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"Sometimes it's best to take the hand of a child—a Seeing child—and let them do the leading."
Zenna Chlarson Henderson (November 1, 1917 – May 11, 1983) was a Hugo-nominated American author of speculative fiction celebrated as an early pioneer of female writers in the golden age of sci-fi, publishing her first story in 1926 and the majority of her work in the 1950s and 1960s. She is best-known for her short stories of "The People": a refugee race of gentle, humanoid aliens who barely manage to escape their doomed planet and crash-land on Earth, where some of their numbers are scattered and lost. A number of her stories involve one of the lost People eventually being discovered by a larger group and their joyous reunion. The People possess various Psychic Powers such as Flight, Healing Hands, Psychic Surgery, and a degree of Genetic Memory that can be passed down to their offspring to remember the Home, their beautiful planet of origin.
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Outside of these stories, Henderson also wrote a number of stories revolving around psychic or magical children, often from the perspective of an understanding teacher trying to unravel the mystery. Henderson herself was an elementary school teacher for over forty years and had a deep love and appreciation for children and their imaginations.

Not all of her fare is so gentle. A good number of her short stories verge on outright horror, including one story, "Hush!", later developed into an episode of Tales from the Darkside. Others deal with dark subject matter, such as domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, genocide, and suicide.

Many of her stories, in particular the People stories, are notable for their overtly spiritual themes. Henderson herself was raised Mormon but fell away from the church after a divorce. Under normal circumstances, her religion wouldn't bear mentioning, but you really can't not notice the allusions, with many stories including or titled after Biblical quotes. Fortunately, the stories stand beautifully on their own and Henderson's notion of spirituality is one of inclusion, welcome, and homecoming.

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The People stories were adapted into the 1972 Made-for-TV Movie The People, featuring William Shatner and based primarily on the short story "Pottage." It's long been suspected that Alexander Key's Escape to Witch Mountain, which came out about the same time as The People: No Different Flesh and was subsequently adapted by Disney into the Witch Mountain films, may be a Serial Numbers Filed Off adaptation of Henderson's "People" stories, but at best Alexander Key can be said to be inspired by Henderson, not ripping off her ideas. Her influence on him has never been confirmed, although many people who like Witch Mountain often fall in love with the People stories.

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Bibliography

  • Pilgrimage: The Book of the People (1961)
  • The Anything Box (1965)
  • The People: No Different Flesh (1967)
  • Holding Wonder (1971)
  • The People Collection (1991)
  • Ingathering: The Complete People Stories (1995)
  • Believing: The Other Stories of Zenna Henderson (2020)

The works of Zenna Henderson provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Henderson had an amazing talent for inventing fantastical names that manage to be both otherworldly and faintly familiar. This is a woman who herself was named Zenna, after all.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Occurs a great deal in human/alien encounters, exemplified with "Food For All Flesh," in which an alien discovers the only Earth food her newborns can consume is human flesh. Out of gratitude, the alien spares her human rescuer and instead takes her children elsewhere.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology:
    • The Coveti accept a gift of ordinary water from the human astronauts. It impacts their alien biology like a drug, and several of them drink too much and drop dead.
    • In "Subcommittee," all humanity is stumped by the mystery of why the alien invaders, now in negotiations for peace, demand complete access to all the world's oceans. Only when they're asked to confirm that, they say no, it's not the oceans. Both sides are getting frustrated. The story's human heroine inadvertently discovers that the aliens are dying out: they are down to their last infant because their reproductive cycle requires saltwater.
  • Came Back Wrong: Ill Boy Dubby is said to have come close to death one too many times as a very young child, and now seems to have strange powers and uncanny perception (even though Dubby himself is ordinary and not at all sinister).
  • Child Hater: Characters who dislikes children quickly regret their opinion. Sometimes their punishment is out of all proportion, as in "The Last Step," where a teacher who scoffs at a child's "game" finds herself left behind when the planet is evacuated during an alien invasion, as a direct consequence of her scoffing or "Come On, Wagon!" where the narrator's father is killed due to the narrator's dislike of his nephew, as the nephew's telekinetic power is the only thing that could have saved him. This is just for disliking children, mind; anyone who actually harms one won't even be given a chance for regret. (A surprising number of Henderson's stories start with the declaration "I don't like children" and are narrated by adults suspicious of children's innocence that puts them in touch with powers and dimensions adults can't access.)
  • Children Are Innocent: There are rarely any truly bad children.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The People don't exactly worship "The Presence": it simply exist as a force in all their lives that they deeply revere and which unites them all. They also identify certain Bible verses as similar or even identical to their own teachings. It's implied that the People are a race of humans who never experienced the Biblical Fall and that all humans once were (or could be) like them.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Occasional outsiders will often suggest to the People that they use their powers for financial gain. The usual logic is that they're private people who just want to live modest, quiet lives in their own communities. An Outsider doctor does make a pretty convincing case about all the lives they could save if they could apply their Psychic Surgery powers to create a community of surgeons.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Often subverted. Henderson's aliens (barring the People) tend to be very alien, while turning out to be surprisingly relatable.
  • Eldritch Starship:
    • The sleek, needlelike warships in "Subcommittee," which are so black that to look at them is like going blind.
    • The invading insectile alien species in "The Last Step."
  • From the Mouths of Babes: A lot of conflict in many stories could be resolved if only adults had understood exactly what the children were telling them.
  • Genetic Memory: The People use this to pass down memories of the Home to their children born on Earth.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played with a lot.
    • In "Pottage," a secret group of the People have been living in fear, suppressing their own powers and those of their children after a group of humans previously attacked their town and burned many of them alive as witches.
    • Meanwhile, in "The Coveti," human astronauts are completely unaware that the carbon monoxide they exhale is poisonous to the native alien species and inadvertently kill and blind several of them while seeking to establish friendly contact.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Very few Earthlings who encounter the People don't long to be one of them—not so much for the magical powers, but for the sense of belonging.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "Food for All Flesh."
  • The Masquerade: Played from both sides, what with aliens maintaining secrecy among humans and humans who find themselves attempting to shelter and protect the strange creature they've stumbled over.
    • The People largely maintain a Masquerade, but they're pretty liberal about breaking it when necessary, relying on a combination of gratitude and "no one will ever believe you."
  • Mundane Utility: Under ordinary circumstances, this is how the People use their powers. There's a very strong belief that their gifts were given to them for the purpose of spreading joy, and that it's actually celebrating the Presence to use their abilities for fun.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Aunt Daid in "Walking Aunt Daid" appears to be an impossibly elderly woman...and it turns out she's even older. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Klevity in "Something Bright" look like a kindly older couple but turn out to be from a race of practically ageless creatures from another dimension and end up subverting the trope again when it turns out that even as old as they are, they're considered youngsters among their own people.
  • Recursive Reality: "Walking Aunt Daid."
  • Satan: Strongly implied to be what's in the cave in "Stevie and the Dark," particularly when Stevie accidentally defeats it with a homemade crucifix.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Appears quite often. In "The Anything Box," Sue-Lynn's presumed imaginary box that allows her to see anything her heart desires turns out to be very real, as does Splinter's imaginary friend Doobie in "Subcommittee" and the terrifying make-believe invention in "Hush!"
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