Of SF, Kids And Outreach

Thanks to Harlan Ellison, the SF blogosphere is awash with reactions to the Harlan Ellison Grope. It seems that almost everyone has something to say about Ellison, with reactions to the actual WorldCon panels being quite muted. However, David Brin has an interesting post about how the Con panel deliberately (I’m not sure how he knows that) chose to eviscerate nearly all panels about SF education or outreach to new generations. In fact, Brin is the only person I’ve seen that had that reaction, no one else even mentioned this. Brin goes on to castigate the fan organizations for failing to do much, if any, actual outreach to the younger set. Now, I know this has been talked about somewhat in the recent past. In fact, I see Scalzi jumping up and down (keeping one hand on his tiara lest it fly off and lodge itself in Cthulhu’s maw, causing He Who Must Not Be Named to choke horribly and possible rend the very fabric of space and time) screaming: “Me! Me! I wrote about it in December!”. To which I say, pipe down and keep your shirt on, we’ll get to you in a minute! Brin goes on to present some anecdotal, but I believe accurate, evidence concerning the number of elderly attendees being equal to or greater than the number of kids at the con.

First, a personal note. My oldest son (just now 10), loves to play video games. He’ll sit in front of the TV and play games for hours, all day if we’d let him. Among his favorite games are Star Wars Battlefront I and II, various Starfox games and Knights Of The Old Republic II. Seeing has how he is a Star Wars game fanboy, I thought I’d try to interest him in watching the original trilogy. He was not interested! He said he’d rather play the games and take part in the story (OK, he didn’t say it like that, but that was the gist of it) than be a passive observer of a movie. Of course, he loves the animated Clone Wars DVDs. So much for the intellectual consistency of a 10 year old. Anyway, at least he’s interested in the SF games, but I suspect it just part of his overall fondness for games in general. But, being 10 years old, he is in that age category where kids are most likely, so its been said, to become hooked on reading SF, the 10 – 12 year olds.

The funny thing is, my son is a good reader, he just doesn’t like to do it for fun. If he does pick up a book, its usually an astronomy or science related book (which is good!), but I want him to learn that reading can be just as enjoyable as any game, and maybe even better. And while non-fiction science books are great, reading can be more than that. Now, we just moved into a bigger house and this necessitated a move into a new school district. This district, Tomball ISD, has an Advanced Reading program throughout all its schools. This AR program assigns a difficulty level and points to books, based on their subject matter, writing style, etc. The kids get to pick which books they want to read, and when finished, take a 10 question test about that book. They get a percentage of the books points based on how well they do on the test. If the book is work 10 points, and they get 80% of the questions right, they get 8 points. At the end of each nine-weeks, the points are added up and a letter grade is assigned for the AR portion. Now, on first blush, this sounds like a great way to get kids to read. But, there was a reason I went into the gory details. Not only are the kids forced to read, its a grade after all, but they have to take a test after they finish each book. This isn’t fun, its work. During the meet the teacher night, I looked at the AR books in my son’s class. There were about 15 or so bins of books, labelled as to type. There several ‘general fiction’, ‘non-fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ bins. How many ‘science fiction’? One. I didn’t get a chance to poke through it, but from what I could see, there were no SF books that I recognized. Now, to be fair, there is a giant AR list of books, and there are several Heinlein and Card books on it, but those weren’t evident in my son’s 5th grade classroom.

‘That’s interesting and all, but whats your point?’, I hear you ask. Well, remember the Scalzi post from above? In it, he makes some good points, among them being that SF needs authors who are unapologetic about writing SF for non-SF readers and how the SF community needs to reach out to the general reader populace. He then follows that post up with another post about Gateway SF Books. But look at condition #2: ‘While I love Young Adult books, focus on SF marketed to adults’. Then go back and read Brin’s comments about the aging of SF. Then re-read Scalzi’s post on outreach. whats missing? SF for kids. To me, the best way to grow SF and SF readers, is to get kids hooked on SF. While I applaud the attempt at a Gateway SF list (I’ve toyed with doing the same thing here, but Scalzi has done a much better job), I don’t think aiming for the adults is the best way to go. While you may convert a few adults, I doubt you will make rabid SF readers out of them. Not so with kids. lets face it, one of the cool aspects of SF is the sense of wonder inherent in most stories, the ability of SF to make you look at something in a new and different manner, or to encounter something you might have otherwise. In effect, to be a kid again and to experience something for the first time, and to be affected by it, to be moved by it, to be awed by it. SF is a much harder sell to adults who are set in their ways and are used to looking at the world in a certain manner. Kids don’t have that problem. They haven’t formed a worldview yet. They are experiencing something new every day. I believe there is no better time to reach someone than when they are a child. This is where the outreach programs should be focusing. I’d love to see someone, anyone, trolling the SF community, asking for book donations, then donating those books to school libraries. I’d like to see some organization make a concerted effort to actually reach the kids in schools, and not just through books. Why not a 30 minute tour of SF, showing film clips and reading excerpts from books? At the very least, its something different from regular school work and an attempt to equate SF with fun, not work. And I think that is the key. If we can make SF fun to read, the rest will take care of itself. So, I would add a codicil to Scalzi’s statement that reads: “We need SF authors who are unapologetic about writing kid accessible SF’. And by kid accessible I mean lose the sex and drug references. That stuff can come later. First and foremost, kids SF should be fun to read. This will make outreach that much easier to accomplish.

Is there anyone out there trying to do any of this, because SF, if we want to grow the genre’s base, needs this to happen.

4 thoughts on “Of SF, Kids And Outreach”

  1. Scott Westerfeld is doing that with SF-nal stuff. I know Cory Doctorow is working on some SF YA. Not a lot just yet, but with Nancy Farmer and Phillip Reeves books I’d say there is a lot of SF YA when I go browsing. More would be better, of course :-)

  2. Given the success of Harry Potter, one would think the idea of creating a compelling young SF character (or troupe of characters) would be a surefire way to start up a franchise. None of faux teenage angst of Ender Wiggins, just an easily relatable teenager in an SF setting. Give’em a funny alien companion of robot (a thoroughly justified act in YA SF).

  3. Hello there!

    I wandered onto this page from http://www.Bookninja.com.

    I have two questions:

    1. What’s the difference between outreach and marketing?

    2. Wasn’t the name change from “science fiction” to “speculative fiction” an attempt at rebranding the genre?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Franklin Carter

    Toronto

  4. A sure fire way to kill an inititive would be to set up a commitee to promote it.

    Anyway if Brin and Scalzi really want kids to read more sci-fi then they should write some good kids sci-fi novels…pretty simple, no?

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