Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book of the Week: MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN by Bruce Coville

First Paragraph(s): “Hey, Geekoid!” yelled Duncan Dougal as he snatched Peter Thompson’s book out of his hand. “Why do you read so much? Don’t you know how to watch TV?”
Poor Peter. I could see that he wanted to grab the book back from Duncan. But I also knew that if he tried, Duncan would cream him. 
Sometimes I wonder if Duncan’s mother dropped him on his head when he was a baby. I mean, something must have made him decide to spend his life making other people miserable. Otherwise why would he spend so much of his time picking on a kid like Peter Thompson? Peter never bothers anyone. Heck, the only thing he really wants is to be left alone so he can read whatever book he has his nose stuck in at the moment. 
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask to me. But Duncan takes Peter’s reading as a personal insult.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I'm going to call this a book of the week review even though I haven't reviewed a book here since almost exactly one year ago:) Truthfully, I've been turning down requests for book reviews because typically guest posts written by writers more talented than yours truly have drawn greater traffic, with the notable exception of reviews of classic books. The interwebs are drawn to this review of Bunnicula for some reason, and this review of The Indian in the Cupboard gets more traffic than this way more interesting interview with its author. I don't get it and I don't pretend to, but if Esteemed Reader's happy, I'm happy.

As an experiment, we're going to try a few "book of the week" reviews in the coming weeks. I never want to become complacent. If enough Esteemed Readers show me they like these reviews, I'm happy to write more of them. If y'all prefer the guest posts, that works too, and we'll have some more interviews with literary agents and other publishing professionals in the near future. Most exciting of all, author Bruce Coville will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions for writers. It's going to be a great week!

My Teacher is an Alien is an absolute classic of middle grade fiction and any ninjas wishing to write middle grade science fiction and/or horror should absolutely give it its due consideration. This gem was published in the eighties, which is why I have a cherished childhood memory of having to wait for agonizing weeks for the library's copy to be made available to me. Every student in my class was on the waiting list to check it out and so I saw that super scary cover staring back at me from multiple desks before I got my turn.

It's a mystery to me why some books become classics (why do people of sound mind read James Joyce when a gun isn't pressed against their head!?!), but there's no mystery here. My Teacher is an Alien is a killer concept well executed, which seems simple enough, but if it were every writer would be doing it every book:) The title beautifully lays out the conflict that's to be the subject of the story and it's exciting stuff. Between the title and one of the finest covers in all of middle grade history, I was invested in the book as a child before the first page and these many years later, children are still being intrigued.

More than a killer concept, Coville's is a great story well told, which is why it remains popular when so many other books with concepts and covers almost as good have gone the way of cassette tapes. Because the characters are well-defined and the concept is universal (who hasn't suspected at least one of their teachers of being an alien?), this story hardly seems to have aged and I enjoyed it as an adult as much as I once did as a child, even if I found myself muttering "or watch it on YouTube" here:

We were doing the greatest march of all time, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. (If you don’t know it, you should go to your library and get a record of it so you can listen to it. It’s great.)

And okay, I did wonder how it might change things if any of the students in Mr. Smith's class had a smart phone to film him transitioning to the alien Broxholm (such a wonderful name) to live stream to social media. Of course, UFO videos are everywhere online and folks who believe there's something to them like your beloved ninja are still thought to be kooks (it's fake news as our 100% trustworthy government would tell us if they knew of flying saucers!), so maybe a smart phone wouldn't make much difference.

My Teacher is an Alien is a short book that can be knocked out in a couple bus rides, or one long one, which has no doubt also contributed to its longevity. Because it's short and funny, it appears to have been written effortlessly, as the best fiction so often does, but look again. You long-term Esteemed Readers know I don't really review books so much as dissect them a bit, so let's start with that opening. Look up at the first paragraph at the top of this review once again.

Right away, Coville establishes the tone of his story and assures the reader that this book is going to concern itself with 6th graders and their conflicts. Peter Thompson has our sympathies and Duncan Dougal does not (or do you root for bullies, Esteemed Reader?). More over, the reason Peter is being bullied is because he likes to read, which will probably appeal to Coville's reader, who we know is reading at least one book:)

I'll never forget a critique session I participated in with an author who shall remain nameless who'd written a story about a protagonist who hated books. When the character didn't later reverse this position (it wasn't central to the plot), I and my other critique partners savaged the author and our number one critique was that although a main character in a book doesn't have to like to read, it's probably not a bad idea if she does. Your book has to appeal to readers and people who like books, so why not assure them that it's good that they're reading (link to your back catalog!). Bruce Coville knows what side his bread is buttered on:

I slid down the wall and sat beside him. He acted as if he didn’t notice me. Or maybe he really didn’t. He was one of those kids who could get so wrapped up in a book it would take a bomb to break his attention. I hated to interrupt him. Peter always seemed a little unhappy to me, like he understood that he just didn’t fit in with the rest of us. The only thing I knew that made him happy was reading science fiction. He always had a book hidden behind his school book. The neat thing was, it didn’t make any difference, because he was so bright that whenever the teacher asked him a question, he always knew the answer. I could never figure out why they wouldn’t just leave him alone and let him read. But that’s the way school is, I guess.

What really makes this opening work better than other middle grade books that begin with a bully menacing a likable character (including Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees) is that the point of this exchange is not primarily to introduce Peter or Duncan, though it does accomplish this, but to characterize our main protagonist, who is neither boy, but a particularly tough girl named Susan Simmons:

Peter had absolutely no idea how to deal with a creep like Duncan. Actually, neither did I. If I did, I would have stopped him. But the one time I had tried to come between Duncan and Peter, I ended up with a black eye myself.
Duncan claimed it was an accident, of course. “Susan just jumped right in front of my fist,” he said as if I was the one who had done something wrong. To tell you the truth, I think Duncan punched me on purpose. Most guys wouldn’t hit a girl. But Duncan doesn’t mind. It was his way of warning me to keep my nose out of his business.
As I watched Duncan squinting down at Peter, it occurred to me that sixth grade can be a dangerous place if you don’t watch out.

Our characters established, we move right along at breakneck speed because something is amiss at Kennituck Falls Elementary. I don't want to spoil it for you, but one of the teachers may be... wait for it... an alien! The reader knows something is up with the strange Mr. Smith, who does not care one bit for music or laughter or fun. He bans "radios and tape players" and presumably 8-tracks from the playground:) Coville gives us plenty of evidence that the new teacher who's replaced Ms. Schwartz is other worldly: 

Later, I remembered that he was looking straight at the sun. But right then I was too worried about the note to pay attention to the fact that what he was doing should have burned out his eyeballs.

But Coville doesn't drag things out. There's some drama involving a passed note that escalates until Susan is given a plausible reason to follow Mr. Smith home, where she discovers this in chapter four:

When I finally got up the nerve to sneak a look around the bottom edge of the door, I saw Mr. Smith sitting at a little makeup table, looking in a mirror. Stacy was right. The man really was handsome. He had a long, lean face with a square jaw, a straight nose, and cheekbones to die for. Only it was a fake. As I watched, Mr. Smith pressed his fingers against the bottom of his eyes. Suddenly he ran his fingertips to the sides of his head, grabbed his ears, and started peeling off his face!

Again, surprise, my teacher, as it turns out, is an alien (gasps and clutches pearls). Even if I inserted more passages from the text and walked you through the full events of each of the first four chapters, I wouldn't be telling you much that you don't already know from the title, the cover, and the back blurb. Coville can't not tell this part of the story, the way Michael Chrichton dutifully pretends there's a mystery as to what sort of animals are at Jurassic Park prior to the arrival of the heroes on Isla Nublar. Corville's establishing of the premise is absolutely exciting and fun, but there are 21 chapters here and the first four alone do not a story make.

What matters most is that by the time we get to the end of chapter four, we care about Susan Simmons and Peter Thompson and that we've bought into their situation. The story here is not that Mr. Smith is an alien, it's what Susan and later (despite what the cover would have you believe) Peter are going to do once they discover their teacher is an alien. Who can they tell? Who would believe them? And if no one believes them, who will stop Broxholm if they don't stop him? Does he need to be stopped?

I believe the rule of any great story is that a writer must begin with a great premise and build outward. Corville's prose is tight and fun and I laughed a lot along the way, especially toward the end as I'd forgotten how our heroes foil... nope, I best not say too much and spoil the story for the uninitiated.

But do take notice that Coville eschews most description save for what readers need to follow the story. There are no long, overly-written descriptions of fields of symbolically purple flowers here because Coville keeps things moving. And every chapters ends with either a cliffhanger or a question as to what will happen next, making it impossible for young readers to put down the book in favor of their intertelevision console controller:). Here's one of my favorite chapter endings that would be at home in a Stephen King novel:

“Oh, all right,” said Peter. He opened the door and started up the stairway. When he got about halfway up the stairs his head passed the level of the attic floor. I was walking so close that I bumped into him when he stopped. 
“What is it?” I whispered. When he didn’t answer me, I pushed my way up beside him and cried out in horror.

And so, once again, Esteemed Reader, upon revisiting an old favorite novel, I discover that the secret to creating a classic is a good story well told. Bruce Coville makes it look easy, but it's far from it. Rereading My Teacher is an Alien was like visiting with a childhood friend. If you've never read it, pick it up this minute, and if you haven't read it in the last five years, it's probably time for a refresher. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from My Teacher is an Alien:

I sank back into my seat. Sixth grade was going bad faster than a dead fish on a hot day.

Of course, once we were inside, I had to go to the nurse’s office—even though I actually felt perfectly fine. Mrs. Glacka told me to lie down. I wasn’t surprised. That was her basic cure for everything.

I was as nervous as a marshmallow at a bonfire.

“An alien!” said Peter, his voice filled with awe. “Mr. Smith is an alien! We’re not alone!” 
“What are you talking about?” I hissed. 
“Intelligent aliens. Mankind is not alone in the universe.” 
“Well, I’m feeling pretty alone right now,” I said. “Are you going to help me or not?”

After supper I slipped out of bed and went to see my father. He was sitting in his den, building a model of the Empire State Building out of toothpicks. That’s his hobby—making famous buildings with toothpicks. If you ask me, it’s pretty weird. But it keeps him happy, which is more than I can say for most adults I know. So I guess I shouldn’t complain.


STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

2 comments:

  1. I love re-reading books like this that take you back to your childhood or one's that I know that I would have adored back then. I keep hoping for another Diary of a Mad Brownie book, and really enjoyed My Teacher is an Alien too. Looking forward to the seven questions.

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  2. Hi, Brenda - delighted to know that you enjoyed Diary of a Mad Brownie. The publisher rethought the packaging of the series, and in paperback it became "Cursed" The follow up book is about a griffin, and it's called "Hatched" The third book comes out this September, and will be called "Trolled" - Bruce Coville

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