Flashback Friday: Down in the underground . . .

You’re a twelve year old boy who has spent your entire life so far living far underground, warned that the Earth’s surface is too toxic for your survival.  But you’re curious, so one day you decide to see the surface for yourself . ..

Do you remember:

City Under Ground by Suzanne Martel (Viking, c1964)

There’s a bit of story surrounding my relationship to this book.  You see, I’ve never actually read the whole book–didn’t even know what the title was until recently.  Back on January 5th, I was part of a panel discussing middle grade children’s science fiction (see more on that here).  We were all asked what books had inspired us as kids toward a love of science fiction.  I mentioned quite a few things, including my dad’s copy of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.  But it was what Jason Fry mentioned that really got my attention.

Jason Fry (author of the Jupiter Pirates series) brought up a short story he’d read during grade school about a future in which the people lived under ground and feared the surface was too toxic to support life.  He went on in later years to track down the actual book that the short story was from.  I was astonished, and delighted because I have clear memories of a short story in my grade school texts–the exact same story!  I loved it at the time and every so often wondered where the story was from and if there was more to it.  It was probably one of my earliest run ins with science fiction, and certainly my first exposure to post apocalyptic futures!  Imagine my astonishment to have an obscure story that I thought no one else knew be an inspiration point for the author on our panel!

The story was out of one of the old Houghton Mifflin Readers (I’m thinking it must have been either Signposts, Kaleidoscope, or Fiesta) and it stuck with me.

The story portion I read was about young Luke deciding to venture up to the surface, and how he’d observed things were green and growing again.  He risks going out on the surface to discover the Earth has healed from the past disasters.  The short section in our text ended with rain falling and Luke becoming alarmed by the sudden falling water and racing back inside, not able to understand what rain is.  That’s all of the story I’ve known.  But it looks like the story continues as Luke uncovers the fact that his people are not alone in the world, and there’s room to forge friendships with each other.

People have commented that the story is not exceedingly good or quality science fiction, but it seems to have struck a chord with a number of younger readers who encountered it.  If you check out the comments on Goodreads it’s easy to see that others encountered this in their youth and enjoyed the story.  For me?  It was part of my introduction to science fiction.  It’s part of the fabric of stories that helped define me.  Even just that snippet of the book has stuck with me all these years.

What does that tell me?  That we need to see kids exposed to genres and stories early on–give them a base of inspiration to draw from for their own reading futures.  If one short piece from a reading text book can have such staying power,  how much did all my other reading at the same age affect me?  Reading is not a passive act in which we simply let words roll by us.  Reading lets us absorb the story and the setting and think about it, weave it into our knowledge, use it for reflection and future comparisons.  It’s that powerful.

I’m going to have to find this book, of course, just to finally read through it to the end.  And maybe I’ll tuck it on my kid’s bookshelves–not saying anything about it, mind you.  But I’ll tuck it there amid many other titles, including my father’s old copy of Little Fuzzy.  And I’ll hope that my own growing readers will find their way into the worlds I loved as a child.

Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on January 18, 2015, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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