Quirky sci-fi

A lifelike robot boy; a cybernetically enhanced cat; a sentient space rover; and ocean creatures in a diving suit on land are the central characters in these four entertaining science fiction stories (two of which are graphic novels) for middle-grade readers.

Brand New Boy
by David Almond; illus. by Marta Altés
Intermediate    Candlewick    320 pp.    g
5/22    978-1-5362-2270-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2694-2    $18.99

George, the new kid in Daniel’s class, is “weird.” Lacking in affect, stiff, and overly literal, he arrives with an aide who takes notes on his every action. When George’s ear falls off, revealing a USB port, Daniel and his friends realize, as the reader has probably already guessed (with help from the jaunty cartoonlike illustrations), that he is a robot. By this time, however, the other kids have become fond of him, and when members of the evil corporation that “owns” George come to retrieve him (after what has been a kind of beta test), his classmates rally to save him. At this point the story morphs from a lighthearted romp to something dreamier, in which George spends a single idyllic day in Almond’s (Skellig, rev. 5/99; The Color of the Sun, rev. 11/19) favorite territory, a wild place at the edge of a town. He gets grubby, roughhouses with the other kids, learns to tell a joke, and becomes alert to the natural world. The other children face big questions. For example, Daniel contemplates the mind-body problem: “Do you have to be a thing that can pee if you’re going to be a thing that can think?” Inevitably, the denouement is bittersweet, leaving us with a simple and sturdy answer to one of the most relevant questions of our time. What defines us as humans? This story’s answer is friendship. SARAH ELLIS

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Shawn Harris
Primary, Intermediate    Tegen/HarperCollins    320 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-06-308408-7    $15.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-308410-0    $10.99

What began as an online storytelling experiment between Barnett and Harris during COVID-19 has been adapted into a graphic novel. This wacky space opera follows a crew of unlikely heroes on a mission to stop a horde of moon-eating rats. The cybernetically enhanced First Cat, along with a brave moon princess and friendly toenail-clipping robot, travel to the dark side of the moon, where they encounter a bloodthirsty baby pirate, a thieving team of disembodied hands, and a three-headed Rat King. The breakneck, stream-of-consciousness plot can be dizzying but never fails to be entertaining. Barnett’s fast-paced dialogue, pleasing non sequiturs, and humorous wordplay (“Oh my Uncle Tony’s hot calzoney”) are amplified by Harris’s impressive illustrations. An invitingly simple thick crayon-like line is employed throughout the comic, from its cartoony imagery to panel borders to lettering. The surprisingly earnest themes of friendship and individual purpose combined with the absurd humor should resonate with this audience. PATRICK GALL

The Aquanaut
by Dan Santat; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Scholastic    256 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-545-49760-2    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-0-545-49761-9    $12.99

In this fast-paced graphic novel, the story shifts quickly from the prologue’s dramatic underwater disaster to a goofy sci-fi buddy comedy set five years later. A motley crew of ocean creatures, led by a hermit crab named Sodapop, turns an old-school diving suit into a three-kids-in-a-trench-coat-style way for them to leave the ocean and find Aqualand, a place they read about in the journal of the marine biologist who’d died in the book’s first pages. But instead of the safe haven for ocean animals they expected, they find a theme park run by a greedy investor, as well as the grief-stricken daughter and brother of the deceased scientist. While the plot gets a bit convoluted, Santat handles both the goofy physical comedy and the family’s grief deftly. The exceptional art is what makes those disparate elements work together, with muted green and deep blue tones creating a palette against which both the slapstick and the characters’ expressive facial expressions pop. The Aquanaut itself switches between looking hilariously unwieldy and absolutely otherworldly, and Santat finds both humor and pathos in the strange gaze of its faceless helmet. LAURA KOENIG

A Rover’s Story
by Jasmine Warga
Intermediate    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    320 pp.    g
10/22    978-0-06-311392-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-311394-7    $12.99

Warga (Other Words for Home, rev. 7/19; The Shape of Thunder, rev. 5/21) imagines a sentient space rover with human emotions who is embarking on a perilous one-way trip to Mars. Resilience (Res for short) narrates much of the book and has profound conversations about life with his companion drone and a nearby satellite. Interspersed throughout are letters written to Res by Sophie, the daughter of Rania, one of Res’s programmers. Res sets off on an exploration that will thrill fans of both adventure and robot stories and also provide intellectual sustenance for the deep thinkers, with the novel asking existential questions such as: where do memories and experiences go when we die? Looking at the remains of a broken-down rover, Res wonders, “Are we all going to end up just like this?” Through the character of a robot who has feelings and self-awareness, Warga probes issues of identity, attachment, and the purpose of life, offering readers an unusual but heartfelt example of the importance of staying true to yourself, quirks and all. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

From the November 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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