Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer, a mum, a doll merchant, and in her spare time (ha!) likes to cut up fabric and sew it back together in an amusing fashion. She lives with her partner and our two constantly alarming little girls in Hobart, Tasmania, and she is one of the three voices of the Galactic Suburbia podcast. Her most recent book is Love and Romanpunk
The first kids SF novel I remember reading was The First Travel Guide to the Moon: What to Pack, How to Go, and What to See When You Get There (1980) by Rhonda Blumberg. It stuck with me for decades, with its cute cartoons and ridiculously detailed world-building. Trained up by Doctor Who from a very early age, I loved stories about space and aliens – and read the old Target novelisations by the bucketload. I recently passed a bunch of these novels on to a friend’s seven-year-old son and it’s extraordinary to watch him tear through them, and to have serious chats with him about Doctor Who stories that were made before even I was born.
I also still have my copy of Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left (1985), a classic Australian kids novel about an alien family on the run, trying desperately to pretend they are human – I still remember the protagonist, earnest twelve-year-old X, who worries so much about everyone that she forgets to take care of herself. Crazy screwball family stories are my favourite thing in the world, and it’s about time I shared this particular one with my eldest daughter!
Speaking of daughters, I have two of them (six and two years old) and I’m glad to say that they also both have a taste for science fiction. Rockets, robots and spaceships ahoy!
I’ve been complaining for years about how chapter books for young readers are so awfully gendered – not just in the colour and cover art, but also in subject matter. The ‘girl books’ are sparkly and enticing, and my six-year-old lunges for them with rainbows in her eyes, but really, how many books about fairy princess ponies does she need? So I was delighted the other week to spot a new Australian middle grade series which offers girl readers something a bit different: Star Girl, by Louise Parks. The books are set in the Space Education and Action School – the students live in space and go on missions to save planets. There are gadgets and spaceships and diagrams, along with the more traditional girl fare of friendship dramas and makeovers. I left one of the books lying around quite casually and before I knew it, my big girl had read her first chapter book solo!
Star Girl’s motto is ‘saving space – one planet at a time,’ and it’s hard to think of a more empowering message for girls than that.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of SF in my toddler’s book basket too – or, at least, as much as we have been able to find. A regular bedtime read is That’s Not My Robot, one of the brilliant Usborne touchy-feely books (we have Princess, Mermaid and Dragon too) – fun illustrations, bright colours and interactive panels. There’s also Charlie and Lola, who have been favourites in our household for a long time – two highly imaginative children with a gorgeous and realistic sibling relationship, playing and making their own adventures. The artwork for these books (written and illustrated by Lauren Child) is fabulous, using all manner of textures and collage techniques. Charlie and Lola’s imaginary play leads to all kinds of gorgeous settings, including space, and like all kids in the playground, they mix up their genre tropes quite happily, with aliens and jungles and witches and football all mashed together. My favourite (that really means something when you’ve read a picture book twenty or more times) is Whoops! But It Wasn’t Me, about the rocket Charlie builds at school out of milk bottle lids and yogurt containers, and how Lola accidentally destroys it. The science fiction and fantasy concepts in these books are (almost certainly) either metaphorical or entirely imaginary, but portrayed with great style and artistic flair.
Speaking of building rocket ships out of bottle tops, the star of our book pile is Jemima to the Rescue! Australian readers will guess that the Jemima in question is the rosy-cheeked doll from our iconic children’s TV show Play School, in which adult presenters entertain the kids at home by telling stories, singing and dancing, and making glorious things out of tin foil, cardboard boxes and construction paper. The TV show celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary this year (yes, really) and some of the toys have been used on the set since its very beginning.
Jemima is also our daughter’s name, so we were bound to love this book, which shows Jemima and Little Ted living on a space station. Drama ensues when they run out of honey for their toast. Mission Control is called, a rocket is sent up with a fresh supply, but an unlucky meteor shower bounces the honey right out of the rocket, and it drifts off into space…
“Jemima knew exactly what to do. She put on her space suit, and went for a space walk.”
A great feminist moment. She rescues the honey. The day is saved because Jemima is a big damn hero who is also good at her job. In space.
The illustrations are created by photographing the toys from the TV show (actual toys, not cartoon characters or puppets) along with a variety of simple, imaginative homemade props. The space station is a cardboard box. The comets are made with tin foil. The meteor shower is made from scrumpled up brown paper balls. Mission Control is Big Ted with pretendy specs. The whole effect is delightful and very Play School – it sums up my childhood memories of the show as well as those I now share with my daughters.
Every kid needs to know that you can make a space station out of a cardboard box.