Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: Peanut Butter Lover Boy by Bruce Coville

Short review: Peanut butter affects Pleskit's brain chemistry, but some people don't believe in brain chemistry. So Tim and Pleskit set out to teach them a lesson.

Pleskit goes insane
From eating peanut butter
Grand is a monkey

Full review: The fourth book in Bruce Coville's I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series, Peanut Butter Lover Boy departs from the alternating first person viewpoint format of the previous three books and has a single third person narrator telling the story. This change is announced in the opening pages of the book as part of a letter supposedly written by Pleskit, although there appears to be no particular reason for the change. That aside, the story is a pretty typical Coville tale about the value of friendship packaged with some silly adventure and a message concerning mental illness.

The story itself starts off fairly innocuously with Tim and Pleskit at lunch where they decide to make the common schoolboy trade of their lunch. Tim ends up with an egg-like thing that he is supposed to smash against his hand and lick, while Pleskit gets a peanut butter sandwich. And from there the problems begin, because when Pleskit sees Linnsey walking by, he declares his undying love for her and charges off to kiss her. This causes some consternation and McNally has to restrain Pleskit until he comes back to his senses. After some investigation, Tim and Pleskit figure out that peanut butter causes this reaction in Pleskit. And at this point the message concerning mental illness comes into play.

It turns out that Linnsey's mother Mrs. Vanderhof suffers from a chemical imbalance in her brain, and takes medication to control her condition. And when it is confirmed that Pleskit's behaviour is changed by peanut butter, she gives a basic explanation of brain chemistry and how it is treated. But neither Pleskit's father Meenom or the new school principal Mr. Grand think that brain chemistry has any effect on behavior. Mr. Grand accuses Pleskit of trying to evade responsibility for his actions with a silly made-up story. This brush-off incenses Mrs. Vanderhof, and she and the boys try to figure out how to show that brain chemistry is real.

Into this gap steps Beezle Whompis, Meenom's new assistant, an energy being with a mastery over alien science. After Beezle examines the human brain, he concocts a substance that transforms an ordinary human mind into a monkey-like state. With the assistance of McNally and Mrs. Vanderhof, the boys plan to smuggle the substance in to a PTA meeting and have Tim eat the stuff and show how something you consume can affect your brain. One plot hole here is that this seems like a pretty obviously stupid plan - while we the readers know that the substance actually makes Tim think like a monkey, for all people like Mr. Grand know Tim could just be play acting his monkey behavior. Fortunately, events conspire to make the plan work out much better than that, and all ends well.

Woven through the main story is another more serious story involving exactly what Meenom's purpose on Earth is. When they make their initial lunch exchange, Tim has second thoughts and  tries to get Pleskit to trade back. Pleskit is perturbed by this request, and when Tim presses him regarding why this bothers him so much, Pleskit explains that the basis of alien society is mutually beneficial trades, and trying to back out of a deal is a mark of a barbaric uncivilized society. It turns out that Meenom is attempting to open trade with Earth, and if his mission fails he will be replaced, potentially by an alien representative much less sympathetic to human concerns. Unfortunately, as of the beginning of the book Meenom has yet to find an Earth product that anyone else in the galaxy would value. This conundrum is solved in a modestly unusual manner that dovetails nicely with the main plot of the book.

Peanut Butter Lover Boy is another strong installment in the I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series. It retains all of the silly adventure of the previous books in the series, and adds just enough of a discussion about serious issues like mental illness to convey a moral lesson without being heavy-handed about it. The story also opens up a tiny window on the wider alien society that Meenom and Pleskit represent, and gives the first real indication of what might be at stake for Earth. Overall, this is a book any science-fiction loving kid will probably enjoy reading.

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