When I first read Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith, it felt like a funny romp of a book—a middle grade novel with a lovable protagonist, a cast of eccentric characters, and a terrific premise. I turned to it again more recently when I was looking for funny books to include in my Highlights workshop lecture. To my pleasant surprise, I found the delightful story and funny passages that I remembered but I also found more. This is something that is always enjoyable, but it’s especially gratifying when you’ve had the privilege of working with the writer.
In this first book of the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast series, David (“Scrub”) goes reluctantly to his grandmother’s B & B for the summer. He encounters some pretty weird visitors, as well as a grouchy sheriff and his wackily appealing daughter. Grandma is a hippie grandma like no other. And yes, on the surface, this remains a fun tale about middle-grade anxiety, family and social relationships—and aliens.
But look more closely. You will find compelling layers that bring us in touch with our own knee-jerk reactions to those whom we don’t understand. Suddenly I found myself recalling how, as an immigrant living in the United States for three decades, the term “resident alien” always made me squirm. Substitute “foreigners” for “aliens” and this little book becomes a fable about xenophobia.
A satisfying resolution emerges with the aid of the Intergalactic Police—where are they now, I want to know, in the real world? Wouldn’t you love to call them up?
All kinds of other subtleties lurk still deeper, including questions of Scrub’s own family history and possibly even his identity. It’s a lovely way to open up a funny, quirky world, but don’t miss the mirrors in this book. They reflect our own human foibles.