img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-10272″ title=”Robot” src=”http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/image006-160×300.jpg” alt=”” width=”160″ height=”300″ />During a recent #mglitchat on Twitter, somebody opined that there wasn’t enough science fiction for middle graders. Somebody quickly responded that they write science fiction and fantasy. The conversation wasn’t sustained long, but it left me thinking.
To me, science fiction is fiction infused with science. Fantasy isn’t. Though lumped together, they are vastly different genres. And while fantasy is thriving, and futuristic speculative fiction is through the roof, the sciency kind of science fiction is not.
The paragon for me will always be Isaac Asimov, a knowledgeable science-minded author. Asimov made his work true to science the way a historical novelist would be true to history.
Not all sci-fi is really based on science — rather, it’s based on other sci-fi, working within a milieu of established tropes: time travel, the near future, robots, space ships, and/or alien invaders. That’s all fun on its own merits, but I quite like fiction that conveys some understanding about the workings of the universe. Science was my worst subject in school, but authors like Asimov made science lucid and compelling while telling a good story.
So I end up with quite a different list than what you might expect. You won’t find (many) robots or space ships in this list, but they all have a healthy dose of real science in them.
The Higher Power of Lucky is a personal favorite for modeling earnest scientific inquiry, but avoiding easy “science nerd” traps. Lucky is her own kid, a bright and inquisitive girl growing up in a small desert town. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is another recent book along the same lines, an historical novel about evolutionary biology.
Another historical, science themed book that would be a great book club selection is The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, a book about public health and epistemology with stunning parallels to the present day.
Kids more interested in the cosmos would love Wendy Mass’s Every Soul a Star, which also avoids the trite science geek cliche while showing three children respond to a solar eclipse. What I really love about this one is the erasure of the myth that science is somehow at odds with creativity.
Young scientists ready for the deep-end will be challenged by George’s Secret Key to the Universe by Nobel-winning physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, as well as its sequel, George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt. The characters and stories are make-shift, serving more to illustrate points of physics, but even adults can learn a lot from these parables.
What about readers who DO want space ships and robots? I got this covered.
Ender’s Game was originally published as a “grown-up” book, but since it has child heroes it has become a classic with young readers. Card’s frank depiction of kid politics and uncanny ability to project the near future (from immersive computer games to laptop computers in the classroom) make this a fantastic classroom or book club book — there is plenty to talk about. Because it was published as a straightforward sci fi book, it is a bit more violent than most kids books, but it’s mostly the bugs who get it. Kids who fall in love with this one will find plenty more Ender books in the series, but the best next one to read is Ender’s Shadow, a retelling of the events in Ender’s Game from the point of view of a different character.
Eager by Helen Fox shows the Asimovian influence in its treatment of robots as soul-searching citizens of a near future. There’s been a deluge of “futuristic” books, but Fox’s is a rare one that shows a future that’s evolved from our own in realistic and believable ways. Though not a typical dystopia, she realistically considers the economic drift and technocracy. A great book for discussion about the kind of world young readers may see in their own lifetimes.
Kurtis Scaletta’s novel The Tanglewood Terror is inspired by both pulp-era sci-fi and actual science. He is also the author of Mudville and Mamba Point. Find out more about Kurtis and his books at http://www.kurtisscaletta.com.