September 4, 2016

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Gateway Reading – Getting New People into Science Fiction and Fantasy

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #1072. The link is provided below…

Gateway Reading: Getting New People into Science Fiction and Fantasy
Panel Approaches to engaging readers new to our genre are discussed, including titles that make good entry points. Michelle (Sagara) West, Don Sakers, Mrs. Jen Midkiff, Arthur Chu(M)

The panelists: Michelle (Sagara) West, author of several zillion books aimed at the YA market. Don Sakers is the current ANALOG book reviewer and has plenty of novels “out there” aimed at the YA market. Mrs. Jen Midkiff is a harpist with vast experience in both performance and teaching. Lastly, Arthur Chu writes columns for (among others) and was a Jeopardy! Game show super champion…

So – how do we get kids to read science fiction (and to a lesser degree) fantasy? What do we use to pull them into the world of hard science fiction and fantasy “fandom”?

Good questions!

Let me start with my gateway book. In sixth grade, I checked out this book:

I also read SPACESHIP UNDER THE APPLE TREE by Louis Slobodkin. That may have been the sum total of SF books in my elementary school’s library, but it definitely led to me reading the WHITE MOUNTAINS, CITY OF GOLD AND LEAD, and POOL OF FIRE by John Christopher (pen name of Christopher Samuel Youd) once I got to junior high. After that, I discovered Heinlein, Nourse, Norton, Bova, Madeleine L’Engle’s WRINKLE IN TIME and eventually all of the others.

But let’s talk about today.

The gateway books into fantasy are pretty clearly delineated and will likely never change: HARRY POTTER took the planet by storm and shows no real sign of letting up. The question however, is, “How many children today are being drawn into the worlds fantastic through the Potter Portal?” Are kids still reading the books, or do they skip directly to the movies? When they’re done with HP, do the head for the works of Tamora Pierce and Diana Wynne Jones, or do they wander off elsewhere into the more immediate drama of texting and Instagram? No idea.

Science Fiction is far more problematic, and I think (but may be wrong) that horror for kids is passé having been flogged to death by RL Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS series and Christopher Pike’s “next step” YA books, and the inevitable dive into the worlds of Stephen King...

Science fiction hasn’t really had anything since Heinlein. “What about THE HUNGER GAMES?????” some people may scream. The fact is that I refuse to count those books as science fiction. While THG has its literary roots in Orwell, it’s an entirely different genre I think of as “teen slaughter porn” in which…well, I’ve ranted on this in many and various venues, so I’m not going into it again.

Real science fiction, in which technology plays some role is reflected in Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE and ARMADA and might be good gateway books for high school students. Scott Westerfeld and he made inroads into the YA field with both his UGLIES books and his steampunk LEVIATHAN books.

While I’m sure the discussion was fascinating and well-done, the panel really should have been made up entirely of teenagers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the thirty, forty, and fifty-year-olds had lots to say. But the books they were reading as THEIR gateway into speculative fiction are old now, possibly out of print.

What are teens reading today? What was the FIRST science fiction (which I’m most interested in), fantasy (I’m pretty sure what the answer will be here!), and what are they reading today? Next time the Con should staff the panel with young adults!

Program Book:

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