A refugee from a doomed planet, a teenage alien attempts—awkwardly—to blend into the landscape of an unsuspecting California town.
In this YA novel, a small family of extraterrestrials, actually reptilian but genetically modified to (hopefully) fit into human society, flees its dying world, concealing its spaceship near the small desert community of Prickly Pear, California. Using forged birth certificates (hinted to be based on Barack Obama’s) and unlikely names, the “Sminths”—mother, Crick; father, Watson; and daughter, Cricket—try to acclimate as newcomers. But their unfamiliarity with human customs and spoken English mark them instantly as oddballs, perhaps Russian. Cricket, who had no choice going on this one-way adventure, is especially moody and defiant (openly eating insects), and she is categorized as learning disabled at her school. The faculty pairs the attractive Cricket—to her discomfort—with a reluctant guardian in the form of another troubled teen, Tom Martinez, who lost his arm in a mysterious accident. Manos (Lucifer’s Revenge, 2012, etc.) has a go at the none-too-fresh YA fantasy trope of a modern-day high school “transfer student” who is actually a fantastic creature (vampire, witch, alien, you choose). Fortunately his grade A storytelling and insights into characterizations make the material enjoyable. With first-person narrative chores shared between Cricket and Tom, there is much culture-shock comedy, incipient romance, and some drama about the Sminths’ fear of discovery. Stock villainy is provided by a bullying biker gang, which overwhelms the tiny local police force, and a suspicious businessman who serves as town mayor. The official has long tried to turn Prickly Pear into a Roswell-level tourist trap with chintzy UFO displays (yet fails to recognize the real thing right in front of him). Even those Disney-esque threats and some too-convenient plot twists are given intelligent treatment by the author, who also expertly captures Cricket’s tart voice: a supersmart nonhuman nonetheless beset by the typical teen rigors of gym class, a school dance, mean girls, hormonal boys, and immigrant parents who are frequently embarrassing in their lack of assimilation. Things never get too dark, and the tone is comfortable for more mature YA readers.
TV viewers may be reminded of the Coneheads on Saturday Night Live (or My Favorite Martian), but this seriocomic, alien-in-school yarn skillfully maintains orbit and comedy-drama equilibrium.