Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Children's SF

Entry updated 13 March 2023. Tagged: Theme.

For there to exist a term designating a category of fiction written for children, it was necessary to invent a category of human designated as children. "In medieval society, the idea [more properly "feeling"] of childhood did not exist", Philippe Ariès (1914-1984) claimed in L'Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l'Ancien Régime (1960; trans Robert Baldick as Centuries of Childhood 1962). Although this famous over-bald assertion was soon challenged, it remains hard securely to identify any significant transactions between an inchoate pre-birth of the concept of addressable pre-adults, and books designated at the time of publication as having been written for this cohort or market; certainly before (say) 1744, when the publisher John Newbery (1713-1767) founded the first firm specifically to trade in children's books. There are of course generic exceptions, mainly comprising tales conceived for "infants": fairy tales, nursery rhymes, primers, etc. Categories of this sort, inventively delineated in annotative bibliographies like The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books 1566-1940 and 1476-1910 (1958 and 1975 2vols), point to a wide range of material and aim; it might be noted that the Osborne Collection checklists describe few titles from before 1700, many of them in Latin, and most seemingly translations of Aesop; the first English text of any importance notated is Geoffrey Chaucer's A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1561 chap). What may be the first original English-language fairy tale, The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for His Small Stature Surnamed, King Arthurs Dwarfe (1621 chap) probably by Richard Johnson (1573-1659), which was clearly not crafted for children, climaxes in Tom's visit to Gargantua (see Great and Small; François Rabelais); nineteenth century versions are bowdlerized for children.

The picture does not soon become less tangled; and it is not within the remit of this encyclopedia to extract problematic exempla from the maze of children's literature in general over the centuries, or to add to the long discourse on the history of distinctions among categories of non-adult humans, though it seems clear that adult stories containing elements of the fantastic, and Proto SF in general, have been particularly prone to retroactive diminution (in every sense) into texts "suitable" for non-adults (a term very variously applicable: Alexander the Great began to earn his soubriquet as a teenager). For many decades, some of the greatest texts of Proto SF were extensively recast and re-presented to accord to variously-motivated definitions of what was fit for non-adults. The most glaring example of this process may be Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (1726 2vols) [see entry for full title and vts; see also Gulliver], but many other titles were subjected to similar derogations, one further example out of a wide field of choice being Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751 2vols; cut for children 1839 2vols). That this was arguably part and parcel of a sustained infantilization of the fantastic in the seventeenth and eighteenth century UK is, again, a marker of the kaleidoscopic complexities of definition and designation even before a magazine-driven commodified proliferation of genres towards the end of nineteenth century.

Fiction designed and marketed for children seems to have began to appear in significant numbers after the middle of the eighteenth century, and Children's Sf – texts understood from the get-go to be sf designed for children – becomes a term that might be recognized, if not perhaps much used, about a century later. Under this broad-church terminological umbrella, several entries in this encyclopedia discuss genres and specific texts written for children, with very little attention paid to pre-twentieth-century texts repurposed, sometimes many decades after first publication, usually in mangled form, as being fit for children to read, as noted above. (For the depiction of children in sf, as distinguished from sf for children, see Children in SF.) Relevant subaltern entries in this encyclopedia, which deal with specific instances of the complicated story of Children's Sf after 1850, include Airship Boys, Airplane Boys, Boys' Papers, Dime Novels, Edisonade, Juvenile Series, Lost Races, Radio Boys and – centrally – Young Adult, a term used here mostly for titles published after around 1960, and touching on authors like Robert A Heinlein, Andre Norton, Alan E Nourse, who are treated in this encyclopedia as authors of juvenile sf as well as adult sf. "Juvenile sf" in general is discussed under the Young Adult remit, and distinctions between juvenile sf and young-adult sf are suggested, with juvenile sf understood as roughly coterminous with the period and mind-set of the Golden Age of SF, and young adult sf as taking shape around 1960.

After the beginning of the nineteenth century, fewer new texts seem to have suffered retrofitting and purgation for children. Though the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) were initially marketed for adults (to employ dangerously loaded language), but could in later decades be found in children's sections of circulating libraries, their texts remained relatively untouched. It is, on the other hand, more difficult to locate the initial market placement (again, anachronistic language) of the generically rather various adventure tales of an author like Captain Frederick Marryat [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. But from a relatively early point in his career the novels of the slightly later R M Ballantyne were designated as tales for boys. By around 1850 (or so), sf stories explicitly directed to boys and (rather less often) to girls began to appear, distinguished (with less or greater subtlety) from fairy stories and other publications for "infants". But it seems moderately clear that late nineteenth century publishers of children's fiction were insecure as to the nature of their audience, or how to signal the contents of their offerings (an insecurity complicated by a cultural propensity – not fully purged 150 years later – to treat any non-mimetic tale as non-adult). Richard Jefferies's Wood Magic (1881) was released in an austerely unillustrated, pricy two-volume edition. The UK and American editions of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) [US title], two adult titles uneasily perceived as such in the 1880s, were released in a format more or less exactly replicated in the first editions of Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), which was determinedly written for children (probably boys): unlike most fiction marketed for adults in this period, all three titles are heavily illustrated, Yankee's 200 or so coquettishly satirical illustrations exhibiting an almost hysterical campaign to address an undefined audience.

This distortingly obtuse lack of definitional focus can perhaps best be illustrated from the long publication history of the famous Voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne, fifty-four novels published between 1863 and 1905, which were largely marketed in translation as "stories for boys", though almost none of these adventures featured significant roles for boys (or girls). Much of Verne's work, especially towards the dark end of his career, was in any case deeply child-unfriendly; in a reversal of the cultural pattern of earlier centuries, Verne only began to treated as an author of "serious" adult fiction long after the publication of his work. None of the sf of major writers of the late nineteenth century seems in fact to have been published without some ambivalence as to the age-group addressed, with the exception of H G Wells, whose early Scientific Romances were marketed without any attempts to "place" them for younger readers, and almost totally lacking in interior illustrations.

Over and above simplicity of telling, avoidance of Sex or undue violence or oaths, adventures tales for boys (certainly in the UK) observed a powerful if unwritten ban on any transgressive treatment of empire (see Imperialism; Taboo). The latter prohibition, conspicuously honoured in the large oeuvre of G A Henty (1832-1902) and his cohort, intriguingly interacts with the nakedly exposed imperialist grammar that governs the huge array of Lost Race novels published (mostly) over the second half of the nineteenth century. Again, publishers' intentions are not always easily deciphered; and there is no clear sense as to how important young readers were to the marketing of Lost World fiction. It is in any case difficult to judge how individual tales for boys might be deemed suitable or not for boys (girls again almost certainly were not thought of as potential readers): the endemic racism of the Lost Race novel might not normally have been seen as problematic (or even noticed), but the explicit sexual focus on female rulers, on their attempts to seduce white men, and on their sacrilegious use of Religion to dupe and torture their people, all threatened to go beyond the permissible. H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) could be read by boys; She (1886) (see She) perhaps not.

Similarly likely to be told for boys were the early shilling shockers in the UK and Dime Novels in America, though any examination of surviving titles suggests that many of them – an example being the large number of stories about Billy the Kid – were not written with children in mind. It was not long, however, before Boys' Papers specifically directed to male children, and with a strong sf content, came along, the most famous being the Frank Reade Library between 1892 and 1898, followed by such Juvenile Series as Roy Rockwood's The Great Marvel Series, between 1906 and 1935, many titles being sf, and Victor Appleton's Tom Swift stories, most of these tales or episodes being largely dedicated to the themes of the Lost World, Future War and Inventions (see also Edisonade). L Frank Baum, writer of the celebrated Oz books, wrote an early work in the latter category – The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale (1901) .

By the end of the nineteenth century, inspired by developmental psychologists like Stanley G Hall, children/adolescents were thought of as proper (and differing) subjects for study. The market for children's fiction in general began to proliferate and subdivide, creating complex definitional patterns that have lasted into the twenty-first century. In this encyclopedia, fiction seemingly designed for children eleven and under is covered very selectively; picture books – relatively few of them being sf – are generally ignored. Full entries do appear, all the same, for titles whose ideal readers, in some views (not necessarily ours), are younger children. Examples include the 1927-1958 Freddy the Pig sequence by Walter R Brooks, several of whose later volumes combine Beast Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] with sf devices; the relatively rare sf excursions, from 1927 to 1955, of the hugely prolific Enid Blyton; the hallucinatedly bizarre Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928) by Hugh Lofting and other titles; the Professor Branestawm books by Norman Hunter, beginning with The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (1933), all featuring the ridiculous adventures of the eponymous eccentric scientist (see Mad Scientist); the minor children's classic My Friend Mr Leakey (coll of linked stories 1937) by the biologist J B S Haldane, a fantasy combining elements of magic and sf; and the quirkily humorous Uncle stories by J P Martin, shunned by UK publishers in the 1930s but generating a cult following when finally published in the 1960s. The seven Narnia books by C S Lewis, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and ending with The Last Battle (1956) – a better known series ostensibly for younger children but with a wide range of natural readers – essentially commingles religious allegory with Fantasy, but contain such sf elements as Parallel Worlds and Time Travel.

The nature and range of attraction of these series point to the difficulty of properly sorting a high proportion of texts written from the last years of the nineteenth century until now, and which are here for convenience designated Children's Sf. In the end it seems very clear that there is in fact little generic purity in children's literature; that the most intensely and widely read tales are designed for children but not only children to read; and that the greatest works for children are normally marked by a ruthless indifference to generic boundaries or "purity". So manifest is this refusal of many of the best authors to adhere to most of the categories that encyclopedias are (it might be argued) designed to promulgate that it might almost be preferable in this encyclopedia to refer not to Children's Sf or fantasy but to Children's Fantastika. In any case, the most famous examples of tales indifferent to rules are perhaps J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols); T H White's Arthurian cycle, eventually assembled as The Once and Future King (1958); C S Lewis's Narnia sequence (cited above); Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence (1965-1977) in five volumes; Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea sequence (1968-2002), main series in five volumes; Terry Pratchett's Discworld sequence (1983-2013), main series in forty volumes; Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials sequences (1995-current) in five volumes; the Harry Potter sequence (1997-2007), main sequence in seven volumes, by J K Rowling (1965-    ). It should be noted as well that, with the possible exception of Harry Potter, none of these works – some of the most widely read books on the planet – have ever been convincingly described as Young Adult, with the possible exception of Earthsea. They are listed in this entry, but not focused upon in te Young Adult entry, with that in mind.

There do remain some useful categories to engage with [though see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below under Water Margins]. Much children's fantasy contains clearly identifiable sf elements, and conversely much Children's Sf is written with a disregard for scientific accuracy, whether from hauteur or from ignorance, which effectively renders it fantastic, with its most distinguished practitioners routinely embedding sf elements into rich crypto-generic mixes. It might indeed be suggested that Children's Sf might be defined as comprising multiply-sourced fictions with an sf coloration. The list above of world-famous authors of seminal series describable in these terms can be augmented almost indefinitely: examples include Joan Aiken, Suzanne Collins, Alan Garner, Frances Hardinge, Diana Wynne Jones, Tanith Lee, Patricia A McKillip, William Mayne. One general example may suffice: Mayne's Earthfasts sequence, begins with Earthfasts (1966) in which an eighteenth-century drummer boy emerges from the ground to be met by a sceptical, scientifically inclined present-day youth; in the end, the ontological distress felt throughout the rural confines of the series turns out to have been emanated by a distressed Alien from the Far Future.

Time Travel, which is congenial to being described in very soft sf terms, has long been an important theme in children's literature, going back at least as far as The Cuckoo Clock (1877) by Mrs Mary Molesworth (1839-1921), and continuing to the present day, through A Traveller in Time (1939) by Alison Uttley (1884-1976), several of the Green Knowe stories by Lucy Boston (1892-1990) and, perhaps the greatest of such novels, Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce; this latter is the moving and subtle story of a boy who travels back in time, always to slightly more recent periods, to find the nineteenth-century child with whom he falls in love growing older, and away from him; finally, in an overwhelming surprise ending, she meets him in the present day.

A key theme in children's sf is Magic, and several important children's works are discussed in that entry. Sometimes the magic is given a kind of pseudoscientific rationale, with talk of dimensional gates and so on, as in Andre Norton's many Witch World books, some of which are among her best work; e.g., Warlock of the Witch World (1967) (see Young Adult for her earlier work). Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), have combined sf and fantasy by making her magic obey such rigorous laws that it may be seen as a kind of Imaginary Science; it adheres, for example, to the law of conservation of energy.

When we turn to Hard SF outside its natural home (see again Young Adult for Hard Sf's flourishing in America), most work for children has been less distinguished. Carl Claudy's Adventures in the Unknown sequence in five volumes (1933-1934) contains powerful and distressingly vivid material (and his boy protagonists suddenly become full-grown men part way through); A M Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (17 February-21 April 1934 Scoops as "Space"; 1937) is vigorous though often scientifically absurd. W E Johns, besides giving his air-pilot hero Biggles an outright sf adventure in Biggles Hits the Trail (1935), wrote a separate sf series beginning with Kings of Space: A Story of Interplanetary Adventure (1954) and continuing into the 1960s; E C Eliott's Kemlo space adventures, beginning with Kemlo and the Crazy Planet (1954), spanned the same period and had some popularity. Further 1950s contributions include Frank Hampson's classic comic strip of space adventure, Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future (from 1950), Angus MacVicar's Lost Planet sequence opening with The Lost Planet (1953) and William F Temple's Martin Magnus tales opening with Martin Magnus, Planet Rover (1954).

A more recent writer, Robert C O'Brien, wrote two distinguished sf works for children. The witty and sympathetic Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), about experimental rats which have developed super-Intelligence, is for younger children, and in the talking-animal line is preferred by some aficionados to Richard Adams's more celebrated Watership Down (1972). O'Brien's Z for Zachariah (1975) is a Post-Holocaust novel for older children; humane, touching and sometimes frightening.

Certain sf themes crop up again and again in recent sf for adolescents, though there has also been a marked rise in tales whose Equipoisal jostling of various earlier genres and topoi marks the increasingly booby-trapped world of the twenty-first century, where sf and mythopoeisis may cohabit. For examples see Young Adult. Work of this sort evokes an earlier story pattern in Children's Sf that has appealed strongly to children: tales focusing initially on children's sense of weakness and entrapment in a world where they are by and large subject to adult control, an immurement subsequently eased through intimations of an inner superiority – and sensitivity – that may be available to them. Typically psi powers (from within) are seen as opposed, and morally preferable, to scientific and technological powers (from without). Much of Theodore Sturgeon's oeuvre, particularly perhaps The Dreaming Jewels (1950) and More Than Human (fixup 1953), can be read as a complex expression of this child-focused vision. The theme of adult control informs Sylvia Waugh's Ormingat Trilogy opening with Space Race (2000), where children of Alien observers on Earth are torn between their identification as human and the parental expectation that they will gladly "return" to an unknown planetary "home".

An increasing number of authors with insecure sf credentials are being given entries in this encyclopedia. This reflects the elimination of space restrictions through online publication, with such works as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, opening with The Bad Beginning (1999), fitting comfortably within our growing sense that the future of children's fiction encompasses, and is enriched by, work like this: a wryly fantasticated, extremely knowing Gothic series presented as children's fiction but conspicuously aimed at anyone who reads. It might be suggested that in the twenty-first century anyone who reads is increasingly likely to read anything. The future of Children's Sf does not lie in the direction of purity. [JC/DRL/PN]

further reading

see also: Carnegie Medal.


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies