years later, this particular story still is in the minds of readers and writers.
I can’t say Piper’s science fiction is the best around. There are plenty of criticisms I can make about the slim volume based simply on how times have changed between then and now. But I wouldn’t have traded reading it when I did for anything. It’s still one of the pivotal early books of my science fiction reading. sort of a gateway book that hooked me on the genre. It set a pretty high standard for what I wanted to see in my stories, as well as setting me up to discover adult science fiction. Every few years I dust off my old copy and give it another read.
It still makes me smile. It makes me think of my dad, remembering him and think back to those days of swiping books from his shelves.
Science fiction fans out there, what was your gateway book? Please share!
A Tuesday Ten that takes a tour through some of the speculative fiction graphic novels coming out this year. I realized there have been quite a few graphics I’ve enjoyed this year, and a list would be appropriate.
Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson (Graphix, Expected Publication, August 2015)
Outer space trailer parks, space whale poop, sentient chickens. All take part in the science fiction space opera graphic about Violet Marlocke, a girl whose father has gone missing after he went on his latest harvesting mission. Violet isn’t about to let things be–she’s a rough and tumble girl from the wrong side of “town” who is about to drag her friends and family into an incredibly wild romp through space. This was tons of fun. It’s also one of only two science fiction graphics I found for the list!
Dragons Beware! by Rafael Rosado, illustrated by Jorge Aguirre (First Second, May 2015)
The second book in this series features our warrior in training, Claudette, determined to take on dragons. When an evil wizard invades, her father goes in search of the sword he left in the belly of a dragon. But he doesn’t return, and now Claudette must venture forth with her brother Gaston and best friend Marie. All sorts of talents and abilities will be needed in this sword and sorcery adventure–but there’s a happy ending for (almost) everyone.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (HarperCollins, May 2015)
Technically this tends to fall into the YA category, but I’ve read it and there’s no reason it shouldn’t also be loved by middle grade readers. For fantasy lovers, this is a brilliant and subversive comic about a shapeshifting girl who decides to become the sidekick to the local dark lord. This fantasy/science fiction/steampunk story is funny, dark, poignant, and occasionally exceptionally sweet. It has one of my favorite girl protagonists this year–even if she is the villain’s sidekick. A must read.
The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke (Papercutz, March 2015)
When a witch finds that modern times just don’t call for her particular nasty talents, she finally takes a job in a school cafeteria. But will her cover be blown by one blackmailing student? A graphic to satisfy those who prefer their humor dark and rather sardonic, their adventures gross and slimy and like to root for the (sort of) bad guys in the story.
Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by, Emily Carroll (Candlewick Press, Expected Publication August 2015)
Masha is in need of an adventure. Baba Yaga is in need of a new assistant. Masha figures that it’s the perfect opportunity for her. Even if most people don’t believe in the stories about Baba Yaga, Masha does. But in order to become the old witch’s assistant, she’ll have to pass a number of trials–trials that only a clever girl who knows her stories can pass! This charming adventure and family drama is surprisingly sweet, despite the wicked witch!
Hilo:The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick (Random House Books, Expected Publication September 2015)
D. J. and his friend Gina are just ordinary kids until Hilo crashes to earth from outerspace. Hilo doesn’t know where he came from or why he’s on earth, but he’s about to make their lives extraordinary. Especially since they just might have to save the world . . . This adventurous graphic, is getting a lot of buzz–I can’t wait to read it myself! I’m adding in the Neil Gaiman quote just because: “More giant robotic ants and people going ‘Aaaah!’ than in the complete works of Jane Austen”.
The Only Child by Guojing (Schwartz and Wade, Expected Publication, December 2015)
This stunning picture book graphic is a wordless adventure for all ages that’s being compared to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival in it’s beauty and elegance of storytelling. It’s stunning and powerful–and I can’t wait for copies to be out and available for gift-giving. A small girl follows a stag deep into the woods and on a magical journey . . . but how will she ultimately get back home again?
Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma (Nobrow Press, June 2015)
I’m finding I have an odd fondness for this mash up series that intertwines sports and dungeons and dragons style adventuring. Brutish Mug isn’t happy with his intern, Wiz Kid. Wiz Kid, who prefers magic and figuring things out to “smash and grab” isn’t happy with Mug. But they’re stuck with each other. And their latest assignment leads them into a tomb of an undead mummy–who challenges them to a game of hoops for their lives–and treasure if they win! Wild and wacky, this should appeal to tweens who enjoy a good romp. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what happens next!
Oddly Normal by Otis Frampton (Image Comics, March 2015)
This new serial comic features Oddly Normal, a girl whose part human, part witch and all frustrated with her life. She hates school and hates that she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere–not even with her own parents. But when a 10th birthday wish turns real, and her parents vanish, Oddly is left in the care of her Auntie who takes her to the world of Fignation to keep her safe. Now living in the the world her mother came from, Oddly finds that she is having as much trouble fitting in among the fantastic as she had in the more mundane world. A decent school-focused fantasy storyline, but the first volume is fairly short, so you’ll be looking for more of the story very quickly!
The Kurdles by Robert Goodin (Fantographics, April 2015)
This oversized graphic novel about a teddy bear named Sally who is separated from her family who discovers the strange residents of a place called Kurdleton. They promise to help her get home if she can help them with a bizarre problem–their home is covered in hair. A strange but charming adventure that I think works pretty well if you have a taste for the bizarre. Robert Goodin has worked as an animator for such shows as American Dad and Rugrats. This is his debut graphic novel.
For good measure, I’ve got one extra, that’s not speculative fiction, but is too amazing to not mention.
This is the fifth installment of Nathan Hale’s nonfiction graphic novels series. Each book tackles an event or person in history. All of them have been excellent. But this one–this is his best to date. Hale’s graphic story transforms Tubman into someone we admire and wonder at. After reading this, you begin to really understand why she’s so prominent in our history of the underground railroad and slavery. Drop this into the hands of even reluctant readers and you may soon have a history buff on your hands.
So there’s my list! Please share your own favorites below and let’s make this a great resource for this year’s graphics!
Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (Random House, May 2015)
You know, if someone had told me that I’d fall head over heels in love with funny books for young readers in science fiction and fantasy this year, I’d have not believed them. See, while I can appreciate funny and subversive speculative fiction for kids, a lot of it just doesn’t hit my funny bone and satisfy my desire for a good story in one delicious whole. After the slam dunk fantasy Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon earlier this year, I figured I had come out ahead with one book that managed to turn me into a fan. Little did I know that Cakes in Space was lurking in the background, just waiting for the right moment to grab my attention!
In this future space adventure, young Astra’s family is moving to a whole new planet. The catch? That planet is 199 years of travel away, so Astra and her family will be in cold sleep for the trip, only to wake when they arrive. But Astra wants a snack before her snooze and when she makes a request of the ship’s cooking computers, she sets in place a chain of events that will ultimately cause trouble. When a malfunction with her pod causes Astra to wake one hundred years early from her sleep, she discovers the ship is alarmingly off course . . . and there are ferocious, sentient cakes trying to eat her! It’s up to Astra, her robot friend Pilbeam to stop them, keep the ship safe from spoon stealing aliens and get their mission back on track! Wild and wacky fun with a solid dose of science fiction! Perfect for younger readers and reluctant readers. Sarah McIntyre’s engaging illustrations weave through the text and add to the story, creating clever visuals of the the characters, the setting and the technology. Should I be disturbed that she’s so good at drawing malicious cakes with teeth?
I’ve read a whole armful of humorous science fiction for kids in my time. A lot of what’s out there is super-duper silly to the point that the science fiction part gets lost in the mix. The lightweight, Jetson’s approach to the future is often utilized, where the trappings of science fiction are just that–trappings. Kids reading these books will come away with a few impressions of aliens and spaceships and not much else. And Cakes in Space could have gone that route. It didn’t. Philip Reeve introduces readers to oodles of science fiction concepts: cold-sleep, robotic assistants, shuttles from earth to spacecraft, sending humans to colonize planets, food synthesizers, how to move in zero gravity, etc. Or just look at these gorgeous sentences: “The shuttle sped past the space stations that hung like chandeliers above the bright curve of the Earth, with little transport ships flitting between them.” and “It swung past the huge, stripy face of Jupiter, picking up a little extra speed as the huge planet’s gravity caught it and then flung it onward into the dark . . .” They make the science fiction fan in me leap for joy, because this is the kind of writing that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place.
Not that I should be surprised by this, of course, this is Philip Reeve after all, the author who created the Larklight Trilogy and the Hungry City Chronicles both of which manage to handle the science fictional aspects quite smoothly. It’s still impressive for Philip Reeve to deliver whip-smart science fiction in an entertaining package for a younger set of readers.
Oh, and it’s funny. Spoon-stealing aliens, evolving scary cakes funny. The humor isn’t the typical slapstick jokes or gross stuff, but instead a tongue in cheek romp through the galaxy. And while the reading age on this books skews younger, the humor is sophisticated enough to appeal to a broader audience, potentially making it an excellent choice for reading aloud. Astra is a young heroine with a lot of guts and determination. When she finds out the ship is in trouble she’s off to solve it and get help. We first get to experience the science fiction setting through Astra’s eyes, which is useful. As she’s experiencing it, and having key concepts explained or introduced, readers are also learning about these concepts. Thus we get a simple explanation of cold-sleep and why her family will use it to travel to their new home. Without super powers or special talents, Astra still helps save the day and get the ship safely where it needs to go. For added note, Sarah McIntyre’s illustrations make it clear Astra’s part of a biracial family, putting this in the very small–but growing–group of science fiction books for kids that feature diverse main characters.
My one small complaint has to do with the fact that I don’t think it’s ever explained why Astra’s pod malfunctions when no one else’s does. It’s a small thing, all in all, but something that seems convenience rather than explainable plot point. That said, this is a marvelous read, a great science fiction romp, and just the kind of thing to entice new and reluctant readers to give the genre a try!
Check out the book trailer here: