I stole this book from my daughter (shhh!). She wanted a copy after seeing Steve Cole leaping about a stage doing poems about cucumbers and mashups of chairs and zombies. She’s much too young for it still, but the book is a thing of beauty in its own right. Jim Field has done an awesome job on the illustrations, and I love the black-edged pages throughout. And you’d need a heart of stone not to fall in love with the alien on the front cover, who looks like a skinnier, cooler relative of the three-eyed aliens from Toy Story.
So, to the story. Our protagonist is Tim Gooseheart, who’s a wimp with an identity crisis. He lives with his dad, who is a genius obsessed with space and recycling. Tim doesn’t know what happened to his mum; in fact, his dad has joked for so many years that he was actually delivered by aliens that Tim half-believes it himself. So when aliens start clearing up the environmental problems on Earth, Tim feels a strange pull towards them. What if he really is part-alien himself? In the meantime though, he has more mundane problems like the school bully Fist-Face, and his domestic diet of vegetables (in descriptions of which Steve can indulge his own loathing of all things salad).
In many ways this is a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the 8-12s. Tim is the Arthur Dent of the story (though he doesn’t have a towel; instead, he has a goldfish), thrust into a complicated situation he doesn’t understand with people who befuddle him. But like many unwilling protagonists, he finds deep reserves within himself and, of course, by the end of the book, he is no longer the useless wimp we met at the beginning. (See also Harvey Drew and the Bin-Men from Outer Space by Cas Lester). The humour is similarly Adams-like in places: the Earth is due to be sold to new owners, and messages are sent via smell rather than sound. There’s even a human version of Marvin the Paranoid Android in Sergeant Katzburger, who’s a brilliantly depressing character.
And there’s Little G, of course, the alien on the front cover. Little G has much in common with Olaf, the snowman from Frozen (a film I have now seen many times due to having a six-year-old daughter). Both are keen to be hugged, though Little G has an extra desire to ‘smell the tongue’ (ew, Steve, how do you think these things up?!) and both are excitable, enthusiastic and unquestioningly loyal. Needless to say, both characters are crying out to be made into cuddly toys.
Tim is dragged to a super-secret base so that his father can be put to work solving the Alien Problem, though, as is only right in a children’s book, the adults turn out to be hopeless and it’s their brainy kids who save the planet. Tim isn’t brainy, of course, but that doesn’t matter because he is Brave instead. Well, not exactly brave, more stoic… Well, not exactly stoic, but keen to do his best… Well, not exactly that…
He’s cool, all right? Tim is the Everyboy. Everyone can identify with him. And when he discovers more about his mother and his roots, it’s genuinely touching. All his life he’s been lacking genuine affection and a sense of belonging, and as the truth starts to emerge, the book suddenly delivers several emotional punches in quick succession. I may have had something in my eye.
This book is more than a zany space adventure. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s downright insane in places – but it’s also really very sweet and heartwarming. That’s a good thing for readers of any age, but particularly in a book which is likely to be picked up by boys because of the design and content. Publishers think boys aren’t so keen on the touchy-feely stuff. Which assumes they don’t have emotions and issues of their own that could be explored in books. Which, as any parent knows, is just plain silly. We ALL like a good adventure story – boys and girls – and here’s a book that gives both adventure and heart in spades.
Aliens Stink! is published by Simon and Schuster, and if you like the sound of it, you can find it in bookshops and on Amazon etc. If you like it, you might also want to track down Steve’s earlier novel for the same publisher, Magic Ink.