First of all, steampunk is a little tough to define, but it usually contains one or more of the following: (1) alternate history, (2) clockwork (automatons, vehicles, monsters, etc.), (3) a Victorian setting (mostly British, but sometimes European or even American, as long as it's nineteenth century).
The question being, what kind of readers would like this stuff? Answer: grown-ups. We're talking Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes fans, for one thing. Certainly historical fiction fans, and that's often a group that doesn't include the under-18 crowd, who are busy reading about the ADHD offspring of Greek gods battling harpies in modern NYC. Or maybe reading stories about teen heartbreak in your average high school, texting and all. These readers prefer their supernatural adventures to take place in a small town in Washington in the 21st century, not in London in the 1800s.
As for the appeal of steampunk, don't you think it might be a bit of a backlash from the sheer weight of all this contemporary technology, from the overwhelming streamlined-ness of the Ipod and the Ipad? Contrast clockwork, where you can actually see the gears and hear them turning, to the sleekness of our current tech, where you need a microscope and a college degree to figure out what the machine is actually doing. Call it the new Luddite movement or simply call it a wave of nostalgia, but I'm wondering if steampunk is really a revolt against, well, that cell phone which can not only call Japan from Chicago in seconds, but can play a movie, ruin a career, or reveal a decade's worth of diplomatic secrets at the touch of a few keys.
Then again, the Luddites aren't a great comparison. A better one might be the Romantic movement. My high school students have been reading about how the Romantics embraced poetry, medieval themes, and ruffled shirts as a backlash against the machines and pragmatism of the Industrial Revolution. There's a romance to steampunk that makes it feel similar to me at this point in time.
Of course, steampunk is also a delightful alternative to a decade of Harry Potter and another decade of teen vampires, for those of you who want a change in your sci-fi/fantasy every so often. It's either that or dystopia right about now! (With dystopian books arguably forming a chronologically symmetrical rejection of today's high-tech, out-of-control world.) So I, for one, do like steampunk. I'm just not sure it has much appeal for kids and teens, most of whom are deeply, happily engaged in this tech-toy landscape.
For those of you who are grown-ups and the occasional steampunky kid, check out Chasing Ray's wonderful steampunk roundup from the past week. See also Charlotte's Library, with a look at steampunk offerings for MG/YA in 2010. And once again, I'll recommend the list of steampunk books for children by Heather M. Campbell at School Library Journal.
Image from Paper Street Supplies.