It Started With Juvenile Science Fiction

I’ve mentioned it before but I may as well tell the story again. I didn’t learn to read in First Grade. It was probably because I despised the nun who was my teacher for most of that year.

First grade for me started well enough. My teacher was a young, cute, cheery nun named Sister Michael Mary and I was crazy about her. For reasons I’ve never known she was soon replaced by Sister Redempta, an old, ugly, harsh woman who struck our hands with rulers and our ears with her hands. She was the one (along with the coaches of the Khoury League baseball teams I played on) who made me ambidextrous, by striking me when I attempted to write with my left hand.

Whatever the reason, at the end of First Grade I couldn’t read. However, that summer, at least according to the story my mom told, something surprising happened. I took my dad’s old Fourth Grade Reader, disappeared behind the couch for much of the summer, and, when I emerged, could not only read but was reading at a sixth grade level.

It was right about then that I checked out the very first book I ever checked out from the library on my own without my mother having selected it. It was Red Planet by Robert Heinlein. In quick succession thereafter I plowed through every Robert Heinlein juvenile, Isaac Asimov (writing as “Paul French”) juvenile, Oz book, Mushroom Planet book, Tom Swift book, Hardy Boys book, and Roy Rockwell book I could lay my hands on. The next year when I went to the St. Louis Book Fair, I returned home with a huge trove of them, bought for a nickel or ten cents a piece.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I was not prejudiced against “girl’s books”. I read all of the Nancy Drew books as well as the Judy Bolton series. I drew the line at the Cherry Ames or Trixie Belden books. I have never read the Bobbsey Twins books and you can’t make me but I did read all of Lucy Fitch Perkins’s “Twins” series books and enjoyed them.

I also read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, received a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology on my 9th birthday, and read every one of Andrew Lang’s “color” books of fairy tales I could find.

I discovered the “Andre Norton” juveniles and read all of those I could put my hands on. At the urging of my parish priest, I read C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra series (I didn’t discover the Narnia books until I was an adult). I read At the Back of the North Wind. Treasure Island. Kidnapped. The Swiss Family Robinson.

I exhausted those but, a year or so later, my mom gave me a copy of a collection of H. Rider Haggard novels when I had the mumps and my transition to adult fiction began. I finished all of the Haggard books I could find, devoured Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and began tipping my toe into contemporary adult science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and classic and contemporary fiction. But that’s another story.

Not only was all of this decades before online anything, paperbacked books were just starting to become available in quantity. What I liked to read went out of print rapidly and, in general, if the library didn’t have it, I had to haunt the used book stores to find copies. Reading was synonymous with collecting. To read you had to collect.

21 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    My learning to read was more conventional, but my choice of books was similar. I read Kidnapped at least 5 times. Loved Andre Norton best out of all the juve books. Liked Tom Swift more than the Hardy Boys and will confess that when stuck at summer camp I even read a few Nancy Drews when there was nothing left to read. Wells and Verne were real eye openers just for the vocabulary. Read all of the mythology I could find, though looking back it was largely devoid of Eastern myths. Didnt read Philip Dick or Herbert until high school and cant remember when I found Ellison. Found The Hobbit at about the same time as Castaneda. Up until I was old enough to work for pay, life consisted of school, church, basketball and reading, mostly sic-fi, often when I was supposed to be reading the Bible.

    Do you ever miss the old sic-fi days? Fantasy just took over. Mind you I enjoy a good swords and wizards book just as much as any other immature 58 y/o guy, and Michael may not like the dialog, but those old sic-fi classics were just so captivating. The creation of whole new worlds and tech. Guys like Card, Gibson, Brin and Card have taken up the torch at times, but it just doesnt seem the same.


  • looking back it was largely devoid of Eastern myths

    We had some books of Eastern religion and mythology around the house that had belonged to my rather kooky grandmother (she was a Rosicrucian, among other things) so I had plenty of explosure to it.

    By the time I discovered Philip K. Dick’s earliest published works I was already an adolescent. I read The Man in the High Castle, one of the greatest of science fiction novels, in the year it was published. I read Dune in serialization in Analog when it came out. I wasn’t as enthralled by it as many were, possibly because I recognized it for what it was—an adaptation of the life of Mohammed.

  • michael reynolds Link

    While I agree with the comment in a separate thread that guys like Asimov weren’t writing for YA specifically, that audience belonged to them, at least the boys. From the consumer’s point of view, the 50’s sci fi writers, along with Dafoe and Robert Louis Stevenson etc… were male YA. We just didn’t have a market term for it. And now that we have the term it tends to box us in unfairly — I know a lot of YA writers who resent it and don’t write YA so much as adult books with some young characters. (cough, BZRK, cough.)

    And I should make clear that when I say guys like Clarke and Asimov used a lot of cardboard, that’s not as harsh as it sounds. From where I sit, no one writes everything well. The 50’s generation wrote interesting books filled with ideas. They captivated readers and left a lasting legacy and that’s the job.

    Reading is inevitably different for a writer. We read the way a carpenter watches a cabinet-maker, understanding the tools, feeling the wood, visualizing doing it all. If I sound overly critical it comes from a place of greatest respect and affection for those old boys.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Ooops. Just noticed I wrote “Dafoe.” That would be actor Willem. The writer was Defoe, as in Daniel Defoe. (Another guy with sketchy prose, but hey: Uncas and Mogwai stick with you.

  • Yeah, I read James Fenimore Cooper, too. Have you ever read Sam Clemens’s takedown of Cooper? One of the greatest polemics in the English language. As it turns out, it’s online.

    What got left on the editing room floor of my post was a few remarks about Heinlein’s and Asimov’s adult books. I may develop these in a later post but the plain truth is that Asimov’s stuff, particularly his early stuff, pre-1960, continues to be among the most imaginative, thought-provoking, and influential certainly in science fiction, perhaps in 20th century fiction. The influence of the Foundation stories, the old ones not the later ones, has been so openly acknowledged it can hardly be denied.

    The only book of Daniel Defoe’s I read as a kid was Robinson Crusoe. I loved it, re-read it several times. I found the rest just too difficult but liked them when I tried again as an adult.

  • steve Link

    Rumor has it Enders Game is coming out in a movie this year. Great book. Agree completely on the Foundation series.

    Michael-Yes, it seems unfair that some books get lumped into that YA group when they are still great books for everyone. Imagine if CS Lewis was writing now.


  • michael reynolds Link

    Okay, new rule: I don’t write comments before coffee. It’s embarrassing.

  • Icepick Link

    along with the coaches of the Khoury League baseball teams I played on

    And you’re a switch hitter too? Jesus, even Heinlein’s heroes weren’t switch hitters too. (Well, not in a baseball sense.)

  • TastyBits Link

    @Dave Schuler

    … Reading was synonymous with collecting. To read you had to collect.

    I never really thought of it that way, but you are correct. Another choice was to read whatever was around.

    … before online anything …

    The internet is as revolutionary as the printing press. I remember being told, “Go look it up at the library.” Now, I tell my stepson, “Google it.”

  • TastyBits Link

    @Dave Schuler

    … Have you ever read Sam Clemens’s takedown of Cooper? …

    He did a number on the Mormons, also. “Roughing It” is one of my all-time favorites. To understand Mark Twain, you need to read a lot of his works.

  • And you’re a switch hitter too?

    I can bat either left-handed or right-handed.

    To understand Mark Twain, you need to read a lot of his works.

    I read Tom Sawyer as a kid. I read all of his other works as an adolescent. That’s pretty much the way I operated, i.e. read everything by an author I discovered I liked.

  • Susie Link

    I agree with Michael. As a long term Youth Services librarian, I have long thought that publishers can be pretty narrow minded about where to place fiction. Titles that seem appropriate for and of interest to adults can end up placed in the YA genre just because they have a young protagonist.
    On the other hand, I also think that being a “YA author” can be liberating. YA authors have the advantage of being able to write for readers who are at a unique stage in life during which they have an ability and appetite for tackling complex, sophisticated, innovative and compelling narrative and literary styles while at the same time dealing with important themes and social and political issues. And they have the benefit of not having to bow down to the marketplace pressure to add lots of graphic sex, violence and language.
    It’s interesting to note that a recent study shows that 55% of young adult fiction is purchased by readers “18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44,” (Publishers Weekly, September 13, 2012); Publishers take note.

  • Susie Link

    By the way, David, thank you for taking me under your wing, and introducing me to the Oz books, Andrew Lang and the Fairy Books of many colors, Robert Heinlein and more. I, in turn, grew up to make a career out of introducing them and many more great books to young readers.

  • Susie,

    Thank you. In the interest of product placement, are you introducing them to BZRK? Are you? Are you?

  • PD Shaw Link

    For me it started with comic books, specifically Captain America (185) at the age of seven. The Red Skull, NAZIs, cliffhangers. For several years, going down to the newsstand on Sundays with my dad was a big highlight. And then somewhere in early Junior High discovering Tolkien, reading as much of that as I could find, reading the knockoffs, dozens of series about quests with dwarves and elves and magical items, until I realized how much derivative crap that was. Only Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser eventually stood out, which are sword & sorcery, not epic fantasy. I was never able to track down all of those books until much later.

    Unfortunately, having taken my son to the comics book store a few times, comics aren’t made for seven year olds anymore. The stories are not self-contained and require too many years of background knowledge. Effort better put to videogames.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Zelazny’s Lord of Light is good Indian-infused sci-fi.

  • Andy Link

    My Dad read me Hardy Boys or Tom Swift every night as a child and also a lot of children’s adventure classics, like Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe.

    Like PD, I later got into fantasy with Tolkein, the Conan books and especially Morcock’s Elric series. There was also a lot of sci-fi and cross-over stuff like McAffrey and Piers Anthony. For a time I was into “hard” science fiction like Larry Niven (Anyone who played “Halo” would recognize “Ringworld.”) Sometime in high school I started broadening my horizons and read Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins and more off-beat stuff like that. I also read all the major “cyberpunk” books and continue to be a fan of Neil Stephenson although doesn’t write in the genre anymore.

    These days I sadly don’t read much for pleasure anymore. Between a job that requires a copious amount of reading and everything that comes with three young kids, I don’t have much time or energy.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Thanks for the link to BZRK. I forget who wrote that. Was it Defoe?

  • I thought it was Dafoe.

  • michael reynolds Link

    You know the problem with any lapse of memory is that when you’re staring at 60 everything is foreshadowing. I’ve had a lousy memory my whole life but now it’s all fraught.

  • You know the problem with any lapse of memory is that when you’re staring at 60 everything is foreshadowing.

    I was blessed with an excellent memory. So far it’s holding up but I’ve noticed it’s harder work to remember new things than old things. For example, I can quote lengthy passages of verse in English, French, and Russian but I find that I’m mislaying my keys more frequently.

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