It was that momentous time of year when we roll up our sleeves and clean out the children’s bookshelf, which over long months of abuse has become more of a shelf with piles of unorganized and often neglected books. Some will be reorganized and returned to the shelf, some will be given to friends and relatives, some will be donated to the local library or some other charitable organizations, and few (if any, because they know the wrath that follows damaged books) will be beyond repair and destined to the great library in the sky.
The decisions that surrounds the fate of these books often involves some heartfelt reasoning and the occasional emotionally heated debate. Other times, the task of organizing the books is interrupted by reminiscing about a favorite book.
And then something odd happened. We stumbled across a little hardback book called The Fallen Spaceman by Lee Harding. Nobody remembers it. Nobody knows how it came to be in our possession. But this little discovery did bring to light an interesting aspect regarding the books that I review. There is a distinct absence of children’s books on my list, and that needs to change.
The Fallen Spaceman is a 1979 Weekly Reader Book from Harper & Row Publishers. At a mere 86 pages which also includes numerous sketches by John and Ian Schoenherr, this book is perfect for the young reader looking to make the jump from picture books to chapter books. Oh, and there are some interesting facts about this book and the people involved in its creation. But more on that later.
The story is cute. The theme is along the same lines as Ted Hughes classic 1968 novel The Iron Giant as the “human” characters struggle with the realization that a big mechanical beast is walking across the countryside and the fear of what carnage the thing might be able to do. But a more accurate comparison would be with Steven Spielberg’s theatrical hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial because it includes the aspect of a stranded alien and a mutual relationship with the children that discover him. In fact, the book has a lot of familiar elements that you might find in any number of books and movies. And that familiarity gave it a sense of comfortability, a sense of cuteness.
The tiny unnamed alien species just happened to be traveling by our planet when they grew curious and decided to stop and take a look – from space. But when the aliens eventually continued on their way, they did not realize that little Tyro was still outside the mothership repairing a camera.
With the starship vanishing into space, the spacesuit Tyro is in succumbs to Earth’s gravity and begins to plummet. The aliens are childlike in size, but the spacesuit is a monstrous five stories tall, and the ensuing crash draws the attention of two children, Erik and seven-year-old younger brother Stephen. While exploring the wreckage, Erik accidentally gets trapped inside the giant spacesuit. So when Tyro finally gets the vessel up and walking again, the authorities must proceed with caution.
The tension mounts as Tyro cannot breathe in Earth’s atmosphere and Eric cannot breathe the air inside the suit. In the end, Eric and Tyro form an unspoken bond (because neither one can speak the other’s language) as they fight to help each other survive.
Though the structure of the story is fitting for the young reader, the theme and content has more of an adult feel. It’s not too complicated and easy to follow, but the details of space travel and the concerns for life on a different planet are compelling enough to keep any reader interested in the characters as well as the plot.
Now for a few interesting facts:
The Fallen Spaceman first appeared as a short story in the May-June 1971 issue of Worlds of IF Magazine (ed. By Ejler Jacobsson from UPD Publishing Corporation) under the abbreviated tile Fallen Spaceman.
The May-June 1971 issue of Worlds of IF Magazine also happened to hold the appearance of something called The Fabulous Riverboat (part 1 of 2) from the one and only Philip José Farmer.
While still in college, artist John Schoenherr earned his first professional sale in 1956 with Amazing Stories. He is also a credited with the 1988 Caldecott Medal for his illustration work in Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.
Ian Schoenherr is one of John’s two children and is a successful illustrator and author in his own right.
Children’s books are crucial to science fiction fandom because of their influence on young minds and their ability to tie generations together with mere words and pictures. Hopefully we can share and discuss many more of them here at Amazing Stories. Feel free to make suggestions or tell us about one of those rare finding YOU might have had when cleaning out the old bookshelf or box in the basement.
As for The Fallen Spaceman by Lee Harding, it is an interesting little book with some big ideas, and an ideal introduction to the genre for young new readers.