We recently celebrated Canada Day on July 1st, and for some reason the combination of fireworks and patriotism makes me feel nostalgic. Every Canada Day, I reflect on the occasions when my parents took me out for night-time picnics at the park to watch the fireworks launch, and I’m always compelled to reach back into my youth and reconnect with those nice memories. This year, I dealt with my nostalgia by digging through the boxes of my old books in my parents’ storage room and retrieving one of my old favourites.
The book I’m referring to is The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristen D. Randle. This book was published in 1995, and I think I first read it right around then, which means I’ve been loving this book and toting it around since I was about 10. I remember the day I first found it at my local library; I don’t even think I bothered reading the description, I was just stoked to find a book about aliens. Spoiler alert: this book has nothing to do with aliens. Then when I first realized the characters are in high school, I remember skimming the book hoping to read something scandalous. Old habits die hard, I guess, because I still do that with pretty much any book I bring home!
At its core, this book is about the long-reaching effects of physical and mental abuse. I’m both sorry and unapologetic to admit that this is one of the few books that I’ve read that deals with real issues. A perusal of my bookshelf clearly shows my preference for escapist fiction, and I’m okay with that! This novel is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Ginny, a high school senior who’s world is turned on its head when her family moves across the country for a change of pace. She surprises herself by making new friends pretty fast, but she finds herself drawn to a mystery boy in one of her classes named Smitty Tibbs (who I love as a character, but that name makes me cringe). I know you’re thinking this sounds like the basic description for every teen fiction book, but bare with me. Smitty is nothing like the Edward Cullens and Patch Ciprianos of the teen fiction world. You see, Smitty “the Alien” Tibbs has been bullied and dismissed by almost everyone around him his whole life because of his supposed mental handicap.
Over the years (and because of one faithful protector), the worst of the bullying has stopped, but the whispers and snide remarks still circulate. Nobody’s really sure why Smitty is the way he is; some think he’s autistic, some think his brain was damaged from an accidental drowning as a toddler. The thing is, while he never says a word, or makes any eye contact, or even makes any facial expressions, he’s brilliant! Like, early-acceptance-to-ivy-league-college-and-extra-credit-papers-on-Machiavelli brilliant. Ginny is intrigued by him from pretty much the very first day because while his peers have gotten used to thinking of him as less than human, she knows in her bones that there’s more to him. She teams up with one of her new friends to socialize Smitty, and see if they can get through to him. Without just completely spoiling what happens, I’ll tell you that their “experiments” on Smitty take a surprising turn, and the full truth of what happened to Smitty and what his family has been hiding comes to light.
I consider myself a fairly slow reader, but I read this whole book in a couple of hours on my deck as I waited for the light to fade and the fireworks to start. I appreciate that it’s a book geared to a younger audience, but I can’t help but feel like it’s such a quick read because it’s light on some details that might have helped to flesh things out. As a 10-year old girl, I can’t say that I cared much about small details like age, time, and geography. But I’m 26 years old now, dammit, and I’d like to know trivial things like which city Ginny moved from and to, and how old everybody is supposed to be! She has three brothers, and she’s very close to all of them, but all you find out about them are their names (Paul, James and Charlie) and that Paul is the oldest. The intelligence of their banter tells me that James and Charlie can’t be too young – she goes to Charlie for advice, after all – but there’s no way to be sure. Furthermore, as Ginny only mentions that they moved from West to East, I have no choice but to imagine that they moved from sunny California to, like, Maine, and that James and Charlie are twins about a year younger than her. It’s the only way the story really makes sense in my head. Finally, the timeline is a little funky. Ginny will say vague things like “a few weeks later” super frequently, which gives the illusion that this book takes place in a full year, when in fact it basically spans from September to December.
But if you’re not a stickler for detail like me, this book is a bit of a gem. Ginny is not like the average teenage girl of some of today’s books, by which I mean she’s not completely effing useless. She doesn’t need a love interest in her life to define her because she’s too busy enjoying her life and her friends. She can be a bit of a coward when it comes to the public humiliations of high school, but she’s strong when it really matters and she’s a good friend. Ginny is probably my favourite part about the book, to be honest. I can see myself thinking the same thoughts and reacting in the same ways as she does in the novel, and I feel like I also identify with her personal development from start to finish. This title appears on a list of books that “should be known and read by a lot more people”, and I couldn’t agree more! It’s been part of my life for 16 years, and has now been promoted from the storage room box to my beautiful antique bookcase. Randle has written several more books, which I think I’ll look into at some future date. If you want to know more about the book or the author, Randle has a website!