I’m thrilled to announce the release, yesterday, of fellow Tollboother Clete Barrett Smith’s “Aliens on Vacation (An Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast)” This middle-grade novel has everything: aliens, humor, romance, astrobiology, basketball, even anthropology. It’s unmistakably a boy book but one any girl would love, too.
The main character, nicknamed Scrub, is forced to spend the summer alone at his grandmother’s “Intergalactic Bed & Breaksfast.” He’s never met his grandmother before and doesn’t know anything about her. Upon meeting Grandma, Scrub assumes she and her B&B are some bizarre relic from the 1960s or ’70s, with a Star Trek-loving clientele. But her customers are honest-to-goodness aliens from other galaxies, which sets in motion all sorts of problems for Scrub, including learning how to cope with aliens, as well as struggling to protect both them and his grandmother from the local sheriff.
Early in the book, before Scrub realizes that the B&B clientele is truly intergalactic, he enounters a sign outlining the house rules:
House Rules for a Successful Visit
1. Leave nothing behind
2. Take nothing with you
3. Dress appropriately
4. Two arms, two legs, one head
5. No harming the natives (18)
The natives, in this case, are the humans on planet earth. Grandma has a post-modern sensitivity to the feelings of her intergalactic clientele. As she tells Scrub, “Oh, and I don’t care much for the word ‘alien.’ It sounds harsh…. It comes with such a negative connotation and denotes the ‘other.’ I try to focus on our similarities. I prefer the term ‘Tourist’ if you don’t mind” (48).
Speaking of the other, Smith does a masterful job creating dialog for his “Tourists.” Peppered throughout the book are the various voices of the aliens, all of whom speak English as a second language, each with an idiosyncratic accent that betrays not only a different linguist background but also a cultural one. In a particularly funny scene, when Scrub is depressed by how poorly everything has been going in his life, an alien called Mr. Harnox says, “Do you sense the empty feeling inside of you?”
Scrub is taken aback.
“What? Was he reading my mind or something? Could they do that on his planet?”
“Because I am experiencing the emptiness inside of me.” Mr. Harnox patted his belly. “The empty-stomach-hunger feeling that signals a need for the half-day meal.” (117)
The science fiction in the book is fun, too. I particularly loved Smith’s ideas about how aliens could travel all the way here, “even though the Tourist might live millions of light years away.” As Grandma tells Scrub, “Basically a
Tourist steps into a transporter on his home planet. He is scanned, then broken down into his most basic elements,” then:
The scan is sent to our machines, and the same elements are drawn from our atmosphere and assembled to create the original being. The genetic information remains intact, and you get the same creature that shows up here, nearly instantaneously, even though the Tourist might live millions of lightyears away. (51)
Is that cool or what?
Fortunately for me, because Smith is a fellow Tollboother, I was able to ask him some questions about his book. He used to teach high school, so I began by asking him about why he ended up writing for middle schoolers.
Gretchen: The target audience for “Aliens on Vacation” is younger than the kids you taught, true? What made you decide to write for this age group?
Clete: Correct, I taught high school for over a dozen years and this story is for middle grade. I have probably gravitated toward middle grade for several reasons. First, that age is when I first fell in love with reading and decided that I wanted to be an author. Also, when I started to get serious about my writing, my daughter and I were reading a ton of middle grade fiction together, so that probably influenced me. But I think the main reason is simply because the stories that have come to me lately have been suited to that age group, without me thinking too much about audience or market, especially in the first draft stage.
Gretchen: I read that your book will be made into a movie, and I’m sure filmmakers will have a field day creating the aliens – excuse me, “Tourists.” Did you have the possibility of a film in mind as you were writing?
Clete: I’m a very visual brainstormer, and I do most of my actual “writing” while I am out on hikes in the forest. The story plays as a little movie in my mind as I walk along. So I think that’s what is making it to the page.
Gretchen: I noticed that both a Kindle edition and an audio book are being released along with the hardcover (the audio further subdividing into MP3 and CD versions). That’s great! Do you know if that’s standard practice these days?
Clete: I spoke to my daughter’s 6th grade class last week, and when I asked how many of the kids had some type of e-reader at least a third of the class raised their hands. I’m sure that number will be much closer to the 90 percentage range in a very short amount of time (I had high school students reading books on their iphones during independent reading time last year.) I signed my deal over two years ago and I know that publishers weren’t quite sure what exactly would happen with e-books at that time, but if it’s not already standard practice, I assume that it will be soon.
Gretchen: Your characterization of the aliens as “cultural others” is spot on. Have you ever studied anthropology?
Clete: I had an amazing professor for my Anthropology 101 class when I was a freshman in college. She had us do secret experiments in public to study human behavior for our big essays. (One of my friends spent a day panhandling in Seattle’s Pike Place Market to study the demographics of people who gave money to the homeless.) That was a fascinating class, and great for a writer because it encouraged students to carefully observe human behavior.
Gretchen: I see that “Aliens on Vacation” is being published across the globe. Will it be published in other galaxies as well?
Clete: I hear it’s huge in the Cartwheel and Sombrero Galaxies, but sales are down in the Cigar Galaxy. (Yes, these are real names of real galaxies. I love the research part of this gig!)
Gretchen: Am I missing a question I should be asking or that you’d love to answer?
Clete: I’ll pretend that you asked me, “What has been one of the most rewarding parts of the whole process so far?” Last night I did a bookstore event in Seattle and signed my first book for an actual kid reader. We had a nice chat, and he looked at me like I was a real writer. That felt pretty amazing.
Personally, I think everything about this book is pretty amazing.