The Secrets of the Heinlein Juvenile

One of the most common ways for someone to start reading science fiction is picking up one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “juveniles”—a series of novels aimed at teen readers. Fans tell stories of finding one in the library or having their father hand them a copy.

My father died too young to push books on me, but I found the juveniles on the shelves he left behind. They stood out by the wear on their covers. Those books hadn’t been read once and forgotten. They were well loved.

I loved them, too (well, most of them). I re-read them regularly. They were powerful influences on me. Starship Troopers is part of why I joined the military, and helped me overcome the resistance I faced (it was not a popular choice where I grew up). Citizen of the Galaxy cemented my conviction of the importance of freedom.

Other people have similar tales. What is less often discussed is why those books have such a powerful impact.

J. Daniel Sawyer is tackling that question. In The Secrets of the Heinlein Juvenile, he analyzes all the books in detail, looking at the structure, themes, and tropes Heinlein used to build those stories. Sawyer draws on models of story structure such as the Hero’s Journey to explain the plots and tension in the stories. I was dubious about that because I’ve seen the Hero’s Journey overused to the point of Procrustean forcing, but Sawyer shows four models Heinlein used—the Hero’s Journey, the complementary Heroine’s Journey, the Horatio Alger bootstrap structure, and boy’s adventure story—and how appropriate pieces were used to make each story work.

He digs into how Heinlein created stories to appeal to teenage boys (the market the publisher wanted to target) while still being enjoyable by adult men and women. Part of the strength of the stories is how they connected to other parts of our culture, other stories and traditions that readers might know, and if not probably should.

Breaking out all those characteristics is useful for authors who want to write a novel in that tradition. Sawyer had helpful advice for how to outline and write a juvenile using those techniques. My work in progress queue is full enough I don’t expect to write a YA any time soon, but if and when I do I’ll be coming back to this book for advice.

There’s a Kickstarter going on right now for the book. I read and enjoyed a beta draft. I’m looking forward to seeing the additions in the final version. If you love these stories, or are thinking of writing novels for teens, I urge you to check it out.

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