Review: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Hyperion Books for Children, 2007. Currently available.

Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction. No, not really. Speculative Fiction. Ummm, no, it’s not that either. Humorous Fiction? I give up. It’s unclassifiable. Just know that it is really, really good.

Face Value: It’s futuristic and attention-getting. The comic-inspired, space age artwork continues throughout the novel. And it’s all done by the author, Adam Rex! (He writes and draws, folks. We have a winner.)

Side note about the cover: When I first heard about this novel, I was surprised to learn that the protagonist was a young female. I wasn’t getting a “girl reader vibe” from the cover art.  But then I realized that I love this cover because it is gender neutral and doesn’t feature pink sparkles or fiery dragons or anything else that would target an obvious reader group. It doesn’t scream sci-fi either, even though the story incorporates elements from that genre.

Does it break the slate? This book breaks the slate, crams the broken pieces into a jetpack, and shoots them into outer space. Gratuity Tucci, the central character and primary Slatebreaker of this story, is incredibly resourceful and great at getting out of scrapes. She manages to survive in dire situations despite depleted resources and lack of adult assistance. Gratuity also shows great compassion as she becomes acquainted with a character from another culture. She chooses to ignore stereotypes and take the time to learn what the Boov are really like. It’s impressive to see a heroine model such excellent intercultural understanding. We also witness Gratuity’s mom, Lucy, go through a Slatebreaking transformation at the end of the book, which is both surprising and gratifying.

Who would we give it to? There are a few young readers I know who are addicted to reading sci-fi novels and are reluctant to read anything else. I think that I could slip this book into their to-read pile and they would be willing to give it a try. I would also give this to any teen with a sparkling wit and sarcastic sense of humor.

Review: I love a child character who is self-sufficient. If you can write a fictional kid who can survive without adults in a time of crisis, you’ve got a character that young readers will connect with and admire. Independence is one of the great desires of childhood. I remember those moments as a kid when I read about young characters that were able to take care of themselves, and I was so envious. I had déjà vu with those feelings while reading The True Meaning of Smekday.

Even before aliens abduct her mom, Gratuity “Tip” Tucci is impressive. She takes care of basic needs for her family because her mom is kind of scatter-brained. When she realizes that she will need to provide her own transportation, she tapes cans to her shoes and learns to drive. (At age eleven, Tip is probably more skilled driver than I am as an adult. Yikes. She has some seriously sweet car skills.) When the Boov aliens take over Earth, Tip doesn’t wait around for instructions. She straps on those cans, gets in the car, and starts to drive.

Not far down the road, Tip’s car breaks down. She is in the midst of looking for a solution when she encounters a Boov named J. Lo who is willing to help. At first, Tip is reluctant – why would she want to get involved with the alien race who conquered her planet, abducted her mom, and generally made her life miserable? Tip decides to give J. Lo a chance, and they become travel companions. Thus begins the weirdest, funniest road trip story I have ever read.

J. Lo and Tip have a lot of differences to work out. Tip eats whatever snacks she can scrounge up from abandoned towns while J. Lo prefers munching on urinal cakes. Tip is driven to find her mother and put her family back together, while J. Lo has trouble understanding the concept of a family unit because there are no families in Boov culture. They manage to communicate semi-effectively, and the two become kind of friendly. It is great fun to read the conversations in the car between Tip and J. Lo.

These two central characters are carefully navigating cultural difference in an admirable way. Although they may not understand why humans or Boov do something in a certain way, they learn to respect differences rather than argue about them. My favorite thing about The True Meaning of Smekday is its complex understanding of ethnicity, and the honest way in which it depicts human reactions to race, ethnicity, and culture. Adam Rex doesn’t sugarcoat the issue. We read Tip’s honest reactions when she encounters people from a different cultural and ethnic background. For example, this is what Gratuity says about her first encounter with a Navajo character, the Chief:

I looked down to see a thin, dark man, like a strip of jerky – the Chief. His head was covered by a faded red cap with flaps and a strap that hung down past his ears. It looked like something a pilot might have worn long ago. He otherwise wore the same clothes as anybody else – no buckskin or beads or anything. I’m probably an idiot for even mentioning that.

Tip works through her kneejerk stereotypical reactions to get to know the Chief, and she ends up understanding him better than any of the adults in town. Tip herself is a multiracial character. Although racial identity is not a major theme in the story, it emerges a few times and each time it is acknowledged but not over-emphasized. Adam Rex deserves a high five for handling this topic in a smart, funny, and totally honest way without getting too preachy about it.

Have I mentioned how funny this book is? It’s funny. No, it’s hilarious. Tip has a wry sense of humor that really shines throughout the story. She also has to work through a language barrier between English and Boovian, which usually ends up being quite funny. I particularly enjoyed an entertaining misunderstanding between Tip and J. Lo regarding the Loch Ness monster. J. Lo’s mix-ups of the English language are consistently giggle-inducing.

Adam Rex also does a fantastic job writing from a girl’s perspective. If you had covered up the author’s name and bio, I never once would have been able to guess that this girl character had been written by a male author. He does well with capturing Tip’s eleven-year-old perspective on human boys, which is pretty much the following: they’re kind of ridiculous and they seem to be obsessed with boobs.

Re-reading this review, I realize how weird this book must sound. Well, it is weird. It is weird in the most terrific way possible. It is weird in the way that being a kid is weird. Don’t let the weirdness keep you away. Embrace the weirdness that is The True Meaning of Smekday.

Reviewed from library copy.

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