Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien by Bruce Coville

Short review: Sixth grader Tim Tompkins is getting a new classmate. His name is Pleskin, his skin is purple, and he's an alien. Then things get exciting.

Pleskit is purple
He's also a sixth grader
And Tim Tomkin's friend

Full review: In I Was a Sixth Grade Alien aliens have made contact with humanity and are sending an ambassador to establish communication and trade. The ambassador has a young son that he wants to attend school on Earth, and so Pleskit, purple-skinned with a tentacle on his head, joins Ms. Weintraub’s sixth grade class. While it is scary for some students and parents, Tim Tompkins, a slightly nerdy boy who loves science fiction books, is overjoyed. At least he is until it becomes clear that Pleskit is so swamped with attention that it seems to Tim like he won’t ever be able to talk with his alien classmate.

The story is told from an alternating viewpoint, shifting back and forth between Tim and Pleskit, a technique used quite effectively by Coville to illustrate both character's confusion at the unfamiliar things they confront when dealing with each other and their respective cultures. The shifting viewpoint also allows Coville to convey information to the reader necessary to the story without it being apparent to all the characters, preserving the confusion each character feels for much of the book. For his part, Pleskit can’t seem to figure out humans as his study materials seem to have led him astray and he makes several missteps causing public relations disasters for his father. Tim, on the other hand, has to engage in a devious plot just to realize his dream of talking to his alien classmate. Of course, as this is a Bruce Coville story, both are plagued by a bully (in this book, an overbearing rich kid named Jordan). Eventually the two meet up and the book moves on to the mystery of Pleskit’s misleading study materials.

Of course, it turns out that Pleskit’s troubles have been intentionally caused, and the two boys seek to unravel the mystery of who would do such a thing. This, unfortunately, is the weak part of the book, as the mystery is solved (by accident) almost as soon as it becomes part of the story. The story does stick to what seems to be a recurring theme in Coville’s work, as the civilized, diverse, peace-loving aliens are contrasted with the xenophobic, barbaric and violent humans. In this book, these impulses take the form of the rabble rousing Senator Hargis and the yellow journalist Kitty James. In the end, the villain’s plot is revealed (and the aliens don’t turn out to be a completely honorable bunch), and the forces of xenophobia are discredited to a certain extent. I Was a Sixth Grade Alien is the first book in a multi-book series featuring Pleskit and Tim Tompkins, and it is a decent beginning that should be a fun read for a fifth or sixth grader.

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