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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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…
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.
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.