Karen Meisner is an editor at Strange Horizons magazine.
It’s been said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, which is around the age when many young readers fall in love with the stuff. But what about the even younger readers? The literary field opens up once you’re ready to read at teenage levels, and meanwhile there’s no shortage of fantasy to be found in books for the ten-and-under set, but it’s slimmer pickings if you’re a ten-or-under kid wanting to read science fiction.
So here are some terrific books I recommend. For purposes of this post, I’ve tried to limit myself to the strictly science-fictional end of the genre pool — though such distinctions are blurrier than ever when looking at young children’s books, which tend not to be what you might call scientifically rigorous. Let’s say it’s a list of fiction for SF-loving kids: starting around preschool age, and working up through the next several years.
- The Octonauts and the Only Lonely Monster, first in a series by Meomi. For very young readers, this series features adorable characters and sweet, gently science-fictional storylines. But it’s the gorgeous anime-inspired
illustration, filling the books cover to cover, that makes them truly special.
- The Lost Thing, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan. The artwork does most of the worldbuilding in this phenomenal, original story about a boy who finds a lonely machine creature that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
- Captain Underpants, the series by Dave Pilkey. These wildly popular books have often been criticized or banned on the grounds that their rude, anti-authoritarian attitude encourages children into disobedience. Personally, I consider this a feature, not a bug; but the more pertinent point here is that the Captain Underpants books get kids to read — even kids who don’t otherwise like reading. Sure, the stories are obnoxious, but they’re also exuberant, funny, and imaginative. Are they science fiction? Well, they deal in aliens, robots, mad-science inventions, and so forth. Close enough.
- The Magic Pickle series, by Scott Morse, is about a flying sentient pickle created in a secret government lab under the floor of a kid’s bedroom, who battles evil fruits and vegetables who are trying to take over the planet. An utterly silly series of books with plenty of illustrations; easy reading for early years.
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien. This old favorite about genetically-enhanced escaped lab rats is smart and satisfying. A good choice for kids who like books about animals.
- Icarus at the Edge of Time, by Brian Greene. A board book reimagining the Icarus myth as a story about a fourteen year old pilot on a generation ship, who runs away to fly too close to a black hole. The author is, yes, that Brian Greene: the theoretical physicist famous for his work in popularizing science. His Icarus book retains the resonance of the Greek myth, while managing to work in a lot of information about the universe. All set against a stunning backdrop of Hubble astrophotography.
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. More spiritual fantasy than science fiction, this one squeaks onto my list mainly by virtue of having introduced me (accurately or no) to the cool concept of a tesseract. There’s also interplanetary travel, and giant brains and other sciencey elements, which will hit the spot just fine for SF-loving kids. The sequels are good too (A Wind in the Door was always my favorite), but might work best for slightly older readers.
- Whales on Stilts, by M.T. Anderson. The first book of M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales series, every bit of which is packed with sheer awesome. The series is an affectionate, delicately metafictional homage to kid-detective books and old-fashioned futurism — and such a funny read! Here’s the first sentence: “On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.” It only gets better from there.
- George’s Secret Key to the Universe, by Lucy & Stephen Hawking. With the help of a supercomputer, two kids and a scientist dad travel through the universe, having adventures, learning about the cosmos, and outwitting the bad guys. Written by Stephen Hawking(!) and his daughter. Starts a bit slow and dull, but ends up being a good story, with plenty of chewy science.
- The Tripods trilogy, by John Christopher, beginning with The White Mountains. In a post-invasion future, three boys on the verge of being assimilated make a run toward freedom and rebellion against their alien overlords. An old, highly influential classic series that still holds up.
- The Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers; Diggers; Wings) by Terry Pratchett. Tiny “nomes” living secretly among us go on a quest to find their true home. The story carries all the charm of any fantasy series about little hidden creatures… but it will turn out that these nomes are actually aliens, using a sufficiently advanced device to get off-planet. The author’s usual wisdom and humor come through in ways that can be appreciated by young readers; these books are the gateway drug to making your child a lifelong Pratchett fan.
- Dark Life, by Kat Falls: Post-apocalyptic Earth has been divided into land-dwellers and undersea colony settlers. Exciting adventures ensue. The first book in an ongoing series.
- The Roar, by Emma Clayton. I can’t get into this book myself, and would have dismissed it as derivative, but the writing’s not aimed at me — and my son’s enthusiastic response won it my respect. Reading it made him eager to discuss all sorts of new-to-him ideas raised by the story: ideas about repressive regimes, power, and individuality. He was also impressed by how well the book shows the villain’s motivations (rare in kidlit). View it as a sort of primer on dystopian SF.
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. Although it’s not SF, I’m including this because it is SF-adjacent, and also just really neat. The book is all sorts of hybrid: a text novel told partly in graphic form, and a work of historical fiction that reads like science fiction. Orphaned thief Hugo gets caught up in a mysterious quest to build a mechanical man; a story inspired by the real life of Georges Méliès, pioneering director of science fiction films at the turn of the century, and collector of automata. The book itself, with its black and white images, sometimes has the feel of a silent movie. A creative blend of words and pictures tell a story that may be of interest to anyone interested in strange old technological inventions, or in a little piece of genre history.
- The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout. A boy wakes up in a survival pod in the distant future, apparently the sole human survivor of our destroyed world. Accompanied by a broken robot and a mammoth, he sets out on a dangerous journey to find if any other people have survived. Beautiful, thoughtful storytelling, written in a clear style that engages young readers and keeps them fascinated all the way through. (See also Kid Vs. Squid by the same author, an unrelated book which has kids battling weird creatures to restore Atlantis and prevent the destruction of civilization. Okay, so that one’s way more fantastical than scientific, but in the grand old SF tradition of adventure stories with sea monsters, I had to include it. Highly readable, with wit and heart.)
One final suggestion for parents or friends of wee readers: If you want to introduce very young children to the joys of science fiction, you might begin by offering them non-fiction books on science. A kid who gets interested in robots and space, for example, will probably get more excited to read stories about them. For readers around age five and up, I recommend the Eyewitness Books series by DK Publishing. The Magic School Bus series, despite its name, is less about magic than about exploring scientific topics, in a picture-heavy format that’s accessible to younger readers. Exploratopia, put out by San Francisco’s wonderful Exploratorium museum, is an all-around excellent resource for getting kids interested in science, comprehensive enough to stay useful for years.