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Monday 28 October 2002

The Chronicles that Count: Children’s Literature That Really is for Adults

by David Soyka

I grew up in the Space Age, when the Free World (meaning the U.S.) sought to defeat the Evil Empire (meaning the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc) by getting to the Moon first (which we did, though it wasn’t itself sufficient to get the Ruskies to stick their hands up in surrender). This meant I drank a lot of Tang, a god awful orange drink confection originally invented for consumption by weightless astronauts in cramped quarters but marketed to earthbound kids as a modern way to drink tasteless fake OJ. It also meant that I read anything that had anything to do about space travel. Some of which was also tasteless.

An example of which was a series of juvenile novels featuring the adventures of intrepid Space Cadet Mike Mars and his pals, a sort of Hardy Boys in outer space, which my school chum Randall was quick to make fun of. "You call that junk science fiction," he sneered at me after I had delivered an oral book report to our fifth grade class on my cherished space saga. Then he tossed me a dog-eared Bantam paperback that featured a big orange circle on a white cover. "Read this. This is real science fiction."

The book was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

Now at the time I didn't know that this loosely linked collection of short stories about Earth’s colonization of Mars and the consequent destruction of the original inhabitants was a parable about the nascent nuclear arms race. I didn’t even realize that it wasn’t really science fiction at all, but fabulist allegory — Bradbury couldn’t care less about whether there really were canals on Mars or how rockets actually worked. I just thought it was a cool bunch of stories about the future and going to another world. And the future is where I wanted to go, if only because in the future I'd be out of fifth grade.

Well, I’ve gone pretty far into the future since then. Not only am I now living in the 21st century, when Bradbury and a few other folk thought we might actually be on the Red Planet by now, but my own daughter is in fifth grade. I think she’s vaguely aware that people have been on the Moon, and that every now and then people still circle around the Earth for some reason or another. And while what space travel there is in her pre-adolescent Zeitgeist involves fighting an Evil Empire, it is headed by Darth Vader, not Khrushchev.

So what’s she reading these days?

Harry Potter, of course.

Now, it’s hip in some circles to knock the Harry Potter phenomenon, a not surprising backlash that assumes anything so hugely popular can’t be any good. I happen to like the books. I liked them before they became so successful and, despite the movie commercialization and associated marketing, still recommend them. Unlike the Goosebumps fad of a few years ago, I don’t think parents have to be the least bit embarrassed about the subject matter with the apologetic excuse, "At least it gets them reading." They can even take heart that their kids are reading something well-written and humorous that manages to provide sufficient variations on the same theme (Harry encounters an evil entity shrouded in a mystery that must be solved; in the process of overcoming, or at least thwarting, evil, Harry takes an incremental step towards greater maturity) to not only captivate their attention, but sparks their own imaginations.

That said, however, I can’t help but point out that I’ve read The Martian Chronicles, Senator, and Harry Potter is no Martian Chronicles.

The crucial difference is that Harry Potter is clearly targeted to a Young Adult audience, the controversy over its categorization as adult fiction on such industry yardsticks as The New York Times Best Seller List notwithstanding. J.K. Rowling’s popularity can be attributed to how well she gets into the head of someone growing up. The Martian Chronicles, on the other hand, is about how the human race needs to grow up. Adults who read the Harry Potter books are engaging in nostalgia; The Martian Chronicles, though written over half-century ago, envisioned a 21st century that, its archaic view of technology notwithstanding, is still very much about our times.

As an adult, you can enjoy Harry Potter in remembering your own trials and frustrations in attempting to survive adolescence. Where it falls short, I think, is that it doesn’t really come to grips with the great adult themes of Good vs. Evil in anything more than a superficial way. Compare, for example, the vastly more sophisticated His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, which I think would be unfathomable to younger Potter fans. And for all of Rowling’s talk about killing off a character in Volume 4 because readers have to come to grips with the harsh realities of evil, that it turns out to be a relatively minor character makes me think this is more marketing than literary inspiration.

What I think might prevent the Harry Potter series from becoming a classic work is that it doesn’t rise much above the level of a "good read." Don’t get me wrong, if we limited our reading to only the classics and those with the potential to be classics we’d have a lot of spare time on our hands. A lot of highly creative work goes into writing a "good read." Where I think The Martian Chronicles qualifies as a children’s classic, in contrast, is how it introduces children to the adult world in ways that (unlike Pullman’s aforementioned wonderful trilogy) are accessible to younger readers. Which is the whole point of fable, anyway.

Having read (and, in many cases, re-read) the Harry Potter books, where is the younger reader inspired to go next while waiting for the next volume? Well, as any number of bookseller retailing displays will point you, there’s a whole slew of related (some would say more original) fantasies, ranging from Jane Yolen’s Wizard's Hall to the Chrestomanci novels by Diana Wynne Jones. And, of course, there are also the plays of Shakespeare in which various fairies, witches, tempests, and fantastical coincidences frequent. But Rowling's books themselves don't point you there.

Unlike Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles. As a young reader, this was my gateway to authors named Poe and Baum and Hawthorne and Bierce. Maybe I didn’t go out and read them immediately, but a story such as "Usher II" and its only half whimsical Society for the Prevention of Fantasy at least made me aware of them, a type of education I certainly wasn’t getting via my fifth grade curriculum. So even if I didn’t entirely understand the references, I was exposed to them. And even if I didn’t understand the larger allegory and was primarily reacting to the literal level of the story, the seeds were planted to grow in later years. Which is also the whole point of fables.

In keeping the family tradition of buying a cool book for my daughter at the start of each school year (starting with Winnie-the-Pooh in first grade), the selection for fifth grade was a hardbound edition of The Martian Chronicles. I’d been planning on this almost since she was born.

So, what does a kid who’s read the Harry Potter books innumerable times, and repeatedly replayed the audio and video versions, think of Ray Bradbury’s book?

Well, er... she hasn’t quite finished it. If you ask her, she’ll tell you how much she likes it, but I think that has more to do with her knowing of my enthusiasm for the book and that she doesn’t want to disappoint me. After all, she’s growing up in the Harry Potter Age, not the Space Age, and some of Bradbury's space allegory doesn’t immediately connect with her. Which is not such a bad thing. The current war cries to invade Iraq and our post-9/11 loss of our sense of America’s invulnerability notwithstanding, the fact that she doesn’t live in a reality that foregrounds the likelihood of atomic annihilation is more than a good enough trade-off for her not "getting it." At least not right away.

But the novel remains on her reading table, bookmark in place about midway through. And when she decides she’s ready to pick it up again, maybe she won’t have left Harry Potter behind. But she will be better prepared for when she ultimately does.

David Soyka is a freelance writer whose essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Nova Express, SF Site, and other publications. His website is at

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