Nov 06

Sci-Fi For Kids: Judging A Book By Its Cover

FT13 comments • 2,018 views

tfts87.jpgAs we are dipping our toes into this water, and reminiscing on the mobile library days AND Mark’s prescient Heinlein cover mutters on twin-lit, let me share. I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid. And the pre-history of my interest would factor in space lego, Doctor Who (but of course), Buck Rogers and just loads of sci-fi styled toys. I guess the word science also had an impact, as that interested me. But in reality, as a voracious reader, I had worked though the kids section in the trailer library in a few years, and it was rarely replenished. Between the eight bookshelves of adult fiction and the kids books was a bookshelves marked GENRE. It had a shelf of romance fiction (which I had to perm a few Mills & Boons for my Mum) half a shelf of westerns and the rest was divvied up between crime and sci-fi.

I later got into the crime stuff but on the whole it put of tiny me as it was often being about men and women murdering each other for love or money, neither of which were interesting motivations for me. No, there were really two simple reasons why eight year-old gravitated towards sci-fi initially. The first was that the sci-fi, more likely to be in paperback, were racked on the second shelf up – thus tiny me could reach and comfortably browse. This racking also meant they were kept behind some laminated elastic and forward facing. Thus I could see the covers. And this selection below of Robert Heinlein covers of the same book may suggest why I often picked them up(nicked from the Heinlein cover gallery).


Spaceships, explosions, radioactive boxes with CAUTION written on them, not to mention some of the more bizarre design choices (Pan 1970’s editions!) The beauty of genre fiction in a lot of ways is that because it is aimed at a niche audience, they tend to go more out there with cover paintings: it is almost expected. So as an eight year old, these looked like kids books. Look at the whole “adult Harry Potter” editions to see how these kind of trade dress is also a massive turn-off to the standard reader. But to an eight year old – this stuff was a goldmine. What was more, while I may not of understood some of the more adult themes of the books (say, Heinlein’s jingoism and occasional misogyny), the BIG IDEAS that this kind of sci-fi was sold one always came through well. These were usually adventure novels.

So what I’m really saying is sci-fi for kids, wasn’t FOR kids. The sci-fi I read as a kid, was FOR adults.


  1. 1

    heinlein is to be fair i think a bit of a special case here — he was a golden-ager whose basic style was easily accessible to kids — certainly the other authors i plan to look back at (=SPOILERS LOOK AWAYblish, nourse and nortonEND SPOILERS) were considered to be writing mainly for children

    (i think this may have been an artefact of the success of the NEW WAVE — if you wanted to write abt rocketships still, you had to reconfigure yr target audience)

    the general point is about covers-as-lures-AND-compacted-metacontent is absolutely right — except that the gollancz hardback covers were the most common in my library at the time, and they’re the ones the interweb is mainly missing, and the ones i wanted therefore to talk about :(

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 22 Nov 2006 #

    Well I’ll come on to the YELLOW Gollancz covers, but yes, yr right, I can’t find them.

    (The Yellow covers also helped me get intot he crime section because they were yellow too).

    I think Asimov also fits in here as did Arthur Sixpence C. Clarke.

  3. 3

    asimov yes fair enough — in fact the fact i got rid of the asimovs i had = proof of grown-up snobbery!!! >:(

    the only clarke i ever read = 2001: the NOVEL which is EVEN MORE BORING than the stupid film

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    Chap on 22 Nov 2006 #

    Blish was considered a kid’s author? I don’t know if I would’ve got very far with Cities In Flight as a nipper.

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    Tom on 22 Nov 2006 #

    Time permitting, I want to cover a slightly later generation – John Christopher (tho the Tripods discussion has been had already I think), Jan Mark, Nicholas Fisk. I own no books by any of these people YET though read a few when younger.

  6. 6

    not all of blish BY ANY MEANS — ie not Cities in Flight and not Black Easter etc!!* — but his “rocketing round the solar system” stuff definitely! I SHALL SAY NO MORE FOR NOW

    *which from memory contains the terrific line “Thinkst to copulate with fallen seraphim?” and has Lucifer talking in pages in faux Miltonian verse…

  7. 7
    tracerhand on 22 Nov 2006 #

    i have heard of many of heinlein’s books as “young adult” novels

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    tracerhand on 22 Nov 2006 #

    heinlein’s books REFERRED TO as etc.

  9. 9

    i think there may have been an actual shift in the perception during his career — so that books written with normal adult SF readers in mind c.1952 felt as they were aimed at “young adults” by 1966, say (dates a bit arbitrary there)

  10. 10
    cis on 22 Nov 2006 #

    Rather than just being kind of Boys’-Own story as Asimov is, didn’t Clarke did a lot of explicitly for-kids novels as well? I remember one about some boy who ran away from his Uncaring Family to an island where they were researching talking to dolphins. Mind you even pk dick had his ‘nick and the glimmung’.
    I didn’t really recognise the boundary between scifi-for-kids and scifi-for-adults either, since my parents shelved all sci-fi together – though i think trying to read ballard was perhaps not a great idea.

  11. 11
    tom w on 22 Nov 2006 #


    one of my favorite books as a young’un; find it kinda unreadable now. one random bit with deadly minute sea creature scared me to the core. ranked next to ‘trillions’ on the uh bookshelf of my uh childhood.

  12. 12
    Pete Baran on 23 Nov 2006 #

    Trying to read Ballard sci-fi = never a good idea.

  13. 13
    cis on 23 Nov 2006 #

    Ballard scifi = They were all the same book! except in one the out-of-the-blue badness that took over the world and disrupted lives exposing how technology dehumanises mankind and leaving our hero to wriggle sideways into a new mode of existence happened in surrey and in another it happened in some kind of south east asian jungle.

    Dolphin Island, that was it! It’s a pity, really, it was v likeable and appealing but what I really remember about it is that I didn’t think the linguistics bit made sense and so got annoyed. (this idea that the easiest way to learn and understand a totally alien language was from listening to a mother teaching her child to speak – for some reason it felt untrue, and that really turned me off ACC for life.)

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