Roundtable: Heinlein Juveniles Then and Now

Paul Witcover

I have to say that I’m suspicious of the idea of “gateway” books. Like gateway drugs. They are essentially a marketing ploy. If SF juveniles have failed in the marketplace, then perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with SF writers but rather with the very concept of such a thing. I also don’t think that there’s a hierarchy of books that introduce a readership to basic ideas and then move them, step by step, to more sophisticated literary enjoyments, like progressing from first grade through high school. If that happens, it’s because of the individual reader, not the books themselves. Plenty of readers find what they like and stick to it. Some adults read Harry Potter and are content never to read another fantasy in their lives, or seek out reading experiences that repeat that of Potter as closely as possible. Maybe “gateway” novels like Star Trek and Star Wars were simply gateways for the most part into Star Trek and Star Wars–those were, and SW still is, a profitable market: why would publishers want to “graduate” their customers to more sophisticated fare?

Cat Rambo

I’m also not fond of the idea of gateway books, mainly because it seems a little prescriptive. My parents let us read all over the place, and we had a ton of books around and readily available, including SF, and plays, and modern novels, and comic writing, etc. I’m culling shelves at the moment for a donation to our local teen center and I’m selecting books on the basis of “this is good and they”ll enjoy it” rather than “this will entice them into genre-land”.

Brett Cox

Before I made my big leap into sf a year before the Golden Age–I was 11–I remember some sf mixed in with the Scholastic Books titles I interspersed with my comic books: Robert Silverberg’s Lost Race of Mars and Lester del Rey’s Tunnel Through Time. When I made that first haul out of the library, it was all Heinlein, and the juveniles were mixed in with the adult books. I was reading Red Planet along with The Puppet Masters. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that the library had inexplicably filed some of the juveniles in the sf section and some in the children’s books section, so I made my way to that territory I had by that time largely abandoned to discover Rocket Ship Galileo and Tunnel in the Sky and the rest.

So I read the Heinlein juveniles at exactly the right age, but I didn’t really read them as something separate from the other sf I was reading. I was also reading a lot of Asimov, but the Lucky Starr books never grabbed me the way the Heinlein juveniles did. For reasons that still escape me, I never read Andre Norton.

Would they appeal to contemporary young readers? Probably not, although I’d be interested in what a 12-year-old of our own time might make of The Star Beast or Citizen of the Galaxy.

Mark Kelly

I concur that, at the high school library I inhabited when I was first exploring SF around 1970 or so, Andre Norton and Robert A. Heinlein juveniles were among the prominent SF titles on the shelves, along with now-forgotten authors (of books I tried at the time) like Robert Cham Gilman. Andre Norton made no impression on me at all; I don’t think I’ve ever read more than two of her books. Heinlein I read intermittently, mixing the so-called ‘juveniles’ with his other books, over the next five or six years – i.e. including Time Enough for Love when it was new – until I had read them all, as I read all of Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke. Yet I wrote a high school essay about SF in which I denigrated the popularity of Heinlein against the authors I thought more important – Asimov and Clarke, specifically.

Decades pass; I think I’ve reread more Heinlein with pleasure than I’ve reread early Asimov or Clarke. And I have a particular fondness for certain of Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’, e.g. Starman Jones.

That’s my data point for now.

Gardner Dozois

The Heinlein juveniles didn’t “fail in the marketplace.” The Heinlein juvies always sold very well, and still do. They’ve either remained in print for the last sixty years, or gone out of print momentarily only to come back into print again, often multiple times. Many of them were reissued for the umpty-umph time within the last year or two. No, the SF publishing world abandoning YA doesn’t seem to have been driven by finances–it’s more like everybody just decided that it wasn’t cool to do SF YA anymore. Maybe the rise of the New Wave had something to do with it.

I do think that some readers need gateway books. Those of us who have been immersed in the genre for decades sometimes don’t realize how difficult a set of reading protocols have to be mastered to appreciate some SF. I’ve heard many readers say that they don’t “get” or appreciate SF, and there are many dismissive mainstream reviews that indicate the same thing, as almost any issue of Ansible will demonstrate. I’ve heard working professionals in the field say that they can’t deal with stories with lots of alien terms and phrases in them because it’s too hard to figure out what they mean, or that they don’t appreciate hard SF because they can’t follow the science. And although huge numbers of media novel readers probably don’t “convert” to core science fiction, sticking with Star Wars or Star Trek instead, there is a small but steady stream of them who do just that, as the what-got-you-started-reading-SF surveys taken of, say, applicant Clarion students clearly shows. Publishers may not want their media book readers to “graduate” to more sophisticated fare, but those of us who love the genre ought to. (There’s also an unspoken assumption here that the more sophisticated fare is NOT a profitable market and therefore publishers would lose money on the switch–which may or may not be true. Depends on the individual titles involved, I suppose.)

Marie Brennan

I don’t see the term in that sense, though. I’m sure some people mean it that way, but for me, it’s more a reflection of how (at least until recently, with the YA boom), non-adult books are shelved with all the genres mixed in together. Diana Wynne Jones was my gateway not because she warmed me up for tougher adult novels, but because she got me hooked into looking for fantasy books preferentially, in the all-genres jungle of the kids’ shelves. So when I stepped up to adult fiction, I went for the SF/F shelves instead of the mainstream ones. Without DWJ, I would probably be a mystery reader, because the previous gateway had been Nancy Drew.

And ditto, in a way, the media tie-in books. I read a bunch of Forgotten Realms when I was in junior high, and I think part of it was that those books were a large and easily-identifiable brand on the shelves; it reduced some of the sense that I was taking a risk by picking up a new author. By the time I went off those, my sense of identity not just as a Reader, but as a Fantasy Reader, was well-established. That’s what I mean when I talk about such things as gateways, rather than the “training wheels” notion of literary proficiency.

Nick Gevers

My experience as a young reader in South Africa: I had loved Marvel comics, which I obtained at used bookstores; so I naturally went straight on, at 9 or 10, to the apparently similar material on the SF shelves in the same shops. Thus I started reading SF with Ace Doubles and other tattered paperbacks, and quickly homed in on Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, and my early favourite, Jack Vance (still a favourite). Therefore no phase of reading juveniles, and my experience of Heinlein was limited to Orphans of the Sky, which I considered ordinary. (I’ve never liked his work much.) It’s clear I was drawn to SF writers who captured the romance of history in speculative terms, with grand or elegiac language. I went on to Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Aldiss, Zelazny, GRRM, C.L. Moore, etc.

So for me comics were in a sense the gateway literature, together with simple proximity in used bookstores and colourful covers. It’s possible the Heinlein juveniles would have turned me off SF, as I never found much to excite me in RAH…

Jim Kelly

I was away from the computer yesterday, but will join in late with a couple of data points and an opinion: I read many of the Heinlein juveniles at the Right Age, certainly all of those in the collection of my local library. Also most of the Toms – Corbett and Swift – although many of these I had to buy with my allowance. And I’m not sure the eleven year old Jim could have articulated the difference between Matt Dodson and Tom Corbett.

Also like my fellow Kelly, I’ve been rereading them of late, along with lots of other “classic” Heinlein, for pleasure and research. Actually “relistening” to them, especially on Bruce Coville’s excellent “Full Cast Audio” series. Heinlein’s stuff comes across very well indeed on audio.

Having typed that, I don’t think that most of his juveniles are well suited to today’s YA audience. Heinlein’s kids are too naïve and aren’t in touch with their darker impulses. They’re trapped inside the box of postwar sensibilities. Understand that it’s an opened-ended box that is pointed at the future, but still. And his technology is so quaint that at times it’s just a couple of steps ahead of steampunk. In order to read the juveniles, and indeed, much of Heinlein, you must constantly make “allowances.” I don’t think that many kids are interested in making these allowances. But I’m going back to Heinlein because I do believe that we need more gateway sf, and I’m trying to imagine what it was about these books that transformed one particular dreamy kid into a grownup Space Cadet.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I remember at least some of them being in my tiny local library, some forty+ years ago, when I embarked on my mission to exhaust its reading possibilities. What I can’t remember is whether I read any of them. It be unlike me not to as if it was stationary and had words on it, I’d read it. But if I did, they haven’t stuck in my memory.

However, they lived more or less next to Eliott’s Kemlo books, which never appealed, for some reason. Old-fashioned covers? Emphasis on space stations? I wonder if Heinlein got tarred with the brush of shelving proximity. I was an avid reader of Andre Norton so it wasn’t space per se that I disliked. Perhaps it was the way it was presented. I was easily seduced by a lovely cover and some of those Andre Norton hardback juveniles were beautiful.

Or possibly, I hadn’t quite figured out yet that just because the covers had male figures on them it didn’t mean I shouldn’t read them. I recall having a lot of trouble with my mother at this time about this kind of thing; I couldn’t read my father’s old Tarzan books because they were ‘for boys’. I’m guessing I eschewed anything that looked obviously boyish, because I was a devious child.

I keep thinking now that I ought to make a conscious effort to read Heinlein, to find out if I’m actually rereading them, and because, as a conscientious scholar of the genre, I feel not to have done would be bad. But that’s not the answer to the question, is it?

I’m struck, reading through the fascinating threads of comment, how everyone’s reading experience is different, how their discovery of sf is different, but how easy it can become to assume our individual experience is the best way into genre reading.

I don’t think I would entirely agree with Karen about it being time to move on from Heinlein entirely, but if I had a child, would I put Heinlein in front of it deliberately? Probably not. But neither would I remove them from the shelves. I am possibly a potentially bad parent but I’d be entirely happy for my non-existent children to browse my shelves and pick up and put down stuff, much as I did as a child. I browsed my way through the libraries I had access to, without anyone really paying attention to what I was reading, because I was fully literate and therefore didn’t need to be worried about. I suspect if I’d had access to a broader range of sf – there was no grown-up sf in the branch library that I recall – I’d have dealt with it in the same way, whereas I came to it consciously in my mid-teens when someone started lending me Asimov (which I hated), and not enjoyably until my early twenties when I found the likes of Le Guin.

But I could imagine an avid young reader now tackling Heinlein juveniles the way I tackled Tarzan books (I sat in the hall closet, with the door ajar, reading Tarzan, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice), enjoying them for their removal from reality. But I would find it hard to imagine a child consciously starting to read sf by being given Heinlein.

Another thought to throw in – various people have commented that the Heinlein juveniles were a lot better written than some of the sf available for children, and how many readers just went straight to the adult stuff. My recollection, in the 1970s in the UK, was that there was very little marketed for children, except perhaps stories by Nicholas Fisk (whose writing I didn’t care for). I was reading Wyndham by this time. I think Farah Mendlesohn’s The Intergalactic Playground discusses this in far greater detail (I don’t have a copy available at present) but the anecdotal evidence seemed to be that junior readers of sf went to the adult shelves very quickly, suggesting there wasn’t actually much of a market for children’s sf.

Cat Rambo

I think I’d be right there with you in the bad parenting with freely available shelves camp, Maureen.

If one is looking for “gateway” books (and maybe that term needs to get pinned down a bit more firmly), looking to classics of the field is a mistake. It’s whatever is fresh and popular, the books that everyone in their classes are reading: Harry Potter and Twilight for example. The avid readers with ink for blood will come to reading in one way or another. It’s the casual readers you want to entice, in the hopes that it’ll become a habit.

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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