Wanted: Sympathetic Aliens in Children’s Literature

Posted on February 25, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction |

When he created the Star Trek franchise, Gene Roddenberry insisted that futuristic alien-human interspecies relationships were a metaphorical way of looking at present-day interracial relationships in the United States. In the utopian frame of the show–we are to assume Earth (including the U.S.) has already outgrown racial prejudices and that human beings are now at a stage where they are working to make nice with “humanoids” much more different from them than they are from one another.

In genre terms, Roddenberry wasn’t doing anything really new–aliens as outsiders, or “others” to borrow a postcolonial term, have a history almost as long as the genre itself. And though there’s plenty of adult science fiction that features space marines with big guns ready to exterminate any alien menace (genocide, anyone?), I’ll wager there’s an equal amount of adult science fiction that takes the notion of alien otherness quite seriously. I’ll spare you the full genre tour, but suffice it to say that as early as the 1930s, writers from the U.S. and elsewhere were creating sympathetic alien characters and using the relationships between those characters and their human counterparts to explore ideas about difference and tolerance (in terms of race, creed, color, gender, ability, etc.) that would not surface in popular discourse until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

On to the Amazon search I did this afternoon. I thought it would be fun to dig up some kid’s picture books on aliens as an oblique way of opening some points of discussion on difference and tolerance. I was assuming that what’s true of adult science fiction was likely true of kid’s SF as well. Imagine my surprise when I had trouble finding even a handful of picture books that featured sympathetic portrayals of aliens. And not that many overall that featured aliens of any kind. Doesn’t anybody remember how popular E.T. was, or even Lilo and Stitch? In chapter books, there were more aliens–but fewer of them sympathetic in any way. With rare exception, I was thrown back on the few titles I was already familiar with. I’ll list those in a minute, but right now, I’m still absorbing my—admittedly superficial and anecdotal–findings. But assuming those findings aren’t too far from the mark (including picture books and chapter books, I looked at well over 100 titles in Amazon’s 4-8 age bracket):

What does it mean that most readily available children’s books about aliens feature them as a evil invading armies rather than curious individual explorers? Or that those books that do include arguably harmless aliens generally characterize them as ugly, gross or stupid?

I think those questions are a lot more powerful left open, so I’m just going to skip to my recommended list of kid’s picture books featuring sympathic aliens (for chapter books, READ BRUCE COVILLE!):

Sector 7 by David Weisner
Surreal rather than typically sci-fi, Weisner nevertheless captures a playful friendship between a boy and a cloud.

Company’s Coming and Company’s Going by Arthur Yorinks
And why should we not simply invite the aliens over to dinner when they arrive?

George Hogglesberry, Grade School Alien by Sarah Wilson
New to me, but definitely on my get-it list: George is an alien new to Earth and new to school. Great example of what could be happening with the trope in kid lit.

Andy the Alien by Jeffrey Scott Chase
Bending the picture-book definition here, but Andy, our fictional tour guide to the actual universe, looks like such fun.

Hedgie Blasts Off by Jan Brett
Okay, so other than the talking dogs, the aliens here aren’t all the most responsible cosmic citizens, but there’s certainly nothing mean or threatening about them.


4 Responses to “Wanted: Sympathetic Aliens in Children’s Literature”

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Aha! These are the books I should be writing!

Seriously, I find this shocking. Typical in the current political and world climate though. Have you checked publishing records and plans before 9-11 to see if there was a radical change? Wouldn’t surprise me. But if it happened, it’s all the more reason to start hunting for something new!

Hedgie Blasts Off is a winner here. I’ve read it about 44 times now. The little non-reader can’t get enough of it.

I’ll add one that’s on my mind because we just coughed up about $25 to replace the library copy that turned out to be hiding right under the driver’s seat in our minivan:

Daniel Pinkwater’s Mush, A Dog From Space. As you might expect from Pinkwater, it’s funny as all get out.

What does it mean that most readily available children’s books about aliens feature them as a evil invading armies rather than curious individual explorers?

One of the psychological elements of warfare is dehumanizing the enemy. So in this instance, the author’s work is already done if the enemy isn’t human to begin with.

Or that those books that do include arguably harmless aliens generally characterize them as ugly, gross or stupid?

Simple… aliens are the new minority–the only politically-correct ones at that. They are the latter-day blacks, immigrants, “injuns”–pick your favorite underclass out of American history. Except there’s been no Alien Civil Rights Movement to put an end to the abuse. So aliens are the meta-underclass, the universal inferior. Even “Toy Story” ran afoul of this with the cultish, isolated, and naive aliens from the Crane Game. So…

I don’t think we learned much from all those Star Trek re-runs.

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