They’re Out There and They Look Like Us: Aliens in YA Lit
When I hear the words “space alien,” I admit I immediately think of little green men. Stereotypical, I admit. I’ve read many teen books where you know from the get-go it’s an alien because the alien doesn’t look human. He/she/it is often an exchange student or visitor from another planet, and the action takes place on Earth or on other planets. Kate Gilmore’s Exchange Student, Allison Goodman’s Singing the Dogstar Blues or Annette Curtis Klause’s Alien Secrets are examples.
I prefer books where the aliens pass for human and the characters don’t know that there’s an alien among them.
To quote from I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore:
We look like you.
We talk like you.
We live among you — but
We are not you.
We have powers you dream of having.
I recently devoured Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave in a few hours. It was an exciting, compelling, and fast-paced read. In the wake of a series of waves of disasters, there are few remaining humans left the in US. The survivors are being hunted by aliens who look human. Teenaged Cassie is desperate to save her little brother, taken away to be trained as a boy soldier. After being shot, she’s saved by cute Evan, who she thinks can help her get her brother back. Or does he have his own plan? If you want to know more, just read it. It’s gotten a huge amount of publicity and is being hailed as the next Hunger Games and has already been optioned for a movie. I understand why. The minute I finished it I immediately wanted another one like it. (I hate having to wait until next May for the sequel!)
When I started to look around for more teen books like The 5th Wave, I was disappointed to see that there weren’t as many as I’d hoped, although I did find some good ones.
These books vary in their approach to the aliens. The aliens were a threat to humans, helpful to humans, or maybe even were the humans. Case in point: an oldie (but goody), The Dark Side of Nowhere by Neal Shusterman, now back in print. It’s the first book that came to mind when I thought of aliens living among us. I read it years ago, but it’s stayed with me. This book is a forerunner to the trend in books where teens discover they’re not who or what they think they are. Fourteen-year-old Jason is bored to death in the town where he’s lived all his life. Few newcomers move in. Everyone seems happy and well adjusted — too well adjusted. Jason realizes he and his family, along with almost everyone else in town, are aliens. The monthly DNA shot they receive enables them to maintain their human forms. They’ve come to Earth to prepare for an alien invasion. Jason questions what it means to be human and whether he wants to revert back to his true alien form or not.
David Klass’s Stuck on Earth is about Ketchvar, an alien who’s sent to Earth to determine if the human race should be destroyed. In alien form he looks like a snail, so he crawls into the nose and then the brain of an awkward 14-year-old boy from New Jersey to do his analysis. He soon finds himself getting caught up in the drama of a teenager’s life, complete with bullies and beautiful next door neighbors.
Another variation is the human who claims to have been abducted by aliens and experimented on. Are they telling the truth or just mentally ill? Cecil Castellucci’s book First Day on Earth makes a valid case for their existence. Lonely, misunderstood, teenaged Mal claims to have been abducted by aliens years ago, but everyone else thinks he just had a breakdown. He’s convinced they are going to come back and take him again one day because he heard them say it in his brain. He’s looking forward to it because when he goes with them he’ll be free. Then he meets an older man named Hooper at an alien abductees support group and learns that the truth is closer than he ever imagined.
There are also funny alien books, where the aliens are either crazy in a madcap way or devastatingly cute but incredibly dimwitted. Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal, the first book in the Ever Expanding Universe series, is definitely the latter. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and features a hilariously snarky main character and a gorgeous alien. Pregnant teen Elvie is sent off to outer space to have her baby on a space ship that houses the Hanover School for Expectant Mothers. She’s part of a diverse group of girls who have nothing in common except that they’re pregnant (and many are cheerleaders), so they don’t get along very well. Elvie’s main enemy is bitchy cheerleader Britta, who has no idea that she and Elvie have the same baby daddy. Britta’s boyfriend Cole dumped her and got Elvie pregnant the only time they were together. He’s not too bright and is “too hot to be human” so it’s not a big surprise that he isn’t. He’s part of the alien race the Almiri. He and other Alimri commandos take over the ship to save the girls from being attacked by their alien teachers who want their babies for their own nefarious reasons. I’m looking forward to the sequel, A Stranger Thing, which comes out in November.
How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend by Gary Ghislain is set in Paris and has a sophisticated European style. David’s psychologist dad is always taking in nutty teenagers, but beautiful Zelda is crazier than most. She claims to be 325 years old, from outer space, and on a quest to find Johnny Depp to take back to her planet. One look at Zelda’s mean green eyes and David’s hooked. He finds himself racing across Paris over rooftops, escaping from the cops, and narrowly escaping all sorts of situations just to stay by her side.
Blake Nelson’s aliens aren’t from outer space, but from deep below the sea in his book They Came From Below. Emily and her best friend Reese befriend two very cute, multilingual guys on their summer vacation in Cape Cod. Both guys have superhuman healing powers, and it soon becomes apparent that they’re not human. They’re manifestations of deep-sea creatures that have been summoned from the sea to address the threat of global pollution. They’re not a threat to the humans. They’re there to help. It’s the humans that are threatening — in this case, they are endangering their own environment.
Whatever type of alien is portrayed in these books, I love them all. There’s something very disturbing about aliens possibly living among us that we’re not aware of, especially those that look human.
— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare and listening to The Runaway Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen