Fri
Feb 17 2012 3:00pm

Andre Norton and Me

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 Halleck, 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.


Sherwood Smith’s writing career began when she made books out of paper towels, at age six. Her website is here, her personal blog here, and on Sundays she blogs at Book View Café. This year she will be an instructor at Viable Paradise writers’ workshop.

30 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
Andre was a lovely person. I just reread The Sword series- the ones about Dutch WWII resistance fighters.
Estara Swanberg
2. Estara
I discovered Andre Norton in the 80s in my 20s and I can still read and re-read my favourite books by her (mostly the fantasy ones ^^ because I'm more of a fantasy fan anyway). I think it's highly likely that among her wide ouvre young readers will find something to love today, too.
Pithlitt
3. Pithlitt
I remember "Breed to Come" being my first Norton book. I can't remember how many times I read it, but along with Asimov and Clark, she was my intro to SF, and it's still my favorite genre thanks in great part to her.
James Devlin
4. JimD
Thie day of this posting (2/17/12) is The Lady's 100th birthday!
s g
5. skg
Breed to Come is the first Norton book I remember vividly, after brushes with Star Man's Son and Forerunner Foray. Imagine for a moment finding those three by chance in a library at the same time as one of Jack Chalker's Dancing Gods books. Now imagine being ten and female. I did read a few more of Chalker's books as well, but Norton's were key for encouraging me to read more about space and (real) science, including non-fiction.
Joe Romano
6. Drunes
The first science fiction book I ever bought was Andre Norton's 2250 A.D. The year? 1964 and I've been hooked ever since. I still have that book. I wish I could have thanked her personally for what she has given me.
Pithlitt
7. Debbie Gascoyne
The first Andre Norton book I ever read was Grey Magic - really a juvenile rather than a YA novel. I was about 9 or ten, and I think I still have my Scholastic copy with its illustrations by Robin Jacques. I hope so. In my later teens I cut a swathe through the Witch World series: Year of the Unicorn was my favourite, but there were others I liked as well. So strangely I associate her almost more with Fantasy than SF, but I did read some of her YA space adventures as well. Great stuff.
Pithlitt
8. OtterB
I am a reader of SF/F because of dual encounters in 5th grade, more than 40 years ago. My English teacher loaned me The Hobbit, and I discovered The Time Traders on the library shelves.
Sherwood Smith
9. Sartorias
Debbie: Year of the Unicorn was my favorite, as well. Come to think of it, it was after reading that that I wrote to her.
Pithlitt
10. cameragod
An undiagnosed dyslexic, at age 7, I broke my foot and was forced to spend school lunch time in the dreaded library. I picked up “Star Man’s Son” because it had an aeroplane on the cover and Andre changed my life.
I bought if for my daughters (both fans of the Hunger Games) thinking they would like it but they won’t read it because they think the print is too small.
Pithlitt
11. Andrea K Hosth
cameragod, if you have an e-reader, grab a few Nortons from Baen's library - print size issues solved!

"Catseye" remains one of my all-time-favourite novels. I love the almost alien voice of Norton's early SF and (with the exception of minor tech oddities - flimsies!) find that it holds up well as future SF.
Wesley Parish
12. Aladdin_Sane
First, Catseye, Beast Master, Star Man's Son, the Crosstime books, the Janus books, the Solar Queen, and so on and so forth. I bought and read every book of hers I could get my hands on, at that time in my life - c. 14-15 yoa. I dreamt of being good enough to write in collaboration with her. I dreamt of writing something that would incorporate her stuff, JRR Tolkien's, Olaf Stapledon's and Arthur C. Clarke's ... and lest I forget, H Rider Haggard's as well!

I envy you your opportunity to collaborate with her. I myself would've loved to extend the Janus books, the Hosteen Storm books, and the Crosstime books - and also Catseye, Star Man's Son and Dark Piper - I'd have to say, Dark Piper was, and is, my all-time favourite of her books. I love the effect - which is missing in a number of her other books - of the struggle to survive being mingled with the Coming of Age story of Vere Collis and Annet Ahren. (For what little it's worth, in a Catseye sequel I would've loved enlarging on the attraction between Troy Horan and the Ranger Rerne ... that teased at my tastebuds for most of my adolescence before I smelt the coffee and decided that it probably was love-at-first-sight ... without getting beyond the strictures of YA expectations. FWLIW :)
Pithlitt
13. pilgrimsoul
I discovered Andre Norton in middle school which we called junior high back in the day. I wish then I'd known she was a woman--what an inspiration that would have been.
I devoured all her books, but my favorite is Star Rangers. I came across a reprint about ten years ago, and it was even better than I remembered! How can you not love Zinga and the Hall of Planets!!
Sherwood Smith
14. Sartorias
Aladdin_Sane and Pilgrimsoul: I am so glad to discover that her books still work their magic for readers!

(Sherwood)
Dave Trowbridge
15. davetrow
I had so much fun with those collaborations--but I'm glad Andre never saw the outtakes!

(Dave Trowbridge)
Pithlitt
16. Orodemniades
Andre! I started reading SF when I was 8, but wasn't truly hooked until I received Witch World when I was in the hospital to get tubes in my ears. There are still books of hers that I haven't read, but I'm saving them for when I get older . I have over 100 of her books, though...
Pithlitt
17. mojave_wolf
Thanks for rekindling the memories! Norton wasn't my first encounter with sf (that would have been various Jules Verne and HG Wells stuff, with something called "The Ark of Venus" being my first more recent novel) and Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising" was the first fantasy novel I loved, but Norton was the writer who cinched SF and and fantasy as my favorite genres, starting with either "Here Abide Monsters" or "The Jargoon Pard", iirc. Then came all the rest as she spent many years as my absolute favorite author.
Pithlitt
18. Margaret Brinkley
My first was 'Moon of Three Rings' which I found in my local library (now closed, curse it!) I'm just now re-reading 'Witch World' after many years, and even though I know almost every word it is still marvellous. What an amazing writer she was! Fabulous prose, thought-provoking stories - there's never been anyone quite like Andre Norton.
Pithlitt
19. Eugene R.
Like Drunes (@6), the first sf book I ever purchased, courtesy of the Scholastic Book Service, was Daybreak-2250 A.D. (aka Star Man's Son). It had a cover illustration of a man (Fors) and a large cat (Lura) on a primitive raft, punting under a ruined bridge of modern construction, requisite ruined modern cityscape in the background. (Pace, cameragod, @10, but no aeroplane on this cover. Not that I would object to same.) There was no looking back for me; I was lost to sf, forever.
Steve Taylor
20. teapot7
The memories that stirs up... I didn't read a huge amount of Andre Norton when I was a kid, but I was totally obsessed with the Time Traders books. Totally.

I'm glad the collaborations worked out for you and for her.
Pithlitt
21. MrBewildered
Although the FIRST SF author I read was Heinlein (RS Galileo) the second was definitely Andre Norton. I read and reread Star Rangers, and have very fond memories of Starman's Son (2250AD). I would love to see some extensions of the CrossTime series, and Sherwood, I've enjoyed your collaborations as well.
By the way, I just finished rereading Storm over Warlock. I mean... two hours ago.
--Jerry
Pithlitt
22. R.J. Anderson
For me as a nine-year-old, cat-obsessed, SF-loving reader STAR KA'AT and its sequels were the Best. Books. Ever. I read and enjoyed other Norton books later on, but those ones will always be my sentimental favorites. Lovely tribute, Sherwood.
Pithlitt
23. Clare Bell
I also have an "Andre Norton and me" tale which began with her "Crystal Gryphon". The tale took a twisty path, via my creation of her scartlet-eyed crystal gryphon image as a gift to her and, an Star Trek (original series) fanzine-published novel that I somehow dared send to her thinking that she would never have the time or the inclination to reply. She not only sent a very kind and encouraging letter, she asked if I had anything original. I did, and the result was that her hardcover publisher, Margaret K. McElderry, published my Y/A novel, Ratha's Creature, in 1983. This would have never happened without Andre's help. The details of the story are here (sorry, it is a bit long) http://rathascourage.com/about%20Ratha%20and%20Andre. I know that she helped many other writers, and I was greatly honored to be among them. Thanks for letting me know that Feb 17 was her 100th birthday. She still lives in her books, and in the hearts and works of the writers she befriended. I will never forget her.
Pithlitt
24. Megan Whalen Turner
Sometime in 2006, I think, Sherwood mentioned in a blog post that she and the rest of the jury for the Andre Norton Award had not yet reached their quota of books they were allowed to name as finalists that year and she asked for recommendations. Moments later, I was on the phone to my editor asking if she would please, please, send a copy of The King of Attolia to all the members of the jury.

Like so many others, I found the books in the Middle School library and they were the beginning of a lifelong habit of reading Science Fiction as well as Fantasy. More than that, they mark that time when I started to read the same books that others in my family were reading, when we were passing favorites back and forth and stealing each other's books in mid-read if they were left momentarily unattended. We read our way through the Nortons together.

My first book, The Thief, was a Newbery Honor book in 1997, and that's why I have a career fifteen years later. But no moment has been as special as calling my Mom to tell her that I was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award.
Tomas Gerst
25. IamnotSpam
The Jargoon Pard, Daybreak-2250 A.D., Witch World and Year of the Unicorn, Catseye were my best memeories of reading her books. Thanks,
for reminding me.
Sherwood Smith
26. Sartorias
Thanks for the kind words, those who enjoyed the article!

I hope more folks will drop by and share their introduction to Andre--what an appropriate centenary tribute to a wonderful writer.
Pithlitt
27. Ann C. Crispin
I miss her every day. She was, quite literally, a "Great Lady." One of the finest human beings I've ever known, and her imagination was boundless. We used to sit in her dining room or her enormous bedroom every evening when I'd visit, and talk about stories and legends and myths we had read and loved. We were friends for almost thirty years.

It was a privilege to co-author two books with her.

-Ann C. Crispin
Pithlitt
28. Bill Ramsell
Storm Over Warlock was the first science fiction book I ever read (age 12). I quickly read everything else I could find by Ms. Norton. Now at 47 I still read science fiction and fantasy with as much delight, I like to think, as I felt from that first wonderful book in that tiny library.
Pithlitt
29. Kate Coombs
I read every Andre Norton book I could get my hands on when I was 13 or 14, losing myself in her worlds with utter bliss and comfort. And yes, she has influenced me as a reader/writer, no doubt explaining why, as a fantasy person, I still keep up with space opera and other sci-fi.
Pithlitt
30. Christopher Rushlau
I'm reading Star Rangers online via a tip from someone at scifi/stackexchange, where I was trying to recall details about a book I'd read as a teenager. This isn't it, but I was a Norton fan in those days ('60's) and this book would have served as well as the one I can't remember to bolster my courage as the world I was growing up into promised to be treacherous. I was in Iraq in 2004 with the National Guard, hanging out with Iraqis (for whom the standard US term, as if by regulation, was "hajji", which my African-American sergeant said sounded like "n*gger" to him). So the descriptions of the rangers on the planet where their ship has crashed, dealing with the crewmen, all the elements in those first three chapters, amaze and delight me as showing the way a military is supposed to be in what we might call the age of special operations forces. She even defines that term, basing the rangers' credentials around their essential ability to live off the land. If you asked a Green Beret today what his job essentially is, I'm sure he'd say, "blow up whatever they tell me to blow up". This woman hadn't been in the military, she'd barely spent any time in college.
Her writing is translucent. You are there. I'm reading my way through Perry Mason, whose creator not only didn't finish college, he only spent a month in law school and then it didn't take him long to get his law license by challenging the bar exam, and then practicing law quite satisfactorily for twenty years even after taking time off to have a side career in sales of some sort. I'm learning more not just about justice but about the US Constitution and its people from Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) than I did in law school (JD 2001). Just in time for "9-1-1" and Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. (I don't know what OIF 1 was.) Then there's Bob Dylan, who spent a month at college.
I had a landlady once who had a high school diploma from maybe 1920, her father had been a sailing ship captain, and she had maybe hundreds of scholarly books about the US civil war of 1861-5.
It's all about confidence in your senses and acting accordingly.
I have a slogan for our times: crippled by a college degree.
It makes a lot of sense when you come to think of it. A college is a private corporation whose discretion to give you a certificate is absolute. Let me mention one more US writer, Thomas Wolfe ("Look Homeward, Angel"). Very weighty, serious? The plot, to the extent there is one, is how disappointed the hero (the author, obviously) was to get out of his squalid lower-middle class rural upbringing into the big university and to find it, in about 1912, to be a nest of corruption his homefolks could never have imagined. So he had to write a novel, I guess.
The thing is, the point is to be resurrected, to rise again from ashes, to recover your youthful confidence in yourself and the world. That's what art is for, and in the digital age, the primary art form is literature: telling stories about stuff that ain't so (to paraphrase IB Singer) in order to tell the truth.

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