The Young Adult Science Fiction
Novel as Bildungsroman
Michael M. Levy
Each semester in my children’s and adolescent literature classes we examine a variety of novels for children ages ten through sixteen, novels that more often than not center on the difficulties of growing up. Some—Harriet the Spy (1964) and The Chocolate War (1973), for example—do so from a more or less realistic perspective. Others—The Eyes of the Amaryllis (1977), Godstalk (1982), and House of Stairs (1974)—use fantasy or science fiction for a similar purpose. In book after book a young, frustrated, and somewhat immature protagonist is confronted by a serious problem, struggles with it, learns something about the nature of good and evil in the world, deals with the problem, and emerges a more mature and more humane human being.
A novel that contains this sort of material and that is written for an adult audience is generally referred to as a bildungsroman, and I have tended to use that label in my children’s and adolescent literature classes as well, but it occurred to me at some point that I had rarely seen the term used in print by scholars in the field. A search of the literature reinforced this impression. Curiously enough, however, most of the small number of references that I did find to the children’s or adolescent novel as bildungsroman pertained specifically to young adult (YA) science fiction. Indeed, at least one writer has specifically commented on the unique relevance of the bildungsroman structure to science fiction for the young reader (Donner 261).
My purpose here is to survey a number of science fiction (SF) novels written for children and young adults each of which qualifies to a greater or lesser extent as a bildungsroman using the standard definition of that term as formulated in modern times by Jerome Buckley and others. It is not, however, my intention to imply that every YA science fiction novel fits that genre. Many such tales simply qualify as light adventure. Others deal with the topic of the moral growth of their