Ready, Set, Sci-fi! Books that bring the realm of SFF to transitional readers | Great Books

With the growing cultural footprint of superhero stories and other forms of fantasy and science fiction, academics have begun to examine the impact of these genres on young readers. These ten titles are an excellent introduction to the rich possibilities of early speculative fiction.

With the growing cultural footprint of superhero stories and other forms of fantasy and science fiction, academics have begun to examine the impact of these genres on young readers. As Dr. Esther Jones (among others) has argued, speculative fiction may provide children and teens with tools for contemplating the universe’s possibilities—including uncomfortable ones—and developing resilience (bit.ly/3oAUow4). Exploring new ideas, bounded only by human imagination, encourages creative thinking and might even foster acceptance of scientific understanding (bit.ly/2XndJF2).

Our middle grade shelves teem with enchanted sagas, supernatural scares, and spectacularly advanced technologies. But fans of speculative fiction don’t just appear out of thin air like, well, magic. These chapter books present fantastical adventures and futuristic flourishes to a younger audience transitioning into a new, independent stage of literacy. Offering features like frequent illustrations, extension activities, text scaffolding, and others, these titles provide support for burgeoning readers ready to exercise their powerful imaginations.

AKULUKJUK, Roselynn & Danny Christopher. Putuguq & Kublu and the Qalupalik. illus. by Astrid Arijanto. Inhabit Media. 2019. ISBN 9781772272284.
Gr 1-3–Arctic First Nations siblings get an educational scare when their grandfather shares the story of the Qalupalik, an Inuit sea goblin who snatches children walking too close to the shoreline. Simple comics panels pair with straightforward text and a dollop of prankster humor for a brisk introduction to the wisdom that underlies creepy cautionary tales.

AUXIER, Jonathan. The Fabled Stables: Willa the Wisp. illus. by Olga Demidova. Abrams/Amulet. 2020. ISBN 9781419742699.
Gr 1-3–In this series opener, a young white boy named Auggie tends a menagerie of magical animals and travels through a portal to rescue an ethereal rabbitlike creature from malicious hunters. Vibrant full-color illustrations support a lyrical chapter book text in this warmhearted fantasy about helping your friends and protecting the vulnerable.

BOWLES, David. 13th Street: Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats. illus. by Shane Clester. HarperChapters. 2020. ISBN 9780062947802.
Gr 1-3–Pura Belpré honoree Bowles jumps into a fast-paced supernatural series peppered with video game flourishes, goofy horror baddies, and Spanish vocabulary. After the mysterious Doña Chavela misdirects them onto eerie 13th Street, cousins Malia, Ivan, and Dante must band together (joined by a friendly calavera) to escape giant bats with scarily bad breath. The energetic series continues with fire-breathing weasels, joke-telling cougars, and electric sharks.

FANG, Vicky. Layla and the Bots: Happy Paws. illus. by Christine Nishiyama. Scholastic Branches. 2020. ISBN 9781338582895.
K-3–A young Black girl inventor and rock star joins forces with her robot pals to develop inquiry-based solutions to human and canine problems. Blending speech bubbles and simple narrative text, the colorful, cartoony artwork captures the high-key charm one might expect of a child performer who engineered her own robotic backup band. Come for the Steven Universe vibe, stay for the critical thinking questions and STEM challenge.

GRIFFITH, Leanne. The Magnificent Makers: How To Test a Friendship. illus. by Reggie Brown. Random. 2020. ISBN 9780593122983.
Gr 1-3–Neuroscientist Griffith interweaves science and social-emotional learning, spotlighting a diverse trio of classmates mysteriously transported into the Maker Maze, a magical laboratory that fosters knowledge and inquiry. With eccentric Dr. Crisp’s encouragement, Violet, Pablo, and Deepak must apply their understanding of ecosystems—and navigate their evolving friendships—to earn the right to return to the Maze.

LERNER, Jarrett. Geeger the Robot Goes to School. illus. by Serge Seidlitz. Aladdin Quix. 2020. ISBN 9781534452176.
K-3–A robot designed to consume food waste decides to enroll in school, resulting in mild confusion, some ingestion of school supplies, and at least one new friend. Abundant black-and-white illustrations add to the goofy charm of this hybrid tale: a new-kid-at-school story crossed with Amelia Bedelia–like mix-ups, wrapped in a sci-fi shell.

MIEDOSO, Andres. Desmond Cole, Ghost Patrol: Beware the Werewolf. illus. by Victor Rivas. S. & S. 2020. ISBN 9781534479562.
Gr 1-3–The latest entry in this gently spooky series sees scaredy-cat Andres and his ghost-catcher pal, Desmond, tracking down a werewolf. Frequent black-and-white illustrations and cliff-hanger chapter endings propel readers through these supernatural stories, further enlivened by Andres’s incredulous narration. At 12 books and growing, this series offers a solid backlist of not-too-scary thrills.

MONTIJO, Rhode with Luke Reynolds. The Gumazing Gum Girl: Cover Blown. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2019. ISBN 9781368048170.
Gr 1-4–In her fourth outing, Gabby Gomez brings her stretchy superpower to Mexico to visit her uncle, a famous luchador and archaeologist named Sol Azteca. With shades of Indiana Jones–style exploration in a Maya pyramid, Gabby and her brother learn about their Indigenous heritage and snag some new wrestling moves—while reforming a bully and the bad guy—all depicted in Montijo’s eye-popping two-color illustrations.

NARSIMHAN, Mahtab. Genie Meanie. illus. by Michelle Simpson. Orca Echoes. 2021. ISBN 9781459823983.
Gr 1-4–When Kiara inherits a genie from her Indian grandmother, she hopes the magic can save her and her best friend from the school bully. Zayn initially seems unhelpful. He won’t even invisibly punch their tormenter! Narsimhan humorously explores the downsides to magic in a mundane world, and the genie’s sarcasm hides his savvy: He coaches Kiara to gather her courage and end the bullying herself.

SOONTORNVAT, Christina. Diary of an Ice Princess: Snow Place Like Home. illus. by Barbara Szepesi Szucs. Scholastic. 2019. ISBN 9781338353938.
Gr 1-3–In the opener for the rapidly expanding series, Lina’s grandfather, the North Wind, tutors her as she struggles to wield her icy powers, while trouble brews down below in Lina’s first year at a science magnet “Groundling” school. This biracial, science-minded scion of a wind-taming family offers a welcome breath of fresh (cold) air to the fairy princess shelf.


Robbin Friedman is a children’s librarian at the Chappaqua (NY) Library. She has served on the Newbery Committee and chairs ALSC’s Budget Committee.

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LJ User

Hi! These are some great books, but 7 out of the 10 of them are not science fiction; they're fantasy. There is a big difference.

Posted : Feb 26, 2021 03:10


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