Who among us has never wondered whether life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? These two YA novels explore this perennially popular topic from very different perspectives. In the first, a neurodivergent teen’s science project spirals into an otherworldly hoax. In the other, a Mexican American girl learns that the disappearance of her mother, who had immigrated to the U.S. without documentation, may be connected to an extraterrestrial plot.
“There were never really aliens,” narrator Gideon Hofstadt tells readers on the first page of his case files. Gideon's brain works differently from other people's. He makes decisions based on what's most practical and can't tolerate messy food or the sensory overload of driving a car. He also has trouble communicating his feelings to his boyfriend, Owen, a relationship that he has been keeping secret. (Gideon’s mother, unaware that he's spoken for, keeps trying to set him up on blind dates with other boys.)
All Gideon originally planned to do was test his newly built seismograph by creating an explosion large enough that it would be picked up by a nearby university. But when his brother, Ishmael, interferes and creates a much bigger explosion than either boy intended, a rumor starts to circulate in their small Pennsylvania town that aliens landed on their family’s farm. Instead of denying the rumors, Gideon encourages them and documents the resulting hysteria as a study in group psychology, all in the hopes of getting into MIT, getting a job at NASA and becoming one of the world's leading astronomers.
Soon people around town are claiming to have been abducted by aliens, and Gideon and Ishmael must continually raise the stakes to keep control of their own narrative. But when the leader of a cultish multilevel marketing (MLM) business comes to town and declares that the aliens have given him the recipe for a tonic that will grant immortality, all bets are off. What will happen to Gideon's MIT. application if his sociological project is exposed as a hoax?
Chelsea Sedoti (The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett) tells It Came From the Sky through a series of news reports, interviews, explanatory interludes and other forms of data that Gideon has collected. A bovine escape artist, a bizarre reality TV show and a curious (but explainable) sighting of the late John F. Kennedy in the woods add laugh-out-loud humor to her fast-paced tale. Divergent storylines involving Gideon's younger sister, his lonely friend Arden and his mother's MLM connections dovetail into a highly satisfying conclusion. The aliens may never have been real, but the human foibles, challenges and hopes Sedoti depicts in a breezy and engaging documentary style definitely are.
With her debut novel, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland transports readers far from the verdant fields of Pennsylvania farm country, across the continent to the American Southwest and into the realms of speculative fiction and magical realism.
Sia’s favorite place is a spot in the Arizona desert that might have been where the world began. There, two human-shaped cactus plants seem to be reaching their arms out to each other, as though asking to dance. She goes there sometimes to light candles to guide her mother's spirit home. Not quite two years ago, Sia's mother, who immigrated to the United States without documentation, died in the Sonoran desert after being deported. And yet Sia’s grandmother insisted, until her own recent death, “M'ija vive.” My daughter lives.
Sia's anger at the local cop who reported her mother to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is sometimes soothed by the corn she plants, a family tradition with deep roots. She can sense her departed abuela's watchful presence in her garden, among her cacti and sometimes even in her car. Meanwhile, there's a school project about the moon to complete and Harry Potter fan fiction to read. Sia's relationship with her best friend, Rose, becomes strained by Rose's new girlfriend, Samara, leaving Sia room to pursue a romance of her own with Noah, the new boy at school, which is complicated by Sia's personal history with sexual assault. Everything is finally coming together, as friends reunite and love grows stronger.
And that's when Sia sees the blue lights in the sky.
Like the best speculative fiction, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything uses imaginative elements as metaphors for contemporary issues, in this case racism, immigration and abuse of police power. Sia’s narration is also pervaded by intense spirituality that blends Catholicism with the spirits and ghosts of Mexican folklore. The book teems with vivid imagery and explicit social commentary; "I guess when your skin is light enough, you get to cast the benefit of the doubt like a spell or something," Sia muses at one point.
Don't be disoriented when the narrative seems to radically shift genre just before the halfway point. Vasquez Gilliland skillfully sows the seeds of science fiction and magical realism early in the story, and like Sia's maíz, they have been waiting for just the right time to bloom.