Roundtable: Heinlein Juveniles Then and Now

Rich Horton

Perhaps oddly, I never read the Heinlein juveniles in the early ’70s when I was a juvenile. I read Norton, Nourse, and adult novels by Asimov, Clarke, and Simak, and John Christopher, but the only Heinlein I remember from my early reading of SF is Orphans of the Sky, which made little impression on me. Even a few years later, the only juvie I read was Tunnel in the Sky.

So all I can say is that when I did make a point of reading them, about ten years ago I guess, I thought them immensely entertaining. I can’t speak for “kids these days” (my daughter read Brian Jacques and Tamora Peirce and Charles de Lint, my son not much at all, alas) — but on the face of it I would think Heinlein’s work likely still appealing.

(I will say that my brother — 10 years younger than me — did discover RAH’s juveniles, and read them with enjoyment. But as he went from them to Battlefield Earth. I’m not sure what to make of that!)

Ellen Klages

Read my first Heinlein juvie in my 50s.

By the time I was 12 or so, I was so done with the Children’s section (don’t get me started on Teen books — hot rods or baseball for boys, prom or bridesmaid for girls) that I was reading Harold Robbins and John D. MacDonald.

Gardner Dozois

The first SF novels I read were Andre Norton’s “juveniles,” but I jumped to Heinlein’s “juveniles” fairly quickly because I thought they were just more complex and interesting. As Gary mentioned, one factor in this was almost certainly that at the time (late ’50s, early ’60s) Norton and Heinlein’s juveniles were among the few SF novels of any sort available in the library, especially the school library (where the librarian scolded me for reading “that mind-rotting junk” every time I checked an SF book out).

I think that the Heinlein juveniles still have a lot to offer to young readers that they’ll find interesting, entertaining, and maybe even useful; certainly all the stuff about young people going out into the world and trying to make a life for themselves there, battling the odds thrown against them, is just as germane as it ever was. The question is, are these 60-year-old books too dated to allow modern readers to get through to the universally applicable stuff? Once you get beyond the “current-day” on-Earth stuff in a book like Have Space Suit, Will Travel and out into the solar system, I’m sure the kidnapped-by-aliens adventure plot, with eventually the existence of the Earth itself at stake, would appeal just as much to kids today as it ever did. Would they be willing to keep reading a book, though, where the “current-day” stuff is so different from the world they live in themselves, where there are no cellphones or personal computers or Facebook, where kids work as “soda jerks,” something that most of them have never even heard of? Will the fact that most of these books start out in a “present-day” that’s clearly the 1950s rather than the world that kids today are familiar with make the present-day part just too dated and alien from their own experience for them to be able to get through it to the Sense of Wonder stuff that eventually follows? (THAT stuff is still pretty good, even when compared against today’s “adult fiction.”)

Cat Rambo

I don’t think kids have any trouble reading stuff set in different worlds, and I’d consider this another example of one. The “current-day” stuff in the Narnia books – or Jules Verne, for another example, since I’m about to head back to SteamCon – never bothered me.

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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