A Tuesday Ten: Science Fiction in Picture Books

Science fiction–it’s not just for chapter books!   They may only make up a sliver of picture book titles, but there are still a fair number of them.  A great way to share this genre with the younger audiences.  I’ve done lists of these before, but just for fun I want to revisit the topic.


Alistair’s Time Machine by Marilyn Sadler (Simon and Schuster, 1986)

Marilyn Sadler’s Alistair series is sadly out of print, but these wild stories of a very ordered “boy of science” are charming and remembered fondly by many readers.  Two of the stories were featured on Reading Rainbow episodes.   Alistair is a very intelligent and pragmatic sort of boy to send on adventures.  He’s also a rare protagonist in glasses!


June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner (Clarion 1992)

This author/illustrator is well known for the strange, the bizarre and the surreal.  But this particular story features a science project that may–or may not–have gone awry! Our young scientist has sent vegetable plants up in balloons to study the affect of higher atmosphere.  But are the giant plants that land back down on her town results of her experiment gone horribly wrong or something more extraterrestrial?


Company’s Coming by Arthur Yorinks  (Knopf, 1988)

An utterly charming read about a suburban couple expecting company . . . who wind up with some outer space visitors they didn’t anticipate.  But kindness and spaghetti will win the day.  A great story for kids whether or not they love science fiction!  Don’t miss the author’s other SF books: Tomatoes from Mars, and  Company’s Going .  


Robot Zot! by John Sciezka, illustrated by David Shannon  (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Alien invades earth kitchen! There’s adventure, danger, romance–all the things Zot is looking for.  The illustrations magnify the hilarity of this over-the-top alien’s invasion.  A great read aloud for youngsters just beginning to learn about science fiction.


Mars Needs Moms by Berkeley Breathed (Philomel, 2007)

A funny picture book that inspired a not so great movie. Breathed’s vocabulary rich story about a boy who has to rescue his mom from aliens who have kidnapped her is pretty fantastical–but still qualifies as science fiction.  And it’s rare enough we feature moms in SF at all!


The Everything Machine by Matt Novak (Roaring Brook Press, 2009)

An apt fable of a planet where a  machine does everything for the people of the community . . . until the day it breaks down and people learn how to do for themselves.  Even when the repairman comes to fix the machine, the residents have learned a pointed lesson.  A great book to inspire discussion and debate.



Jack and the Night Visitors by Pat Schories (Front Street, 2006)

A wordless story of a young boy and his dog (Jack) and an alien encounter.   The boy tries to capture the aliens to keep them, but the aliens are not interested in staying.  Nicely told through images, and a genuinely charming little book.


Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, 2010)

Girl builds giant robot for science project.  Robot  promptly goes on a rampage!  This is a classic sort of science runs amok plot, with lots of action adventure styling for kids.  Great to see a girl scientist in this plot line.  There’s a second book featuring our science adventuress on another adventure: Oh No! Not Again! (Or How I Built a Time Machine To Save History) (Or at Least My History Grade).


Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner (Clarion, 2013)

Yes, there are two Wiesner books on this list. I won’t apologize for that. This Newbery Honor is another wordless story by the author.  Aliens have come to earth–bug sized aliens.  And their spaceship has been damaged by a terrifying cat–the so titled Mr. Wuffles.  The aliens find friendship and forge alliances with the bugs of the household who help them repair their ship.  A charming case of close encounters that is classic Wiesner.


What Faust Saw by Matt Ottley (Dutton Juvenile, 1995)

There sure are a lot of pets encountering aliens!  This poor dog witnesses aliens landing and skulking about everywhere, but his barking only angers the family into being annoyed with their pet.  The aliens play an elaborate game of hide and seek with Faust causing the beleaguered hound no end of trouble!

I’ve two other Tuesday Ten lists of SF picture books you can find here:

More Picture Book Science Fiction

Even More Science Fiction Picture Books!

Comments welcome!



Back to the Labyrinth: Revisiting my Post on the 30th anniversary of the Movie

So . . . last December I wrote a small piece on a movie from my childhood.  Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.  It went viral, which I never expected.  Between the news of David Bowie’s death (stop it 2016–really) and  the 30th anniversary celebration with the movie back in theaters, it has stayed on my mind.  So I’m reposting it, with a few proofreading fixes.  And a bit more added on at the end.  I hope you will enjoy this trip back in time to the 1980s, and remember the power that stories can have for us all.

“You Have No Power Over Me” : Why the Movie Labyrinth Matters

I was a kid of the 1980s.  I was a SF/Fantasy loving kid who ate up movies and books with the full glee of a kid creating their pop culture references for the first time.  I was there to watch Elliot lay a trail of Reeses Pieces for E.T.   I was there to sob as Artax was swallowed in the pits of Despair (quick edit!  It’s actually the Swamps of Sadness as a commentator pointed out–the Pits of Despair is indeed from the Princess Bride).   It was Inigo Montoya I invoked whenever I picked up a toy sword.  I watched The Navigator, Explorers, Legend, the Dark Crystal, Ghostbusters . . . the list goes on.   And then, there was Labyrinth (1986).

Labyrinth was the first movie I ever saw in the theaters without an adult.  My best friend and I went to see it for my birthday and dined on huge tubs of popcorn, gigantic cups of Cherry Coke and nachos with hot cheese. (movie food was cheaper back then).   It’s remained an unforgettable experience. We oohed and ahhed at the Henson puppetry and Froud artistry.  We delighted in David Bowie’s pop songs and his crazy wardrobe choices.  We watched and cheered for the the heroine to solve the Labyrinth and bring her brother home even with everything set against her.  If I had to pick a highlight of that year, that’d be near the top.  My best friend and I loved the movie so much that it became a tradition.  Every year on my birthday,  we’d rent it from the video store and settle down with bacon burgers and more Cherry Coke and chocolate ice cream to enjoy it again.  I’ve had copies of the music on cassette and CD.  I’ve owned a copy of the movie since I got my own apartment.

Thing is, this isn’t a movie that won a lot of acclaim or attention when it first came out.  It was a box office disappointment for Henson, and the last feature film he ever made.  That didn’t matter much to me as a kid, and as an adult I still enjoy the movie.  No matter how many people may see it as just a silly fantasy movie.  Labyrinth has achieved a “cult” following since the 80s, often regarded warmly but with a certain feeling of having to defend that regard and justify it.   I mean, there are a lot of things to criticize about the movie, David Bowie’s err . . . pants, the lack of other female characters, some rather dated special effects.

As neat as it was, the rock battle really didn’t quite feel convincing.

But lately I was thinking about the SF/F movies I watched from that time.

E.T.,  Legend, The Princess Bride, Explorers, Goonies, The Navigator, The Neverending Story, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek Movies, even Star Wars,  . . .

None of them have a female character as the main protagonist.

Out of all the live-action SF/Fantasy movies for kids in the 1980s,  only one movie I’ve found decided to feature a female character as the main heroic lead.


Suddenly it seems a bit more than a lightweight 80s fantasy.

Other than Labyrinth, if you look at most of the female characters in these movies, we have roles like the Childlike Empress, the broken-hearted  Buttercup, The romantic interest, the cute kid sister, the trouble maker, the tag-along friend, the clueless mother, or one of many princesses in need of rescue.  They’re not all bad roles, and some of them are quite entertaining, but there wasn’t an option to be something else. (There are some exceptions, mind you, but none of them are the heroes of their story.)

Let’s take a look at what happens in this movie:

(Spoiler warning, discussing the plot below!)

In Labyrinth we meet Sarah, a conflicted and selfish teenager who would rather live in daydreams and her toy-filled childhood than really mature. She resents her baby brother and dislikes babysitting him.  She’s also going to be the hero of this movie. But she’s not ready to be the hero yet.

Sarah is a character with agency.  It’s her choices and her words that create the crisis in this movie.  At this point Sarah has no notion how powerful her words can be.  She wishes the goblins take away her brother–and they do.  Wish granted.

When the Goblin King, the mysterious and splendiferous spectacle that is David Bowie as Jareth, appears in the nursery, Sarah doesn’t cower  or cry.  She asks for her brother back. Jareth offers her attractive bribes and dark threats of magic to try and deter her, but she refuses to be corrupted or cowed. she’s determined to go on a quest to win her brother back.  It’s the hero’s quest of course, and Sarah takes it on without a question that it’s hers to do–she doesn’t look around for someone else to do it for her.

Sarah is not a fully formed hero–she’s still feeling sorry for herself, using false bravado and not asking the right questions.  But she’ll get there.

Our hero, like so many on these quests, collects a motley crew of characters to travel with her.  Many will help her, some will betray her.  Sarah grows and learns through her quest.  It’s a true coming of age story.

The villain tries to thwart her again and again– going so far as to capture her in dreams of a masquerade ball in which she is the beautiful “princess” in a fantastical dress and he is the mysterious suitor who has eyes only for her.  All this glitz and glamour and fairy-tale enchantment reflects Sarah’s own dreams and fantasies.  It’s meant to be a very pretty trap.  But Sarah doesn’t fall for it.   She rejects the magic and glamor. And she rejects Jareth as handsome suitor.

By the time we reach the final confrontations, she has lost interest in feeling sorry for herself and is confident, determined and ready to do whatever it takes to reach the castle.  She’s intent on her goal, all the way to the point where she WILL FACE THE VILLAIN ALONE.

The villain’s final ploy is that he confronts her, tries to intimidate her and then promises her anything she wants–if she’ll just let him win.  “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. ”  Our trickster thinks he’s offering a tempting prize, but Sarah has had the words with her all along break this final enchantment:”You have no power over me.”



This is why I love this movie despite it’s flaws.  Sarah’s story was one I could grab hold of.   I could be the hero for real.

You have no power over me.

I can be the hero who takes responsibility and goes on the quest and survives all the challenges.

I can say these words in my own life, my real life.

You have no power over me.


I can’t see this movie as silly or unimportant ever again. Jim Henson did groundbreaking work in so many ways, and this is just one more brilliant example.

Folks, if you can find a kids SF/F movie from the 1980s that has a main female protagonist, please let me know.  Because other than Labyrinth, the only two I can think of  are animated movies.  The Secret of NIMH ( Mrs. Frisby is a a widowed mouse and a mother who is on a quest to save her family.) and The Last Unicorn (The unicorn, sometimes human woman, is questing to find the other unicorns).  I’m very happy to know if there are others I simply forgot to consider.


Looking back at this post, I’m still very happy with it.  But I decided to write a bit more about it

 I love the fact that despite this being a movie with a female heroine,  it plays with concepts that we’d consider “girly” and outright rejects putting Sarah in some kind of sparkly pink magic rainbow world.  Sarah’s quest is magical, but it is also dark and creepy and fantastic.  Viewers catch on mighty quick that Sarah’s journey isn’t going to be light and fluffy.  Consider the fairies outside the Labyrinth.  In true Froud fashion they are lovely, and ethereal . . . and they bite, hard.  Fairies aren’t wish granters in this story, they’re pests.  Oubliettes.  A machine full of metal blades.   “Oh but wait!” you might say. “There’s a costume ball!” There is indeed.  One that not only screams TRAP! very loudly, but despite it’s attempt at beauty is very, very creepy.  Sarah may be suddenly sparkly and in a dress out of a fantasy, but it feels wrong, overblown, unnatural.  The Goblin King may be doing what he can to distract her and enchant her, but Sarah isn’t looking for escape now–and she doesn’t want the little girl dreams, she wants agency.

The second part of the trap is really a demonstration of how far Sarah has come.  She lands in the junkyard where she’s lured to a room where everything is just as it is in her own bedroom.  All her things.  All the stuff she’d clung to.  The trick is to bind her completely to her pile of possessions, making her one of the junkyard denizens with all of her possessions weighing her down.  Instead, with only a slight reminder, she realizes the truth.  That her possessions mean nothing next to her brother, next to the thing she’s fighting for.  She violently refuses to be bound by them.  The hurling of her music box at the wall is a sudden and satisfying bit of violence.  She’s no longer chained by past memories and the escape they offer.  She’s ready and willing to fight.

From this point on, no matter what he does, the Goblin King has already lost.  Every act he takes is desperate, and mirrored against Sarah’s newfound maturity he seems smaller, and more petulant. Which brings me back again to the words.

“You have no power over me.”

They are words to remember, to savor and use.  They are the words of a hero and a person with agency.  And yes, they come from a 1980s fantasy movie.

So this Sunday, I’m back in the theater.  With my best friend. We’re a little–okay a lot–older.  Life’s shaken us up more than once.  We’ve got silver in our hair and children of our own.  But our eleven-year-old selves will be sitting in that theater with us and sharing our popcorn.  And we’ll keep that movie in our hearts, and keep those words with us through our years ahead.  For everyone needs some magic in their lives.  And stories are the best kind of magic.

A Tuesday Ten: Speculative Middle Grade Characters: Ten Girls Every Reader Should Meet

This list is purely subjective of course.  And it’s purely of the moment.  I invite all my readers to add their own titles to this list.  But I thought it’d be fun to introduce some of my favorite female protagonists over the years.


Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Florence Lamborn (Puffin, c1945)

I’ll kick the list off with this red-haired gal from Sweden.  Pippi  is outrageous, wildly nonconformist and an affront to right thinking adults everywhere.  This super-strong little girl is not only capable of living on her own with her horse and monkey, she insists on it.  Watching Pippi interact with the more staid society around her leads to hilarious results.  She really is one of the first female superheroes of literature.   Re-reading this book with my son, as a parent I find myself wincing at many things in this story–but those are some of the very things that make the story so magical and delightful for children.



Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (HMH, c1990)

Cimorene is anything but a proper princess.  She wants to learn how to cook, and do magic, and fight with a sword.  But her parents simply want her to marry a very dull prince as a proper princess should.  So Cimorene runs away and makes a deal with a dragon.  She’ll be the dragon’s princess if the dragon will keep away the princes and let her do all the unproper stuff she wants.  I added the Trina Schart Hyman cover here because it so beautifully captures the Cimorene  (not sweet or elegant) and her relationship with the dragon.  Lots of fun with fairytales turned on their heads.  Check out the rest of the series if you enjoy this one!



The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow (HarperCollins, c1900)

It’s easy to forget, given it’s age and weight as a classic that this story contains one of the more forthright and impressive adventurers who’s ever crossed into a fairyland.  Farm girl Dorothy mostly takes things in stride–from her quest to find the wizard, to her show down with the witch, and to her final journey home again.  Think about how rare this was at the time to have a girl in that role (and not a princess).   Then realize that unlike the movie, Dorothy’s journey was no dream, and she’ll return to Oz many more times throughout her life on other adventures.  Baum’s extended series of books set in Oz don’t always feature Dorothy, but she’s an enjoyable character when she does appear.


The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion, c2007)

When the aliens invaded earth and Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s mom is taken away aboard an alien ship, Tip is left on her own.  So she does what any self-reliant tween does heads out to steal a hovercar and find her mother–oh, and maybe save Earth from yet another alien invasion in the process.  A fun and funny narrator, Tip makes this story of aliens come to life with hilarious observations and crazy shenanigans.  In the end it’s a darned good SF story too.


Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum, 1983)

Anyone who knows me by now probably has some notion that this series is bound to land on a list like this.  Seriously, Alanna changed my life.  This twin who disguised herself as a boy to become a knight, then  goes on to prove herself and become a champion to the kingdom, well, up until then I’d never seen a female character in a sword and sorcery story succeed as hero by being the warrior.  Alanna is a stubborn, hot-tempered gal who wants things her way–even if that way is a challenge.  Her struggles to both succeed as a fighter and to figure out how to accept herself formed the backbone of my fantasy reading as a tween.


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, c2009)

Minli is a poor girl who works hard to survive each day with her family, but she loves her father’s fantastic stories that he shares with her.  Stories of magic and adventure and strange places.  When she sets a goldfish free, she doesn’t imagine it will send her on a quest far from home.  Along the way she will meet and befriend different creatures, and have to use her wits to win.  Combining ancient Chinese myths with a girl’s magical adventure story, this is a fantastic read aloud to share with your family.


Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, c1986)

I could hardly have this list without including Sophie.  Poor, elder sister Sophie who is told her life will be the dullest since she is the eldest.  A girl who is quiet and has mostly accepted her lot in life, until she is cursed.  In a case of mistaken identity, Sophie is cursed by a witch and turned into an old woman.  Horrified by this, and not wanting to face her family,  Sophie decides to seek out the nefarious wizard Howl.  Being old gives Sophie a new latch on life, and she embraces the chance to be as stubborn and cantankerous as she wants.  Sophie has a magic all her own, and with it she might cause the wizard Howl to lose his life . . . or might be his one chance at saving it.


Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (HarperCollins,  2015)

Alice Dare is being sent to Mars with a shipload of other children so that they may be kept safe and train to one day fight the aliens that have invaded Earth.  When all the adults on Mars go missing, there’s soon trouble–and Alice and her friends find themselves on the run out in the not-so-friendly Martian terrain.  Alice is wry and funny  as she tells her story about how she and her friends wind up bringing about a peace with the alien invaders and saving both races from an even greater threat.  Hilarious SF adventure with several great female characters to cheer on!


The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Young Readers, Expected Publication April 2015)

Corinne La Mer is a fearless and strong-hearted girl living on an island in the Caribbean.  Unlike so many others, she’s not afraid to venture into the dark forest.  At least she wasn’t until a Jumbie followed her out!  Now that Jumbie has designs on her father and on the village, and Corinne must come to accept her own lineage and decide where her loyalties lie.  In the end that decision is not so simple.  This spooky fantasy tale won me over the first time I read it, I hope others will enjoy discovering Corinne much as I did.


The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (HarperTrophy, c2003)

If you’ve never encountered Tiffany Aching, I hope you will soon at your next opportunity.  A girl of intelligence, determination and heart, Tiffany finds herself to be the hero of the story, even if others don’t want to acknowledge it.  This is just the first book in an ongoing series about Tiffany and her journey from girlhood to womanhood and becoming a witch.  Sir Terry handles it all brilliantly in my opinion. “Yes! I’m me! I am careful and logical and I look up things I don’t understand! When I hear people use the wrong words, I get edgy! I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string! That’s the kind of person I am!”

So there you have it!  Please share your favorites in the comments!