Wednesday, August 4
by Mark Haddon
David Fickling / Random House 2009
A middle grade my-teacher-is-an-alien story from the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Entertaining, if strangely familiar.
While secretly eavesdropping on their teachers, Jimbo and his friend Charlie discover that two of their teachers are, in fact, aliens from another world on the far reaches of our galaxy. Once the aliens discover that Jimbo and Charlie know their secret, and are coming for them, the boys decide to follow the clues to a remote Scottish locale that serves as an intergalactic transport station. Finding themselves on the planet Plonk, they learn that the aliens are trying to repopulate their planet with humans (specifically sci-fi fans who find the experience cool) but are temperamental to the point of threatening to blow up Earth. Jimbo and Charlie make their escape with the help of Jimbo's obnoxiously punk sister Becky and, returning home, save the day.
What starts off feeling very much like Bruce Coville's My Teacher is an Alien and winds up feeling like an lost scene from Men In Black is, as can be gleaned, a goofy send-up of aliens-among-us-and-kids-save-the-day. It was a breezy read, and one I think most middle schoolers would enjoy, particularly the boys.
That said, I found it curious while reading the introduction (something I don't normally like to do) to hear Haddon make mention of this being a retread of an earlier published book from 1992. Odd, because The Curious Incident was hailed (by the New Yorker, among others) as his big debut when, in fact, he had a handful of book published before that.
Oh. His big ADULT debut. His books for children don't count.
I remember feeling the same about Gregory Maguire's "debut" Wicked, knowing he had scads of books nearby in the children's section. Perhaps we've gotten away from that notion that a children's book author isn't somehow as legitimate until the "break out" into the adult consciousness, but it still chaps me a bit.
All of that aside, Haddon does a have a way with engaging and funny characters – Jimbo's family is like the most offbeat collection of individuals from a British TV sitcom – and creates a Douglas Adams class of aliens, complete with dated disco-era catch-phrases as their primary form of communication.
In updating the original 1992 book – with it's unpronounceable title of Gridzbi Spudvetch! – Haddon claims to have started with modernizing the technology only to have changed every sentence of the original. I like the idea of a successful author being able to revisit an earlier work and make something new out of it. And if I didn't have a million other things to do it could be instructive to track down a copy of the original and do a side-by-side comparison.
By the way, I went with the Italian edition's cover (a) because I like the yellow instead of the orange that the English language editions have and (b) because it's subtitle La strana avventura sur planeta Plonk translates as "The strange adventure to planet Plonk," which I kinda like.