Saturday 10 September 2011

J is for Juvenile

Fantasy fiction for juveniles (child readers up to the age of twelve) sits squarely in the speculative realm. Speculative fiction for younger readers has the potential to realise great change, particularly when it incorporates strong socio-political elements. One of the traits of this genre is how it makes people think differently about our own world by creating another in which the balance is so far lost that only the largest shifts will effect change. Focusing on a different setting—one that has recognizable problems—can help readers make more sense of the one they live in. It is vitally important that children are presented with the game-changing concepts that speculative fiction deals with, such as the equal society that Harry Potter fights for or issues such as child slavery, that Isabel Allende so skillfully addresses in her middle grade (8 to 12 year-old) novels.

Exposing young minds to these type of ideas is far more powerful than presenting the same concepts to adults. An adult worldview is already formed, but to a child the world is still one of possibility. As writers we have a duty to open children’s minds, not to indoctrinate them. To educate them, not to fill them with fear and hate. To encourage them to think for themselves, not to believe what they learn from authority. To surprise them with new worlds, not just to reinforce the prejudices and stereotypes they’re already getting from home and school.

But this receptivity of juvenile readers to these books is a double-edged sword. Robert A. Heinlein’s pro-military and questionable attitudes to under-aged sex, and the reactionary and homophobic undertones in Orson Scott Card’s works highlight the responsibility authors in this genre have to their readers. If authors of books for younger readers expound their bigoted beliefs in their works, their writing can be tantamount to brainwashing. These books and their writers provide more of an anti-speculative function: one that closes the mind, as opposed to works that open it such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Juvenile speculative fiction can empower the younger reader by showcasing strong role models who are powerful enough to affect change in the world around them. These characters are usually fighting against evil, such as the characters Meg, Charles and Calvin in Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

Speculative fiction for younger readers has been used in the past to get around censorship by hiding subversive content behind children’s fiction. The most extreme example of this would be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a work that contained concepts so revolutionary that he had to mask the work as a children’s book to get it published without facing charges of treason.

If you would like to write a story aimed at juvenile readers, then TFF would ask you to really take the children you are writing for into consideration. Please think carefully about the ideas you want to share; they could linger long in the minds of children after they read the piece. Consider how difficult it is to be a child in our society; our culture at once expects our children to grow up fast while simultaneously forbidding them to make their own decisions. Work at pitching the story at the right level by not introducing them to concepts they may not be emotionally ready to face yet at the same time challenge them to think differently.

We look forward to seeing what you come up with.


  1. You might want to check out my book The Inter-Galactic Playground. I got very frustrated with how socially conservative much sf for kids and teens was. Nuclear families all the way and while there were quite a lot of feisty girls, clearly they were eliminated at 18 because with the exception of Joan Lennon's Questors, they pretty much all turned into Wives.

    Good current writers tho are Adam Rex, Cory Doctorow and Janet McNaughton to name a few.

    Also: Gulliver's travels was not published as a children's book. There was no such thing at the time. It has been presented that way, but it was originally published as a satire.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Farah. I have read your book and will be focusing on some of the YA authors you mention later on in the series. This post looked specifically at speculative fiction for the under 12s.

    Your clarification of 'Gulliver's Travels' was useful, but although the work was unmistakeably satirical and controversial, it was clearly - even in 1726 - considered suitable for children as an entertainment. As John Gay said in a 1726 letter to Swift: "it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery" [Gulliver's Travels: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Palgrave Macmillan 1995 (p. 21).] This was no doubt why Swift was able to get away with something so scathing. Professor Declan Kiberd discusses this in more detail in the chapter "Home and away: Gulliver's Travels" in his book "Irish Classics" [Granta, 2001].

  3. This is fascinating stuff. I genuinely wonder how well children's stories would fit with the social-political agenda of TFF, given that we're not in the habit of pulling any punches. As Farah suggests, though, maybe we wouldn't have to go very far to be radical in this genre: non-nuclear and non-heteronormative family units would already be something; female protags who are strong without being "feisty", and who have aspirations beyond getting the guy...

    A commenter on Twitter seems to have been of the opinion that literature appropriate for children is incapable of being radical. There was a misunderstanding of both the terms "appropriate" and "radical", but the discussion does tease out another interesting point: are we talking about using the veneer of writing for or about children as a vehicle for mature political observation, or is it in the medium of children's stories themselves that we are trying to effect change for the better? It's my feeling that stories such as "Suburban Alchemist" and "Nasmina's Black Box" are doing the latter. ("Suburban Alchemist" at least is blatantly not suitable for children, although young adults might appreciate the humour.)

    I'd be interested to see someone following Regina's guidelines above submit something Juvenile or MG to TFF.

  4. In the second paragraph above, I wrote "latter" when I meant "former": I hope obviously, I meant that the Brissett and especially Sharp stories are about rather than for children. Actual juvenile stories would be a different animal...