Andre Norton and Me
by Sherwood Smith

For me, the old saw The Golden age of science fiction is twelve is too true to be funny.

Like many science fiction lovers of my generation, I discovered Andre Norton on the shelves at the junior high’s library. As usual, the protagonists were male, but unusual for that time, many of them were outcasts of various sorts, often from cultures other than the North American white majority.

I was as eager a writer as I was a reader. That dearth of active girl protagonists I mentioned above was one of the reasons I started writing my own stories during grade school. When I turned thirteen and took a typing class, with typical early teen enthusiasm and total lack of critical ability, I started sending my stuff to publishers, once I’d babysat long enough to earn the postage.

Surprise! After two years of trying, I reached the ripe old age of fifteen, and still no contract. Soon I would be too old, I mourned—for some reason I had this idea that once I got to high school I’d be too over the hill to write for kids! I no longer remember why I chose Andre Norton to write to, out of all the authors I loved passionately, but I did, explaining how hard I was trying, and asking how one went about getting published.

And she wrote back.

I am sure my letter was as whiny as it was long, but Andre Norton took me seriously. She gave me the advice that young writers now can find all over the Internet: learn your craft, keep trying. The third piece of advice that she gave me was to broaden my reading outside of fiction into history and anthropology, not just mythology and fairytales. She said that a writer could not build a believable world, future or fantastic, without understanding how we had gotten to where we were now. I took that advice.

Segue up a couple of decades. I was in my mid-30s, and had finally begun selling, when editor Jim Frenkel at Tor books approached me, saying that he heard I’d been a longtime fan of Andre’s. At that time she was trying to realize her dream: she wanted her home, High Hallack, to become a library dedicated to the science fiction and fantasy genre. But she needed to earn money to fund it, so she was taking on younger writers as collaborators for certain series. What Jim had in mind for me was Time Traders and Solar Queen.

Working with Andre Norton! I would never have dared to dream such a thing when I was that kid reader, checking her books out repeatedly from the library.

The road was not completely smooth, I discovered, when I received my first phone call from Andre. It seemed that Andre had intended some of her personal friends to be her collaborators for the series, and Andre had tried to read the first volume of Exordium, my science fiction collaboration with Dave Trowbridge. She not only found the tech confusing, she was horrified by the R-rated content. 

I promised her that my mandate for working with her was to try my best to match the series’ tone, not to change it. No wild sex on the Solar Queen! I sent her a couple of my young adult novels to demonstrate that I could write PG-rated fiction. My second phone call with her went a lot smoother. She liked the YA novels, and when we got to talking history and anthropology, she began to get enthusiastic about our stories together.

While she was reading my novels, I was rereading Time Traders and the Solar Queen series, which I hadn’t since high school. Wow. They were so very, very fifties. Cigar shaped rockets. Evil Russians. And the Baldies—the aliens with the big bald heads. These tropes, popular when I was a kid, had not aged well. But I had promised Andre that I would try to stay true to her original vision, and in our phone discussions, it became clear that, though she still read a great deal of anthropology and history for pleasure, she was not up on the rapidly changing world of high-tech. When I tried discussing ways of adapting the series for modern readers, it just made her confused and anxious.

So I turned to Dave Trowbridge, who generously became our silent (unpaid) collaborator, with Jim Frenkel’s blessing. I developed with Andre the basic plots, and I tried my best to keep the characters consistent with the series, yet give them a little modern dimension. But it was Dave who invented all the clever tech, and found ways to explain the fifties tropes, and jazz them up for modern readers.

Andre’s feedback was enthusiastic, and shortly before her final illness, she was still recommending interesting works about anthropology, and suggesting possible plots for both those series. But by far the greater proportion of our conversations was about establishing an award specifically for young adult science fiction and fantasy.

At that time, the YA boom was just beginning, and most awards were for mainstream novels. This disturbed Andre—she felt that genre writers for young readers had long been ignored when it came time for handing out plaudits. Meanwhile, book budgets were getting squeezed, and guess what genre was generally the first to go?

My initial thought was, who needs another award? But when I attended a number of literacy and educational conferences, and asked for a show of hands at panels (“Would a genre-specific award help with getting genre books into school libraries and classrooms?”) the overwhelmingly positive response caused me to get behind the idea.

Meanwhile, Andre’s staunch friends Ann Crispin and Catherine Asaro (then President of SFWA) threw their considerable energy and skills into getting the SFWA Board to institute a new award, under the Nebula umbrella, for young adult SF and F.

Andre was being wheeled into the hospital for what would turn out to be her final illness when the news was conveyed to her that the award was now established. Also, though she’d thought it ought to have a generic title, everyone agreed that it had to be named for her.

From time to time at cons, people come up to me to tell me that Andre first got them into science fiction. Most of them are older. I don’t know if the younger generation is discovering her work—I hope that her books will swing back into fashion. I think we’re far enough along that the dated aspects can become interesting as artifacts, but one thing I don’t think will ever date: Andre’s conviction that everybody can be a hero, regardless of race, creed, or physical ability.

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