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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Old Term, New Trend: Space Opera

Sitting at a lunch for YA author Marissa Meyer and her Cinderella-as-android title Cinder the conversation turned to the current trend of fairy tales in literature and popular culture.  Aside from Meyer’s tale, no one else has really attempted to combine fairy tales and science fiction in a serious way for young adult readers.  It got me to thinking about the current crop of novels for kids and teens set in outer space.

With so many kids in love with Star Wars-related television shows, books, movies, etc. it has always surprised me that space isn’t more popular amongst middle grade and YA readers.  Why is this?  Do they associate space with little kids?  Is it fault of book jackets?  Or is this a case of poor labeling instead?

As any librarian will tell you, label a section of the library “Science Fiction” and you can pretty much guarantee that your circulation in that area will be lamentable at best.  Kids don’t go for sci-fi.  So here’s a proposal for you.  Consider, if you will, what would happen if you took all the space related fare and relabeled it “Space Opera”.

The term is hardly new, having been used for years in the adult fiction world, but it’s never been consistently applied to works for youth.  As defined by Wikipedia (as of this post, anyway) a space opera is “a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities.”

Definitions can be artificially applied if the need arises.  I wonder to myself if anyone has ever attempted this particular labeling for their MG and YA sections before.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. An interesting suggestion! But, playing devil’s advocate, I wonder if kids would associate the word “opera” with “stuffy adult nonsense” and still pass the section by?

  2. “As any librarian will tell you, label a section of the library “Science Fiction” and you can pretty much guarantee that your circulation in that area will be lamentable at best.”

    *Really?* Wow, more evidence I was a weird kid – the SF section was always my first stop in a new bookstore/library. I complain about the lack of SF for YA readers too (I try to do “Sci-Fi Friday” on my blog, but especially since I focus primarily on new releases it’s kinda hard to fill it regularly). That definition of Space Opera is something that is definitely right up young adult’s alleys (melodrama! romance! adventure!), though I share Julie’s concern about “opera” potentially being off-putting. And what about the science fiction that have nothing to do with space? I’d file lots of dystopian stories under SF for example, but most of them are on future Earths, not in space.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I worry that the lack of sales cuts down on publishers’ desire to put out many sci-fi titles, but the recent dystopian boom may have a hand in changing that. I too loved science fiction as a kid, but looking back I can’t say I knew many other girls that felt the same way. There are so many different kinds of science fiction (space opera, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, etc.) that it probably wouldn’t make sense to make separate sections for them all. But if you lump them all together, does it help at all?

  3. In terms of mixing fairy tales with science fiction there’s also this year’s A LONG, LONG SLEEP by Anna Sheehan (YA) which I thought was lovely (it’s got Sleeping Beauty elements in the main character who is wakened from a super-long cryosleep, and is a corporate “princess” of sorts).

    I am quite fond of the term space opera since I think it captures the notion that such books include tech/science elements but that the emotions and adventure and drama are centerstage. I’ve been calling my own new MG (Circus Galacticus) a space opera for lack of a better term, actually, since there are aliens and space ships, but the plot focus is on the characters and adventure (and the science is kind of hand-wavy in places too!).

    I do worry that there seem to be a lot of readers who fear science fiction because they think they are going to need to understand physics and engineering to enjoy reading it, which is not at all the case, especially in MG/YA. It has always seemed odd to me given the popularity of Star Wars (and Star Wars novels, I think?).

    I would love to see more scifi for YA and MG, especially more of the sort with aliens and spaceships and futuristic societies. When I was a kid I ate up Tripods, Star Trek novels, The Girl with the Silver Eyes and Anna to the Infinite Power, Earthseed, etc. Have you seen the new site focusing on YA (and MG) scifi:

  4. Stephanie Whelan says:

    I was a SF reader who scoured the shelves for the hot pink stickers that indicated the genre in my library growing up. The Girl with the Silver Eyes was one of my faves for a long time. In fact, the genre affected me so much that I’m making a hobby of collecting the old SF children’s titles from that time. Sean Senn also put out two Space Opera tales of an intergalactic cat: Spacebread and Born of Flame and I was so happy to get ahold of them earlier in the year so that I can hold onto the copies on my own bookshelves. I actually did my thesis on SF for kids, looking at it over the past 3 decades. The advent of MG SF really came about in the 70s, though things like the Tom Swift adventures have been around since the 1920s in one incarnation or another.

    But space travel fiction in general took a hit in the 90s . . . some of the reading I did suggested that this was due in part to a change in optimism about space travel and the future. The dreams of Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury of rocket ships and other worlds sort of . . . dwindled. And the quantity of SF went down for a while. Harry Potter gave a kick to fantasy in the later 90s, as did LOTR, but nothing really did that for SF for a while. There are some exceptions, like the Animorphs, of course, but for the most part I’ve only seen some hints at a resurgence of SF in the last handful of years. Particularly space faring SF or Space Opera. I don’t know if we’ll ever see quite the range of it that was out in my childhood, with the end of the Space Shuttles at NASA, a piece of that has died . . .

    Still always happy to see new SF out there, and old favorites reprinted. Whether it be Space Opera, Futuristic, Steampunk, Dystopian, or hard SF.

  5. I wonder if we made it super clear to readers that THE HUNGER GAMES is Science Fiction, if that would help change the perception? Dystopian fiction is pretty much always science fiction, whether young readers realize it or not.

    Hmm. Our library does file THE HUNGER GAMES in the science fiction section — but it’s never on the shelf, so I’m not sure if kids know it!