Intergalactic Playground: engrossing, insightful history of sf aimed at kids

Science fiction scholar and critic Farah Mendlesohn's latest book, The Intergalactic Playground: Children and Science Fiction is a keen-eyed, affectionate, insightful and cranky look at science fiction novels aimed at kids. Mendlesohn starts with some of the earliest kids-lit, from the thirties, and surveys all they way up to the present day, looking at how changes in work, adolescence and science education have changed the sort of work that gets published for young people.

In particular, Mendlesohn looks into the way that "extreme sport readers" -- kids who devour books at the rate of one or two a day -- have dropped out of the modern conception of how kids read (and how many of today's adult science fiction fans were that kind of reader in their childhoods). She also takes issue with the idea that books have to sneak up on kids in order to teach them things -- that kids never read fiction with the explicit goal of finding out how and why the world works -- an idea that has hammered a stake through the didactic traditions of science fiction.

Intergalactic Playground combines reader surveys, extensive literature review, and a distillation of the fights waged on kids-literature mailing lists, synthesizing them into a deep, intelligent, and engrossing read.

Intergalactic Playground


  1. Extreme sport readers is a great term for it. I was one, and now my six year old is one. He’s still at the Magic School Bus level of books, but heading for Heinlein juveniles fast. A noticeable percentage of extreme sport readers that I know read romance; and according to statistics, a significant percentage of romance readers are extreme sport readers.

  2. It dawned on pre-teens like myself in 1977, that something new was on the shelves of libraries and bookstores after the release of first STAR WARS. It was science fiction and it seemed to be so new.

    The malls were opening sections in bookstores shelved to the ceiling with DEL REY novels and more. Some sci fi bookstores were opening too, exclusively.

    There were great sources of fiction in periodicals of the 1970s including Starlog magazine, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone magazine and Analog, a benchmark in Science Fiction short publishing.

    In those pre-teen years, I discovered Frank Herbet, Alan Dean Foster, Frederick Pohl, Martin Silverberg and more.

    Kudos to branching out this way.

  3. When I was 12 (which would be about 1960)I had Hebrew unsuccessfully inflicted on me from a primer called “ROCKET TO MARS”, someone’s clever idea of making Hebrew interesting by putting it in the context of a trip to Mars. How fabulous and engrossing the sci-fi element was, I don’t remember exactly. Seems like a clumsy but earnest teaching idea…

  4. While I’m glad the book remembers that many of us read huge amounts as kids, it vastly underestimates the number of novels one kid can read in a single day on a regular basis. (If you’re not reading one or two short old novels per class period, you’re not really trying.)

    Why yes, someone did donate his entire paperback sf collection to one of my high school English teachers, and I did do my best to polish it all off. Why do you ask? :)

    Maria Lectrix

  5. Are there any good online sources for sci-fi for kids (young kids — under ten)? I’d love to find short stories (or longer) to read to my daughter…

  6. BTW, I wouldn’t count Heinlein. IMHO, his stories are a little to risque for an under 10 year old.

  7. Is Jules Verne ‘kids lit’? I read him & H.G. Wells in elementary school and enjoyed both (I was one of those “extreme sport readers” but still…) Sometimes ‘kids lit’ seems like another ghetto that kids have to escape from if they want the straight goods. Right now I’m reading Chester Himes autobiography which I can’t recommend strongly enough.

  8. @Phoghat (#6)- are you serious? Heinlein pretty much defined the YA/SF genre for decades. The dozen Juveniles he published are canonical.

    The only problem with them now is that they’re somewhat dated – My 11-year old has read (and enjoyed) around half of them, but they are less relevant to his life than they were to mine (and they seemed dated to me when I read them in the 70s). Fortunately, there are lots of great modern titles out there now.

    But the Heinlein juveniles are still the standard by which I judge SF for kids.

  9. When I was a kid I could read 3 or 4 books a day by authors like Asimov, Heinlein, Alan Nourse, and Andre Norton whose books made up the SF section of my library back in the 70s.

    Now I’m lucky if I read a book every week.

    Every so often I look at YA fantasy and SF and find it mostly horrible. The one YA author I’d recommend today is Garth Nix.

    BTW, Phoghat, Heinlein’s YA/juvenile SF, of which there are many well known examples, is generally superior to his grown-up stuff, IMO.

  10. Real Verne isn’t “kids lit”, but many English speakers aren’t familiar with faithful translations of Verne — only the abridged “children’s editions”, and so many assume that the French originals are that simplistic.

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