Roundtable: Heinlein Juveniles Then and Now

Cecelia Holland

I refused to read anything grown-ups told me to read–I was in my 40’s before I read Tale of Two Cities, for instance–but since the grown-ups thought sf was junk I devoured that. I remember Childhood’s End really tore me up.

Cat Rambo

As a grade schooler, I read deeply of the Heinlein juveniles, since my local library had them all, and they were more important in bringing me to science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) than any other sf I can think of. I loved them, and still find them affecting my work – my story “Long Enough And Just So Long” is a reply to Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars and the short story “The Menace From Earth”, for example. While some have gender issues up the wazoo, I’d bet if I were sitting down to pull out some to give to my goddaughter when she finally starts reading on her own (at 2, not yet, alas), there’d still be plenty I’d be happy to give her.

Gary K. Wolfe

I remember talking with Charles Brown about the Heinlein juveniles, which meant a great deal more to him than they did to me, and we more or less came to the conclusion that his generation, which included a large number of significant SF writers, was exactly the right age for those novels to be important, largely because of the vagaries of publishing history. The first half-dozen titles or so appeared during the late 40s and early 50s, when they’d likely have been almost the only novel-length SF available in libraries (especially in the children’s sections), and just before paperback SF became ubiquitous and widely available. It’s interesting to note that even during the decade or so they were being published, the juveniles became more like mainstream SF: I think one of the early ones, maybe Farmer in the Sky, was serialized in a Boy Scout magazine, but the last ones were being serialized in Astounding or F&SF.

My own reading was somewhere between Charles’s experience and the one described by Karen and Cecelia. I read a few juveniles for a year or two, and the one thing I remember about the Heinleins was that they were a lot better than the ones by Asimov or Wollheim coming about about the same time. It may have been the first time I realized that some SF was a lot better than some other SF. But by then I was off into reading mainline SF paperbacks.

Paul Di Filippo

Maybe I had particularly wide tastes, but at age thirteen or so, I was reading Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head simultaneous with RAH’s Tunnel in the Sky; Ballard’s Vermilion Sands back to back with Citizen of the Galaxy. I made no distinctions amongst the books, or, rather, loved each for what it was. So, theoretically, I don’t believe there is anything offputting or overly ancient about the RAH juveniles for a 21st-century teen reader–unless there also is about the Aldiss or Ballard, which might very well be the case!

Tim Pratt

I haven’t read any of the Heinlein juveniles. I’m generally woefully under-educated when it comes to middle grade and young adult books, though I’m starting to remedy that now — obviously reading it as an adult is different, though. My parents and grandmother were horror, fantasy, and science fiction readers, so I pretty much just pillaged the overstuffed-with-paperbacks shelves at one house or the other. I read Stephen King’s Carrie when I was eight, and never looked back — I kind of skipped the whole “being a kid and readings books for kids” thing, somewhat to my detriment, I would imagine.

Nora Jemisin

What Tim said. I never even heard of the Heinlein juveniles until I was well into my twenties, by which time I’d already read a few Heinlein adult novels and decided I didn’t want to ever read anything of his again. My gateway “SF for kids” was Anne McCaffrey, Orson Scott Card, and Octavia Butler.

8 thoughts on “Roundtable: Heinlein Juveniles Then and Now

  • October 25, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I appreciate this discussion. Heinlein’s “Space Cadet” is the fulcrum on which my life swung—everything I’ve done since is in some way reflective of having found it and read it when I was ten. The Messiah had arrived, so to speak. So I suppose there’s some justification for the notion of “gateway” books.

    But would it work its magic for younger readers? The Heinlein juveniles are old—they’ve been dated by the march of time. They’re not as easy to find as they were in my day. Other books clamor for attention. It’s “their grandparent’s science fiction,” on the other side of the generation gap.

    So I don’t know.

    (By the way, lets give a hand for Marguerite Henry. She wrote a series of juveniles, mostly involving horses. And if I hadn’t read through her stuff and, while looking for more on the school library shelf, I wouldn’t have wandered over a couple of books to where Robert A. Heinlein was shelved.)

  • October 26, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I was born in 1968 and my exposure to science fiction from raiding my uncle’s bookshelf was coupled with Cold War scares and the progress that NASA appeared to be making. So I certainly grew up with the certainty in my head that by the time I was older we would be flying vipers like they did in Battlestar Galactica; that we would be out amongst the stars. I really had no doubts. Until I hit my later teen years and saw the beginnings of NASA’s slow halt to where we are at today.

    I am a big fan of the Heinlein juveniles. I read my first one in my 40’s. My consumption of “golden age” science fiction has almost entirely taken place in this past decade. When I read these books a big part of what I look for and pull out of them is that feeling of nostalgia that reminds me of being a kid and having dreams of space travel. The things that people often complain about: the lack of good science, the predictions that didn’t come true, the inability to predict things like the internet, personal computers, etc. are the things I enjoy in these books. I like seeing what people thought might happen in their future, now our present. I don’t mind when they missed it if the story is entertaining. The whole idea of the story being “dated” is part of its charm and appeal.

    I’ve been enjoying the conversation here but still have A LOT of it to get through. Good stuff. I don’t always agree with the idea of even having the “relevance” conversation, because I don’t often think it is well defined. Science fiction fans often talk about SF needing to be relevant, but the reality is that science fiction is only relevant to science fiction fans in the first place, a group of fans that I would suspect the greater group of fiction fans find aren’t relevant in the first place. And of this smaller group of “fringe” readers, I often think it is funny that “we” argue about which types of SF are relevant and which are not.

    I guess I need a better definition of “relevance”, to which my response still might be, “outside of SF fandom, SF isn’t relevant to anyone, so what purpose does “relevance” serve?”. I say that somewhat facetiously, because I do think all forms of fiction should at the very least have some personal relevance for the person reading the book. But is greater relevance something SF should strive for? I don’t know.

    As for RAH, the only “facts” I can lay claim to is that his juveniles bring a thrill to this 42 year old adult male, and one of my close friends has read several of these to his pre-teen son and teenage daughter over the last couple of years and they really have enjoyed them too. So for us in our small world, Heinlein is very, very relevant.

  • October 26, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Jeff brings up an excellent point. The educational system has a lot to answer for in terms of disenfranchising students from reading. When my son was five, he loved to read. Then he hit a stretch in school where he had to read a book a day and pass a test on it. We were in the process of moving at that time, and I had moved for job reasons while my family had not yet followed. If I had been there, I would have told the school they could fail him if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to require him to participate in an activity that would make him hate reading. Ever since then getting him to read has been a constant frustration.

  • October 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    You are right, Keith, Jeff Ford’s point is very well taken. There are creative ways to get kids to read, even classics, and if schools would step away from pre-planned lessons and formulas and would instead treat children as individuals I think they would find kids reading a wide range of books, would find more kids develop a passion for reading, and would see an increase in learning, test scores, etc.

  • October 31, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Wow- thought I was the only Heinlein fan still alive- read them in the 50s in elementary school and then into the adults but always loved the juvies best. Favorite was Have Spacesuit Will Travel-

  • November 3, 2011 at 12:12 am

    I read most of the RAH juveniles when I was in 7th-8th grade (in the early 70’s, so they were already “dated” by then) and deeply loved them. In any case, RAH still seems relevant if the question of his irrelevance can prompt seven pages of passionate comment…

  • November 3, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Thomas – Fair point! There’s something about Heinlein that never fails to spark comment.

  • November 14, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I entered fantastika through parallel streams of both juvenile and adult SF. I tore through the Heinlein juveniles as a high school freshling (1980) even as I was being given Le Guin and Delany by my mentor. I was a voracious reader and re-reader; I re-read Space Cadet so much that it became my nickname because I was always carrying it around. Then, as an isolated, anxious, torn-between-worlds teenager, Heinlein had a lot to offer, as a gateway to other works and ideas if nothing else. Relevant today? Perhaps, but I’m with Jeff Ford on the idea that kids will seek out and find the stuff they need, if we give them the chance and the encouragement.


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