Graduating from Lauderbach Elementary and moving on to Castle Park Junior High, now, alas, known as Castle Park Middle School, was a time of changes for me. I went from being the shortest kid in my class to being one of the tallest...the bullies went in search of littler fellows though I was still fair game for taunts from skinny classmates. The sudden summer growth spurt was accompanied by not-unexpected awkwardness, though it also turned out I needed glasses. I went from spending the whole day in one classroom to switching rooms for every subject, trading one teacher for seven...I also learned that not all teachers were older married women. Let's not even consider what I was exposed to in Gym class for the first time. Ugh!
One of the few bright spots in junior high was the library. I was getting deeper into science fiction at that point, thanks to magazines of the time, but Lauderbach's selections in the genre were limited mostly to series such as Tom Swift Jr, Brains Benton and Digg Allen, and kid's books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron and Mr Twigg's Mistake by Robert Lawson. While they were great books upon which I look back with fondness, they were not as demanding as I wanted my books to be. At the time, I was reading more complex mysteries by John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and others, so I suppose it was only natural to look for the same sort of sophistication from science fiction books. It was during that search in the new school's library that I came across a series of books called the Winston Science Fiction Library. It come into being in 1952 and was starting to wind down as I discovered it, but it was all new and exciting to me. I knew I was in for something different when I opened the first book and saw the endpaper art by Alex Schomburg.
Kids looking at them now might think the images a little hokey, and certainly the art style has been superseded by more photorealistic paintings. Still, as I look at it now, through a prism of more than a half century, the painting retains the ability to stir memories in me. The illustration (which was used for the endpapers in every book) promised a story different from the ones I was used to. The most sophisticated stories I'd read up to that time was Heinlein's 1947 book, Rocket Ship Galileo. These new books seemed to offer even more.
The first book I read in the series was The Year When Stardust Fell. Of all the books in the series, this book had the most effect on me and is the one I remember most. It concerns a worldwide catastrophe, the end of mechanization and the struggle between superstition and science. Recently, I had the opportunity to re-read the book. Often, when we go back to the items of our youth, we find things not the same, that older eyes see differently than younger ones...in short, you can't go home again. Happily, though, it was a pleasant experience and again I found myself caught up in the story. It was a little dated, perhaps, mostly in the mid-century mindset of the characters, but not terribly so.
Another influential book for me from that period was The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald A Wollheim, who went on to be an editor at Ace Books, then to found his own publishing company, DAW Books. It's a great adventure novel that takes the reader from an archaeological dig at an ancient Incan city in the Andes, to a city on Mars, to Venus, to a space battle with forces from the planet Pluto. Well, things have changed quite a bit since the novel was written -- neither Mars nor Venus are abodes for life, intelligent or otherwise, and some people claim Pluto is not a planet (I still believe!). Re-reading this one fifty years later, I was surprised how easily I was able to set aside modern astronomy and accept all the old planetary descriptions. Of course, that may have been because of Wollheim's writing skill, but there's also the possibility that I accepted them because they were more desirable to me than today's harsh scientific realities...I suppose the scientific ones are not the only harsh realities people have to deal with these days.Whatever the reason, I was glad that the book had not lost its charm for me.
The books in the series are a little difficult to find now in good condition and in the original dustjackets, but they can be tracked down at the usual suspects...EBay, ABEbooks, some third-party sellers on Amazon, and in the backs of dusty used book stores...if you still have any around you. Lately, some of the titles have also appeared in e-formats. For those who want to join the hunt, here's a check list of titles, authors, artists and years to help you out. I've highlighted my favorites.
- Earthbound by Milton Lesser, cover by Peter Poulton (1952)
- Find the Feathered Serpent, Evan Hunter, cover Henry Sharp (1952)
- Five Against Venus, Philip Latham (Robert S. Richardson), cover Virgil Finlay (1952)
- Islands in the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
- Marooned on Mars, Lester del Rey, cover Paul Orban (1952)
- Mists of Dawn, Chad Oliver, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
- Rocket Jockey, Philip St. John (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
- Son of the Stars, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1952) – Clonar, book 1
- Sons of the Ocean Deeps, Bryce Walton, cover Paul Orban (1952)
- Vault of the Ages, Poul Anderson, cover Paul Orban (1952)
- Attack from Atlantis, Lester del Rey, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
- Battle on Mercury, Erik Van Lhin (Lester del Rey), cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
- Danger: Dinosaurs!, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
- Missing Men of Saturn, Philip Latham, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
- The Mysterious Planet, Kenneth Wright (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
- Mystery of the Third Mine, Robert W. Lowndes, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
- Planet of Light, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1953) – Clonar, book 2
- Rocket to Luna, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover by Alex Schomburg (1953)
- The Star Seekers, Milton Lesser, cover Paul Calle (1953)
- Vandals of the Void, Jack Vance, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
- Rockets to Nowhere, Philip St. John (Lester Del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
- The Secret of Saturn's Rings, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
- Step to the Stars, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1954) – Jim Stanley, book 1
- Trouble on Titan, Alan E. Nourse, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
- The World at Bay, Paul Capon, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
- The Year After Tomorrow, eds. Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer, cover and interior illus. Mel Hunter (1954) – anthology of nine short stories
- The Ant Men, Eric North, cover Paul Blaisdell (1955)
- The Secret of the Martian Moons, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1955)
- The Lost Planet, Paul Dallas, cover Alex Schomburg (1956)
- Mission to the Moon, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1956) – Jim Stanley, book 2
- Rockets Through Space, Lester del Rey, cover and interior illus. James Heugh (1957) – Special Companion Book (nonfiction)
- The Year When Stardust Fell, Raymond F. Jones, cover James Heugh (1958)
- The Secret of the Ninth Planet, Donald A. Wollheim, cover James Heugh (1959)
- The Star Conquerors, Ben Bova, cover Mel Hunter (1959)
- Stadium Beyond the Stars, Milton Lesser, cover Mel Hunter (1960)
- Moon of Mutiny, Lester del Rey, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961) – Jim Stanley, book 3
- Spacemen, Go Home, Milton Lesser, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961)