Galaxy Games: The Challengers, by Greg. R. Fishbone (Lee and Low Books, September 2011, ages 9-12, 352 pages).
There's a certain type of science fiction book for middle grade readers that is, perhaps, best described as "zany." These are the sort of books in which ordinary kids from earth find themselves plunged into intergalactic adventures that teeter between farce and light hearted humor-- like Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, or Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. Galaxy Games: The Challengers is a truly fine example of this little genre, and it is easy as pie to imagine it delighting large numbers of young readers.
Tyler Sato--ordinary Japanese American kid. The "star" his aunt and uncle over in Japan bought him for his birthday (complete with genuine certificate!) is not so ordinary. In fact, "Ty Sato" isn't a star at all--it's an alien spacecraft piloted by a girl named M'Frozza (more tentacles than a squid, more slime than slug, but very friendly once you get to know her)!
M'Frozza didn't bring her spacecraft to Earth by chance (and she didn't tell her parents everything before she left home). Her arrival will enmesh Earth in a conflict on an unprecedented scale--The Galaxy Games, contests in which kids compete against each other to resolve inter-planetary conflicts.
And Ty, inextricably linked to the space craft by the wonders of the media, finds himself the leader of Earth's team of quirky kids of many lands. Before they have a chance to study the rule book, Ty and a bus load of his team-mates find themselves on the moon, playing for the future of Earth in a game of tic tac toe against hostile aliens who are messing with the rules something fierce....(literally fierce).
I'm thinking that one reason I enjoyed this one as much as I did is that the story takes its time before plunging into the wacky insanity of the Games themselves. We get to know Ty, and his Japanese cousin Daiki; we are introduced to M'Frozza and her crew well before they arrive at Earth. The players in the story become, as a result, interesting people, and the tension gets a chance to build nicely and loomingly (I like a nice looming tension, as long as the characters aren't actually unhappy, which these ones aren't).
Fishbone has a deft hand with humor, too--from taking the mickey out of talk-shows and advertising on the particular side of things to reveling in the absurdities of the larger situation he's created for poor old Ty (and all of us here on Earth). There are silliness-es, but the sense I got was that of the author enjoying himself, rather than forcing absurdity into the story to please a young audience (Michael Grant's Mysterious 12 series, for example, gives me the same impression).
If you want harder-core middle grade sci fi with aliens, try The Softwire series by PJ Haarsma (the first book of which is Virus on Orbis). But if you want light sci fi fun for the 6th grader, do consider this one! I am going to try really really hard to get my recalcitrant 11 year old son to at least try it....
(and, as an added bonus, there's an instructive author's note about Japan).
This is my first book review of an offering from Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low specializing in multicultural science fiction and fantasy for kids (who sent me my review copy). I'll look forward to more! I'll also find and bring home, as an offering to my eight year old, Fishbone's first book--Penguins of Doom.