5 Misconceptions About Science Fiction for Kids
There are a lot of opinions, ideas and arguments about Science Fiction out there. I’m not going to try and tackle them all. But these five misconceptions are some I’ve run into quite often. Here’s my take on them.
“But aren’t SF and Fantasy the same thing?”
Science Fiction and Fantasy always seemed joined at the hip. Bookstores, libraries, movies . . . it’s always the SF/Fantasy section. What it really should be is the Speculative fiction section. It’s not that fans of one genre aren’t often fans of the other, but that many people think the terms are interchangeable. I’ll have parents ask “Do you have any Science Fiction books like Harry Potter?” Or, I’ll be recommending The True Meaning of Smekday to someone and be told “Oh, I don’t like fantasy.”
I’ve done genre definitions before. You can find my discussion on the differences here .
But for the sake of brevity, Fantasy is fictionalizing the impossible–things that could never happen. Science Fiction is fictionalizing the plausible, or possible–extrapolating from what we know to imagine what may be or could be created. You can mix the two and have both elements within a story, but the genres are not describing the same thing. Science fiction often includes things like technology, invention, future worlds, aliens, space travel, etc. Fantasy often includes things like talking animals, magic, mythological creatures, and alternate histories.
Despite that, it’s really hard to get non-genre audiences to think of these two as separate from each other. With my young patrons at the library I always try to make the distinction clear since it helps to narrow down what they might like to read.
“Science Fiction is all rockets, aliens and robots”
If you mention this genre to a non-fan, sooner or later you’ll probably hear some version of this idea. Every genre has a sort of “boilerplate” stereotype of what it’s supposed to be. It’s usually meant to dismiss the genre as a limited sphere of stories that doesn’t have a lot of variety to offer. Truth is, science fiction is limited only to what the writers can imagine might be possible.
It’s not that there aren’t robots in SF, it’s one of the elements that’s indicative of the genre, much as magic is of fantasy. But that doesn’t mean every science fiction story has those elements anymore than every fantasy story has unicorns.
Stories in SF come in all different types. You can have futuristic space adventures like Jupiter Pirates, SF whodunnits like Space Case, contemporary invention like The Fourteenth Goldfish, dystopian tales like The Giver, Post Apocalyptic fiction like Devil on My Back, Alien Invasions like The White Mountains and so on. What can you imagine a science fiction work to be? It’s likely someone out there has written it. If not, why aren’t you writing it?
Understanding the difference between the elements of a genre and the essence of the genre is a great way to approach any genre fiction, even one you don’t particularly care to read.
SF isn’t “real” or “quality” literature
This is an attitude that really affects all of genre fiction. In children’s literature you can see it in parents and teachers who turn up their noses at anything that isn’t historical or realistic fiction. Or who constantly want their children to read something “better” than genre fiction. There’s a perspective that genre fiction is some sort of junk food equivalent.
The thing is, “genre” is just a category. Because something fits a genre of writing doesn’t mean it can’t be good literature. General literature is only labelled such because it doesn’t really have a label beyond “fiction”. I’m not claiming that any genre is free of clunkers, lazy writing and just painful reads . . . but I’m a librarian. I read hundreds of books a year. There are always books like that.
Non-genre doesn’t guarantee excellence either. There are plenty of books to pan among those simply defined as fiction. Quality doesn’t come from a label or a category. It comes from something in the story and writing that is above average. It’s a “you know it when you read it” item. That’s why having librarians and reviews can help other readers discern books from the massive selection is so important. Don’t throw something in the “not worth it” pile simply because of its genre label.
I’ll point out that some of the most famous and beloved children’s classics out there would fall into genre labels: Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Don’t sell a book short. Kids can learn as much or more from these stories as any “realistic” fiction novel.
“Science Fiction is too complex a genre for kids”
This is actually an argument you’ll find postulated within the SF community itself. Since the 1980s there has been a noticeable drop in children’s SF and there’s been a lot of speculation why. One of the suggestions is that the genre falls more naturally into the young adult age range. And that since YA literature is now separate from the whole of chilren’s lit, that the SF is just naturally not available. The impression here is that a required amount of maturity is needed to broach the subject and genre–and that it doesn’t really happen until a reader is a young adult.
I just can’t buy this argument. Sure, most kids won’t be able to understand the basics of quantum physics or space travel. (Neither do most adults) But we don’t require kids to have a basic historical knowledge of a time and place in order to read fiction set in it. They don’t have to share experiences or knowledge with the characters in the story in order to enjoy it and begin to understand it. Of course it helps if the type of plot is one a kid will relate to. (My Robot Buddy, The Norby Chronicles, and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine) but this is a genre that is in no way off limits because of age. There are books that tackle more mature subjects and have older characters, of course. Heinlein’s juveniles are most certainly YA rather than middle grade, but that doesn’t mean children aren’t interested or capable of reading the genre.
There are science fiction picture books for Pete’s sake. And back in the 70s and 80s there were plenty of middle grade stories for kids. The notion that we can’t expose children to science fictional subjects can be a damaging misconception. For writers, publishers and readers to believe that science fiction is too complex for kids makes it harder to get new stories published for this age group, ultimately hurting the chances of new science fiction to hit the shelves for middle graders.
“Girls/Kids of color don’t like/read/watch Science Fiction”
This isn’t just a debate being had in kid’s SF. It’s part of a much bigger debate. Part of this is being had in all of children’s fiction, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Part of it is also taking place in adult SF . . . with a lot of controversy and argument going on. I don’t think the controversy is quite as marked with children’s SF, but this misconception is necessarily being challenged nonetheless.
A few weeks ago I was on a panel with Jason Fry, the author of Jupiter Pirates series. He described how in 4th grade audiences, he’ll get lots of questions from girls, but by sixth grade he’ll mostly get queries from boys while the girls drop out of the discussion. Peer pressure and societal expectation are powerful things. It takes a lot to go against the norm and the expected. Being of the female persuasion, I certainly noticed how my interest in SF was considered unusual. Back in the days before the Internet, I was mostly unaware that there were many other girls out there like me, tearing their way through anything labelled science fiction. It’s not always easy to find female protagonists in the middle grade stories, and the conviction that “girls don’t like SF” just means less stories get written and published that allow girls to see themselves as protagonists.
I’ve said before. Genre is just a label, and there is room in science fiction for all kinds of voices . .. and all kinds of readers. We need to cut the automatic assumption that girls aren’t science fiction readers, and perhaps look to show girls that they matter in the science fiction story universe.
Same happens with kids of color and different cultural backgrounds. The belief that kids who aren’t white won’t read the genre leads to less being written and published . . . vicious circle again.
I’m here to tell you it isn’t true. Science fiction isn’t limited to white male readers–and even when there aren’t many diverse choices, the readers are still there. But we, the reading public who are SF fans, we’d like to see that diversity in the genre. Hopefully, we’re beginning to see a change in these attitudes. From The True Meaning of Smekday, to Space Case, to Mars Evacuees, books and movies might finally be ready to share the message that this future world is for everyone.
So there you have it. What misconceptions have you run into? I’m all ears!
Posted on January 25, 2015, in General Posts and tagged Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, kidlit, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Multicultural, Reading, reviews, Science, Science Fiction, SF. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.