This is my favorite Robert Heinlein book. Now, granted, I’ve only read 3 of his books, which I know is a problem that needs to be fixed…but one of those books is the fantastic “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
And I still like this unassuming space adventure story better. It was Heinlein’s last Young Adult novel, and there is something special about it. I’ve now read it twice, the second time to my kids. My then seven-year old liked it and was caught up in the story and many times was eager to find out what happened next.
Part of it is that its viewpoint protagonist, Clifford (Kip for short), is just so darn likable. A recent High School graduate, his simple goal is to go to the moon, and as you can probably expect, he gets caught up in circumstances that take him not just to the moon, but then to Pluto, and then beyond…and then beyond even that.
And through it all he maintains his humor while remaining steadfast and noble. Kip is what I would call a Happy Warrior in training, though he gets a crash course in this book. He doesn’t fight just because he likes to fight, but he fights because of what he desires to go home to, because he has something behind him that is worth protecting. And that gives him strength, and a certain realistic joy.
I picked up this book at a used bookstore and immediately bought it as soon as I read the opening passage.
The whole first chapter gives not only a vivid characterization of Kip himself, but also of Kip’s Dad. And this is another reason this book stands so much higher than much of the current YA stuff published in more modern times.
The parents of the young protagonist are not obstacles he has to overcome. They aren’t buffoons or tyrants. They aren’t passive dolts. He does not have to break free of them to find himself. Rather, Kip already knows who he is because of his parents, and his Dad in particular. Kip’s respect for his father just oozes off of the page. And his homesickness for his mother is satisfied in an almost perfect way when he finally gets home.
Spoiler Alert. But not really. I mean, this is a first person perspective story, so you know he’s going to get home.
But just as important, the parents in this book trust what their children are telling them. Kip doesn’t have to jump through any hoops to convince his parents to believe his wild stories. Kip respects his parents, and because of that he has earned their respect of him in return. They take him seriously.
Also notable: his parents aren’t dead and they are happily married. He comes from an intact family.
Disney. Take note.
One of my fears is that Disney would get the movie rights to this book, and one of the first casualties would be Kip’s parents. As literal casualties, making Kip an orphan. Or they might make Kip a girl and then make sure the Dad stood in the way of her dreams to go to the moon, out of this world, and see, what do you call them. Because remember kids, you can’t have a true journey of discovery unless your parents are lame.
And I know I called this a fun space adventure, but this book would actually qualify as hard science fiction. There are legitimate engineering problems that Kip has to solve on his journey, and the book benefits from Heinlein’s actual experience in aeronautical engineering.
There is also a section of the book that goes on for several pages where Kip is solving an actual math problem while planning an escape. And it remains interesting and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Maybe that’s the secret to ensuring younger kids are engaged when studying Math. Make their lives literally depend upon it.
Anyway. This book is full of acts of courage, burgeoning friendships, and great humor in the midst of escalating stakes that involve the possible destruction and/or enslavement of planet Earth. Also full of a cast of characters you want to spend more time with. There is one minor character, the owner of a Pharmacy where Kip works, who is so well-rounded that I wish I could have the chance to shake his hand and buy him a drink.
And this brings us back to the CS Lewis quote. Kip is someone from whom we can expect virtue and enterprise. He is someone who would never laugh at honor. He is someone who feels a sense of duty to protect his younger, female co-protagonist. He is a character who is well on his way to being the exact opposite of the gelded men that Lewis so memorably described.
The imaginations of our children would do well to be fertilized with the exploits of heroes like the ones in Have Spacesuit – Will Travel.
And it all comes in at a crisp 184 pages. Read it. Then read it to your kids. Look past the atrocious cover art.