Back to Cybils-nominated books with a whimsical adventure with an alien, from the author of the updated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books.
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Harper Collins Children’s 2017.
Prez Mellows lives his life by lists, both the lists of advice given to him by his grandfather and lists he’s made to help his increasingly forgetful grandfather remember things. The chapter headings of the book are taken from a list of things he wants to tell his grandfather about – something that looks like a shopping list, but isn’t.
But Prez isn’t with his grandfather now. He’s in Temporary Care, living with a crazy family with three kids of their own on a farm called Stradmoddie outside of Dumfries, Scotland. He doesn’t know what’s happened to his grandfather or why it seemed such a big deal that he was perhaps doing more taking care of his grandfather than the other way around, and as a reaction to this, hasn’t been talking. (I went through a period of not talking during middle school myself, so I could relate.)
At dinner one night on the farm, Prez hears the doorbell ring – there isn’t a doorbell, and no one else hears it, so Prez answers. There is an alien who introduces himself as Sputnik Mellows. Sputnik looks like a dog (their favorite kind) to other people, while to Prez, he appears to be a boy about his own age wearing goggles and a kilt. He’s there to work with Prez to come up with reasons that Earth isn’t mythical and irrelevant, to explain to an intergalactic board why Earth shouldn’t be demolished.
Meanwhile, Sputnik tries to be helpful to Prez in ways that only make sense to his alien way of thinking. Early in Prez’s stay, for example, his youngest foster sister has a birthday. Prez needs a gift, but there’s no time to go to the store and he hasn’t any money in any case. He digs an old toy light saber out of his backpack to give to her, and Sputnik offers to repair it. But instead of just fixing the telescoping plastic part, Sputnik turns it into a real functioning light saber, with hilarious and disastrous results among the unsupervised six-year-olds in the back yard. Efforts to find and rescue Prez’s grandfather are similarly madcap, if slightly more poignant.
I loved the whimsy and the depth in this book. So many recent books for kids seem to be exploring the Beauty of Sorrow by showing kids deal with the grief of losing a sibling or a parent. I have very little patience for this. Here, the issue is a much more realistic dealing with the grief of a grandparent with memory loss, and I didn’t feel that the loss itself was glorified. Instead, we’re exploring what things are worth trying to hold on to and remember, including a sense of humor. It’s also challenging to find books written from a foster child’s point of view – the only other contemporary middle grade spec fic title I could think of is Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, while Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin includes a foster kid as a major character. Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is hilarious and deep, and highly recommended for kids and adults.
This book has been nominated for a Cybils award. These opinions are my own, and do not reflect that of the committee.