31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Science Fiction for Kids
It’s my secret love. Science fiction, when written for children, can be utterly eye-opening. Countless interviews with groundbreaking scientists attest to the fact that in their early years they were entranced by media and literature that tapped into the unknown. Today, I’m breaking it down into different sections. Our categories today will be Picture Books, Early Chapter Books, Middle Grade Fiction, and Comics. You may see some familiar titles from previous lists this month. They are more than welcome to appear again. I wouldn’t call this a definitive list of any kind, but I truly enjoyed each and every last one of these titles.
2020 Science Fiction for Kids
The Barnabus Project by Terry, Eric and Devin Fan
Barnabus is half mouse, half elephant, and an utter failure as a genetically modified pet. So when he and his imperfect friends decide to make a break for freedom, you’re with them every step of the way. Man. Cute and cuddly just got DARK! And I like it! This is an interesting departure for the Fan brothers. Usually they go for the detailed and dreamy rather than the detailed and technical. Here they’re plumbing their inner Jill Barklem to bring us this story of pets that don’t check off enough “cutesy” boxes. By gum, if this isn’t made into a Dreamworks film in the next 5 years I’ll eat my hat. I like this weird little book.
Nonstop by Tomi Ungerer
Here’s how good Tomi Ungerer was right up until the end. As I was reading this book, I somehow convinced myself that it must be a reprint of his earlier work. Sure, it was weird, but no stranger than anything else you might find in the experimental 60s (I mean, have you seen Yellow Yellow by Frank Asch and Mark Alan Stamaty?). It was only when I was reading Tomi’s bio on the backflap of the book that I came to this final sentence: “Nonstop is his last picture book.” Wuh? Guess I missed the words “A Master Storyteller’s Final Work” on the cover. When you see the book for yourself you’ll have to agree that this is pretty amazing. Even more so when you figure the man wrote and illustrated this book without ever seeing how 2020 would play out. Because, honestly, this book feels like the year we just had taken to its next logical extreme. In it a fellow named Vasco is the last person on earth (all the other humans departed for the moon instead). Wandering the streets, Vasco finds that if he takes the advice of his shadow, he can avoid a series of unfortunate events. The book has all the illogical logic of a nightmare, but shifts in tone slightly when Vasco meets two strange creatures and obeys the mother’s wish to take her baby to safety. I got quite invested in Vasco and Poco’s subsequent adventures and while the ending is a happy one, it’s also wistful and sad. A perfect capper to a perfectly madcap career.
Early Chapter Books
Albert Hopper, Science Hero by John Himmelman
Join intrepid science explorer Albert Hopper and his equally fearless (sorta) niece and nephew as they drill down to the center of the Earth! Science facts merge with wacky adventures. Fun for all! Thank goodness for John Himmelman. I still consider his Bunjitsu Bunny books to be the gold standard for early chapter book fare. This book is launching in a more science based direction, but you don’t feel bombarded by the factual information that’s hidden on the pages. I do honestly feel like I learned quite a lot about the Earth’s interior with this title. My 5-year-old just liked it because it was funny. Win-win.
The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian: The Fuzzy Apocalypse by Jonathan Messinger, ill. Aleksei Bitskoff
It started as a podcast. As it describes itself, “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian is a serialized science-fiction story for kids, told in 15-20 minute episodes for parents to put on when driving around town, or to marathon on road trips, or to bond over before bed. When pressed, we describe it as a ‘mystery gang’ story, sort of like Scooby-Doo meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in space.” Okay then. With that in mind I wasn’t certain how an early chapter book series would stand up when read by children who had never encountered the podcast before. And at first I had other worries as well. I’m always a bit peeved with the single-girl-hanging-out-with-a-bunch-of-differentiated-guys motif when I encounter it. If your personality trait is just “the girl”, that is a problem. Fortunately, the sole girl is also the Captain, though at this point in the proceedings her job appears to be going head-to-head with our hero. Other aspects were more delightful. Aliens with oversized heads and brains. An evil (or is it?) space bunny. And a truly funny sequence involving an explanation of what happens when your planet is “bananaed” or “coconutted”. With a goofy robot sidekick and lots of space weirdness, I’d say this is more Tom Swift meets Star Trek meets Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else. Good clean space fun.
Robot the Robot Is Here to Help! by Matt Youngmark
Sneaking into that hard-to-find transitional period of late easy/early chapter books, this spunky little book by Youngmark is an enticing blend of good science fiction, non-binary gender roles, and sweet storytelling. Robot the Robot, who identifies as neither male or female, slowly learns to expand its role. There are lots of slick little details placed oh-so casually in the book. I loved that the first scientist Robot meets is female. I love that when it meets an alien named Yuli that it’s a cloud person from the planet Cumuli who fills a large glove so that it can use sign language to communicate. It even has killer bunnies! Who could ask for anything more? It’s funny and strange and wonderful. Do NOT let this one pass you by.
Middle Grade Fiction
Bloom by Kenneth Oppel
Sorry, I’ll try to pry my fingers off of my seat where I’ve been gripping it ever since I read this book. Oppel, man. You forget how good he can be at action and tension. With a somewhat slow start, he turns this science fiction bit of apocalypse (via plant!) fiction into a real stunner. Three kids discover that there may be something special about them. When insidious plants begin to take over the planet (think Little Shop of Horrors on steroids) they may be the only hope humanity holds. But why are they so different from everyone else (and so similar to one another?). I was gripped. Best of all the sequel Hatch is out this right now and I’m enjoying the audiobook as we speak. Grotesque thrills for all!
In the Red by Christopher Swiedler
A couple years ago a mother reached out to me with a request. Her 10-year-old loved realistic science fiction. Really hard-core stuff like The Martian, and she wanted to give him stuff that tapped into that feeling but was a little more appropriate for his age. I gave her a set of different options and probably mentioned two Mars-related novels (Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson and Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall) I’d enjoyed that might have had one too many aliens to be strictly accurate but were still fun. If only In the Red had been around then. Essentially it’s The Martian, but with panic attacks for extra added oomph. Sometimes you just need an exciting middle grade novel and Swiedler delivers. Pulse pounding is the way to describe it (I recommend the audiobook, though the reader is TERRIBLE at female voices). If you ever thought you might feel claustrophobic in a spacesuit, this may not be the ideal book for you. For everyone else, it’s a trip. I would have appreciated the book to lean on gender stereotypes just a little less hard (the fellow female lead takes a LONG time to have a moment that isn’t about the hero and it still goes for the archaic “girls are crazy” trope that we could all do without), but all told it’s a pretty darn good Mars novel. Right up there with Emerson and McDougall’s, that’s for sure.
Fun Fun Fun World by Yehudi Mercado
Minky is desperate to prove that he can succeed where no other alien has and defeat the planet Earth. Then the invasion turns into helping a boy named Javi get an amusement park up and running. Fun fun fun and filled with delicious churros! In the case of Mercado, he’s one of the few Latinx graphic novel author/illustrators out there. This is your basic aliens-come-to-earth story and those aforementioned churros play a BIG part in the narrative (you can even make out one on the cover). I think this works really well and who doesn’t love a deranged Walt Disney-esque character?
My Video Game Ate My Homework by Dustin Hansen
What do you do when a virtual reality game eats the science fair project that was going to save you from summer school? This accessible adventure has the answer. The book is actually custom made for dyslexic readers. No black on white text (the whole thing is brown on cream), a hidden message for dyslexic kids who use overlays, and sparser text where there is more happening visually. I wasn’t blown away by it, but I did find the solution to the science fair project conundrum clever. Certainly worth keeping in the mix.
Once Upon a Space-Time! by Jeffrey Brown
Aliens have landed! Thanks to a kindly invasion, two kids are tapped to explore outer space with a cadre of friends from other planets. But will the grown-ups sabotage their plans in the end? I’ve always like Brown’s series with the Neanderthals, but the jokes didn’t always land as strongly as I could have hoped. That is not an issue with his newest series. Like the Neanderthal stories, this one is full of facts (now about space), but it’s also incredibly funny. If fault be found, it may lay with the ending, which sort of pulls together a last minute crisis that’s hard to get invested in. Still, gotta love that Toby.
The Postman From Space by Guillaume Perreault, translated by Françoise Bui
Bob’s a simple space postman who loves his regular routine. So what’s he supposed to do when the Boss gives him a wacky new route with strange planets and kooky inhabitants? It’s easy to forget about comics for the younger readers sometimes. This book may clock in at 142 pages or so, but it’s essentially a short story for kids. It all boils down to getting out of your comfort zone and how that isn’t a fun experience at first, but can grow on you. It’s gentle, this one. A lovely tone to it, fun peppy art, and how can you not love a book that makes fun of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince? I loved the tiny hidden fox on the planet and the fact that the Prince (called Mr. Small here) is kind of a jerk.
School for Extraterrestrial Girls: Girl on Fire by Jeremy Whitley, ill. Jamie Noguchi
Think you’ve been embarrassed at school? Try catching on fire. When Tara discovers she’s a combusting lizard from space, she is promptly whisked away to a special school for aliens. Will she find friends or remain the weird loner? Black girls may star in any number of middle grade books, but find me a good graphic novel or comic where they get to be cool sci-fi aliens. I can name just about one – this one. It’s fun, and I had to prise it from the clutching fingers of my children to bring my library copy back to work. I like any story where the protagonist finds out they’re special in some way. Spontaneous human combustion makes for great writing! Love the plot (and I loved reading the cat sisters with their Russian accents to my kids). My one concern is its off-handed treatment of gender binary. Whitley plays super fast and loose with the fact that this is a school of “girls”, tossing off the fact that one conservative planet has seven genders, and then not addressing the issue at all. Considering how many science fiction books I’ve read that contain a multitude of pronouns, this feels like a cop out. Otherwise, the book is remarkably strong.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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