Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock series, published by Fremantle Press and distributed by Penguin Australia. He recently put his teen/adult series on hold to write science fiction for younger readers. Hal Junior: The Secret Signal is available in print and ebook. Details can be found at http://www.spacejock.com.au/HalJunior.html.
Over the past few years I’ve attended dozens of schools, libaries and literary events, where I’ve enthused about science fiction to thousands of middle-grade readers. You might be wondering why I speak to this age group when I write for adults and teens, but that’s easily explained: I fell into it by accident. The teachers at my childrens’ school asked me to rev up a year six class, and it snowballed from there.
Thing is, I love talking to middle-graders about science fiction. Start a conversation about teleporters or space travel or robots and their eyes light up, boys and girls alike. They’re fascinated by the possibilities. Robots who take their owners for walkies after school, the security implications of teleporters in the home (what if someone sent a hand-grenade through? What happens to your health if you don’t even have to walk to the bus stop?), teleporters which subtract your excess body fat when you go through … it’s fantastic to throw out crazy ideas and get them thinking about the implications.
After all these school visits I realised it was time to write a novel for this audience. I did my usual amount of market research (none), and wrote a 200-page science fiction novel featuring a boy who lives aboard a huge space station in the distant future. It’s set in the same galaxy as my existing novels, where humanity has unlimited planets to choose from and life is peaceful.
My intention was to write something fairly realistic, with useful knowledge woven into the plot. I love writing humor, so that had to feature as well. Above all it had to be entertaining.
Once the novel was ready I looked around for similar titles, so I could pitch mine with a comparison. ‘Along the lines of x’ or ‘similar to y’ would be ideal. I searched for Australian titles first, since I was about to pitch Aussie publishers, and when I came up blank I was forced to cast a wider net.
Long story made short: I’m still searching.
People have suggested a few works, but I’ve been looking for distant future, realistic (even hard) science, with a bit of comedy to lighten things up. Not Jimmy Neutron, but Tintin’s Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon or William F. Temple’s Martin Magnus Planet Rover – with young protagonists. Middle-grade for readers 9+, not YA and definitely not dystopian. Fun, entertaining and educational.
I’m sure there are books out there which fit the criteria, and I’d love to read your suggestions in the comments because I’m not the only person asking where all the junior science fiction has gone. (Some of the titles suggested to me in the past had barely half a dozen sentences per page, with four or five words per sentence. I’ve attached a random page from Hal Junior so you can compare.)
Earlier I mentioned the Tintin duology of Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. My aunt sent me these for Christmas when I was 10 or 11, and they’re the reason I’m such a science fiction nut. If you’ve never read them, put down whatever you’re wasting your time on and get hold of a copy. First published in the early 50’s, they’re a wonderful mix of hard science, humor and extrapolation.
The other book I mentioned is a title by British author William F. Temple*. Published in 1954, Martin Magnus, Planet Rover was written as a futuristic “boys’ own” adventure novel. Martin Magnus is a reluctant troubleshooter equally at home in the depths of the ocean or deep space. Venus, Mars and the Moon are unexplored, and an alien species is wreaking havoc with undersea plantations off the coast of Spain. Earth is overcrowded, humanity is reaching for the nearby planets, and a major clash is on the cards.
One thing these titles have in common, apart from their early 50’s heritage, is that they make science fun. In the Tintin books, one character spends several pages explaining nuclear fission, and there are detailed plans of the moon rocket. Vehicles such as the lunar tank are totally believable, and you can tell a huge amount of thought and research went into the story.
The Magnus books deal with overcrowding on Earth, the over-use of scarce resources, and the steps that have been taken to remedy the situation. They’re almost sixty years old, but still a great read.
I just don’t see why we should have to reach back to the 1950’s for exciting and intelligent junior science fiction. There has to be a market out there, whatever publishers think, and if I have one goal with Hal Junior it’s to prove that middle-graders will read and enjoy realistic SF. After all, these kids will be living science fictional lives, so they might as well get a head start …
* If you want to know more about Martin Magnus, I’ve written an extensive article on the series. I’ve also been in touch with the copyright holder (the author’s daughter), and I recently volunteered to scan and proof my copies with a view to releasing them in ebook format. I’m happy to say the first will be out on Kindle very soon.