There may few folks who read this who haven’t heard of Steampunk. Even if you have heard of it chances are that you’re not sure what actually defines the subgenre, or your own definition of this subgenre won’t match another reader’s definition. Taking a tour through the internet to check out different lists of children’s steampunk, it can vary wildly what is considered to be steampunk.
So according to the web, what is this thing called steampunk?
From the Urban Dictionary: Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
The Wiki entry is much more detailed and inclusive: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art.
Up until fairly recently, there have been very few writers creating Steampunk stories for middle grade readers. This list contains a variety of stories that I think fit the Steampunk mold. Some of them blur the line between middle grade and YA a bit, but I considered them worth including.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Scholastic, c1869)
Long before anyone had even coined the term “science fiction” let alone “steampunk” there were writers creating their stories without any concern for what genre they might be. Jules Verne was a master of imaginative science fiction stories–all of them written with the knowledge available at that time in the 19th century. It’s can be debated that these classic works don’t necessarily count as steampunk, but they’re worth including as the forerunners all the same. Other titles by this author that fit here would include Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Round the Moon. Whether these are true middle grade stories is also debatable, but since several Verne books grace the shelves of my children’s floor, I think he’s worth including here.
Larklight by Philip Reeve (Bloomsbury, 2006)
This was my very first encounter with middle grade steampunk. I must admit I was quite excited to run across this Victorian outer-space adventure, even if I wasn’t quite certain how to label it. In our story, Arthur and his sister Myrtle live in a whimsical house called Larklight that orbits the earth. Sudden events send these two plucky children (pluck seems to be a fairly constant element of steampunk) out into the far reaches of space where they will encounter all sorts of creatures and people. A huge amount of fun and quirky Victorian optimism in one book! Reeve has two more in this particular series: Starcross (2007) and Mothstorm (2008). Philip Reeve also has written a young adult series that’s considered to be “post-apocalyptic steampunk”. The first title in that series is Mortal Engines (2001).
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, c2009)
Probably one of my favorite steampunk adventures. This one strays from the Victorian world and is set instead in an alternate early 20th century. Westerfeld is no slouch in the world-building department, and he pulls off the amazing feat of creating a world where a giant whale can be altered into an airship and much of Europe has large mechanized war machines. But it’s his characters that really make this story so sparkling! Detyn Sharp is disguised as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service, this is her first mission and she’s got to prove herself and keep her deception tightly in place. Alexandr is the potential heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. With enemies on every side, he’s on the run and quickly running out of options. This is the first story in a trilogy. The next two titles are Behemoth (2010) and Goliath (2011)
The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody (Knopf Books, 2011)
A mixture of science fiction, fantasy and time travel with a definite steampunk flare to it. Our protagonists slip in time from 1901 to present day New York City. Tommy Learner is the last unlikely heir of the Explorers –a group dedicated to exploring portals in time and space. But now something evil has set its sights on the Earth, and it’s up to Tommy and modern day New Yorker Jezebel to find a way to stop the Dead Gentleman and save their world.
The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (Green Willow, 2012)
This new series is a real mixture. It’s obviously historical fantasy (lots of fairy folk and the like, plenty of magic) , the time frame certainly feels about right for Victorian Britain, but it’s also got all the gears and technological wildness of steampunk. The marvelous clockwork bird on the cover should give that part away front and center. The story centers on the life of a changeling and a plot by the fey folk to change the balance of power in England. I really feel it’s a tad dark for middle grade, but given how it keeps being included in MG lists, it seemed worth including. The second book will be out this year, The Whatnot (Expected publication September 2013) and continues the story set up in the first novel.
The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby
Set in a fictional American city sometime during the industrial period. Three kids from different walks of life discover secrets that will change their lives forever. Alternate history with a good bit of steampunk robotics and great storytelling.
The Nine-Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis (Random House, 2009)
The first book in a trilogy of American industrial age steampunk mixed with folklore heroes come to life. In this book, it’s the villains with the clockwork and the machines threatening the people of the country. Twelve-year old Ray jumps a train and winds up travelling with a medicine show full of some very odd and specially gifted individuals. Ray soon discovers that they may hold the key to unlocking his past, and that he may be part of the fight for the future. The other books in The Clockwork Dark trilogy are The Wolf Tree (2010) and The White City (2011).
The Boneshaker by Kate Milford (Clarion, 2010)
An American small-town steampunk novel. Thirteen-year old Natalie Minks loves machines of all sorts, but when a strange medicine show with a shadowy purpose rolls into town, it’s going to be up to her to put a stop to it.
The Man in the Moon by William Joyce (Atheneum, 2011)
It might be a little far afield to call this true steampunk, but I thought it was worth sharing William Joyce here because his art and sensibilities have an aspect of “steampunkery” to them that it’s hard to miss. His Guardians series is an intriguing reworking of popular legends and figures of myth and story.
Now, I know a lot of lists include The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007) but I admit I can’t really remember anything steampunk about it–what is described in the book seems straight historical fiction rather than fabulous imagined inventions. Please feel free to state your own views on this below! I’ve also been careful to avoid YA stuff for this list for the most part–there are a heck of a lot more YA than Middle grade books in this genre, but I wanted to keep it confined to this age range.
Know of any books I should add? Please comment below!
Posted on July 18, 2013, in General Posts, Lists and tagged Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, Historical Fantasy, Lists, Middle-Grade Fiction, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.