fantasy, sci-fi and the Jewish reader

Thanks to my brother-in-law Joshua, I just heard about a wonderful new graphic novel called Hereville. The subject: an 11 y o Orthodox girl fights trolls. With a little research, I discovered that this is currently the #1 Jewish book for kids being sold on Amazon. This doesn’t surprise me in this least. There is a dearth of fantasy and sci-fi books for Jewish kids out there, but there is certainly demand.

Look at the popularity of Harry Potter novels, Percy Jackson adventures, The Dragonriders of Pern, the Circle of Magic series (by Tamora Pierce), The Blue Sword and other books by Robin McKinley, and all those early Heinleins (in his pre-Stranger in a Strange Land days when he still wrote “appropriate” material). Frankly, kids crave these types of books. Why? 1) Kids and teens want to be experience more than their everyday lives. This is escapism from the discomforts of childhood–bullying, homework, parental rule, etc. 2) Kids and teens are still learning to be comfortable with themselves. They have yet to learn many of their personal strengths and often feel inadequate. Many of them hope their hidden talents will “magically” come out and prove them to be special (maybe they’ll even save the world!), a common theme in many of these books.

Jewish kids are no different in these psychological needs. Some frum parents let their kids read secular sci-fi books, but there are a lot of problems with unrestricted access to them. Many fantasy books incorporate pantheism, animism, and avodah zara. Some (His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, for example) are outright anti-religion. Others describe magic as an appealing alternative religion (many Tamora Pierce books).

Sci-fi books also frequently espouse atheism or portray Science as religion. Moreover, many frum people are uncomfortable with idea of life on other planets, though it is not clear that this opinion has a sound basis in our tradition. Another big barrier in portraying the future is that Moshiach must come, and most rabbeim hold He’ll arrive by the year 6000 on our calendar. Finally, the rigors of space travel introduce unwieldy elements into narratives about Jewish characters: halachic times, Shabbos, kashrus, etc. all must be dealt with.

I think we’re slowing coming to grips with these issues. I’ve seen some fantasy and sci-fi in the fiction department on A few years ago, there was a fun adult novel of speculative fiction by David Shapiro called The Promise of G-d, and an anthology called Wandering Stars which is Jewish, though certainly not Orthodox. On the juvenile literature front, time travel has become an acceptable subgenre somehow–there’s The Devil’s Apprentice and Trekking Through Time. In 2009, a blogger described the 2009 Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference at the 92nd Street Y. There, participants were told that among the “in demand” topics was time travel, and that one lecture was about writing Jewish books for the “Twilight Generation”.

There was a piece in HaModia for You set in space last year, and currently the Aim tween supplement to Ami Magazine has a serial with a sci-fi mystery called “To the Edge of the Galaxy.” (disclaimer: I co-author it with Beth Firestone). Ami specifically wanted a sci-fi spin on the serial.

And now there’s Hereville. The reviews I’ve seen are great, and the readers aren’t just religious or even just Jews. Maybe the time for authentically Jewish sci-fi and fantasy books has come. It would be my fantasy come true!

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