Roundtable: Heinlein Juveniles Then and Now

Siobhan Carroll

As a teen I read a few of the Heinlein juveniles about the same time I was getting introduced to Heinlein’s fiction for adult readers. But for their younger characters, I didn’t see that much of a difference between the two.

I’ll ditto what Stefan says here, and add that, as someone who came of “reading age” in the 80s and early 90s, I enjoyed reading Heinlein’s juveniles. They had a charm that I recall being disastrously missing from some of his “adult” novels, which I tried around the same time.

To spin-off a comment from Marie, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “dated” book in the hands of an avid reader. Most of us read anything and everything we could get our hands on as kids, and the next generation of avid readers will do the same. The cool kids may deign to read Twilight because everyone is doing it. The avid readers will read Twilight and The Three Musketeers and Have Spaceship, Will Travel and every other book that’s in their school library, not because it “appeals to their generation,” but because they want to.

Gardner Dozois

Sadly, I remember my son and his circle of grade school friends all moaning and protesting bitterly because they were being forced to read Treasure Island, and it “was too hard to read” and “boring” and they “didn’t understand what was happening.” And both my grandchildren “hate reading,” and read nothing at all except at gunpoint. So not all children are readers.

I should point out that they never were. The percentage of children who are avid readers is relatively small, and always has been.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Gardner’s last two points here seem ‘on’ to me. YA fiction, much as I lament some of the trends, does create norms and expectations. That means ‘classics’ can be too far outside those expectations. Double Star ends up akin to Treasure Island.

The second point about percentages of avid readers is true, of course, but I’ll add a lament. It isn’t about the avid readers. They will read Dickens, Bronte, Tolstoy today as in an earlier day, and do it at twelve or thirteen.

The lament is about the sometime reader, the ‘I don’t mind a good book sometimes’ reader. For them, the classics, variously defined, are increasingly lost causes. The librarians with whom I discuss this sometimes speak of ‘mirror’ books and ‘window’ books, and suggest that the former hold dominant sway today.

I don’t, by the way, agree with earlier comments that science fiction is ‘out’ for YA today. Suzanne Collins and Patrick Ness? The one is a megastar, the other is a very good success d’estime, and there are others, of both sorts. I think language and tone play a huge role today, and readers, not just younger ones, need to feel at home with those. That’s part of the ‘mirror’ thing. I believe readers used to be more able, willing, open to moving outside their comfort zones in these ways.

Jeff Ford

I think American education has a lot to answer for in its disenfranchisement of young people from reading. I remember the stuff they wanted us to read in school, and thought most of it really beat. Did every kid in America have to read Death of a Salesman? What a sad sac affair. Like Nick said, they could have been reading Jack Vance or something that interested them. The message of DOAS was we were all headed for lives of misery, to be sucked dry by the system. Most kids response to that is, “Wake me up when it’s over.” The need for society at large to control the reading of kids squeezes all the excitement out of it. There’s always got to be a lesson to be gotten out of it. Dragsville. Because society squeezes the life out of reading, when it does offer a kid a really great book, there’s no desire to read it. Interesting politically is the fact that schools disenfranchise kids from reading — the perfect tool for teaching yourself and a passport to all the places they never mention in school.

The discussion will continue later on this week.

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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