“Why Isn’t There More Science Fiction for Young Children?”
Science fiction shapes how we respond to our technology-infused world. Research has shown that the more science fiction you’re exposed to, the more you are likely to critically think through the benefits and consequences of science. Many scientists and engineers have reported that reading science fiction as a child influenced the way they thought about science as a young person, potentially leading to their careers! Science fiction is also great practice for developing higher-order reading skills like inferencing, since futuristic worlds often have their own rules that the reader must figure out through clues and background knowledge.
However, very little attention is given to science fiction books for young readers, or what I call “primary science fiction.” It’s not included in most reading lists or school curriculum until high school. In Encountering Enchantment: A Guide to Speculative Fiction for Teens, Susan Fichtelberg recommends 12 years old as the best time to introduce science fiction. This age is a popular choice. The science fiction entries in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature and Keywords for Children’s Literature both cite age 12 as the time when most kids will discover and enjoy science fiction.
Why 12-year-olds, specifically? Back in 1762, a philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized that children really only reached “the age of reason,” as he called it, at age 12. Before then, he thought, they just didn’t have the capacity to really understand anything. He even advised that reading could wait until age 12! We’ve dismissed most of his theories, but some of it still sticks around, like the “age of reason” being 12. Even when we’re not consciously thinking about the “the age of reason,” that sentiment lives on when we assume that science fiction—and all of its complex thinking about science—is better for older readers.
Adults perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy about what children want, and this results in a low supply of primary science fiction books. Jon Scieszka once told me that his editors tried to convince him that children would be put off by the science in his science fiction series, Frank Einstein. An indie publisher told me that children’s science fiction doesn’t sell well, so they don’t acquire it often.
In order to test the idea that science fiction is less suitable for younger readers, I conducted a large study of primary science fiction and those results are published in my new book Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children. I counted over 120,000 books in elementary school libraries in almost every region of the US and found that science fiction books only make up around 3% of each library collection. I surveyed teachers and librarians and learned that they recommend science fiction to the occasional individual reader, but don’t pick it for lessons or storytime because they feel it is too scarce and too hard.
However, real children and books tell a different story! Even though only 3% of those library collections were science fiction books, I found that science fiction had more average check-outs per book than any other genre. When I read science fiction picturebooks with elementary students, I listened to them cleverly apply their reading skills to comprehend and engage with the genre’s questions about science. I read 357 primary science fiction books and found that the best ones included features to help even the youngest readers figure out the genre. It turns out that readers are well-suited for science fiction long before they turn twelve.
Now all that’s left is for us adults to begin to break the cycle of assumptions about science fiction. Buy it! Teach it! Share it!
Published April, 2022 by University Press of Mississippi
About the Book: Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children argues for the benefits and potential of “primary science fiction,” or science fiction for children under twelve years old. Science fiction for children is often disregarded due to common misconceptions of childhood. When children are culturally portrayed as natural and simple, they seem like a poor audience for the complex scientific questions brought up by the best science fiction. The books and the children who read them tell another story.
Using three empirical studies and over 350 children’s books including If I Had a Robot Dog, Bugs in Space, and Commander Toad in Space, Equipping Space Cadets presents interdisciplinary evidence that science fiction and children are compatible after all. Primary science fiction literature includes many high-quality books that cleverly utilize the features of children’s literature formats in order to fit large science fiction questions into small packages. In the best of these books, authors make science fiction questions accessible and relevant to children of various reading levels and from diverse backgrounds and identities.
Equipping Space Cadets does not stop with literary analysis, but also presents the voices of real children and practitioners. The book features three studies: a survey of teachers and librarians, quantitative analysis of lending records from school libraries across the United States, and coded read-aloud sessions with elementary school students. The results reveal how children are interested in and capable of reading science fiction, but it is the adults, including the most well-intentioned librarians and teachers, who hinder children’s engagement with the genre due to their own preconceptions about the genre and children.
Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Readers is available from all major retailers.
About the Author: Emily Midkiff teaches children’s literature and literacy at the University of North Dakota. She spent nine years performing fantasy stories alongside children for an improv children’s theater group, and she now studies children’s fantasy and science fiction stories with attention to what the children themselves have to say. Find out more about her at https://emidkiff.wordpress.com/
Thank you, Emily, for this wonderful post! This is a question we’ve often asked, so loved hearing your thoughts.