Ambassador, by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2014, middle grade)
Gabe Fuentes is a good kid. His mom knows he can be trusted with his two toddler siblings. And a mysterious Envoy decides that he can be trusted with the job as Earth's ambassador to the vast diplomatic consortium of alien civilizations. Yes, he is young (11), but that's actually a requirement for the job--this diplomacy relies on the fact that young people are more open minded and ready to be friends through play than adults. So Gabe is given the ability to visit the virtual space of the intergalactic embassy, and make contact with other sentient beings.....
But all is not happy playground fun. An aggressive species is spreading terror as it conquers planet after planet, sending alien refugees fleeing into space. And there's someone, or something, lurking in Earth's own asteroid belt and not broadcasting friendly messages. And on top of that, someone/thing is trying to assassinate Gabe.
Life on earth isn't any better. Gabe's Mexican parents are in the country illegally, and when his dad is caught rolling through a stop sign he ends up in jail, waiting to be deported. Then Gabe's house implodes (not by chance). Gabe's family needs him badly....but so does Earth....
Why I liked this Book:
--Gabe is a Nice, thoughtful, sympathetic, boy--really truly likeable.
--the Envoy, doing the best he can to help Gabe, makes a likeable sidekick whose powers and knoweldge are never quite up to expectations--he can't magically save the day.
--Gabe's family is warm and idiosyncratic and real and (unusual in MG fiction) alive and caring.
--there are sundry aliens of interest, many of whom I want to know more about, and one of whom doesn't behave the way everyone else is expecting he should.
--this is a lovely adventure with multiple alien species that is just a perfect introduction to that genre for the 11 year old. Not only is it a good story qua story, it is also a friendly one for the fan of fantasy--the portal to the intergalactic embassy, peopled by strange beings, might as well be magic (the "science" isn't explained, so on the downside this one might not work for those with trouble suspending disbelief).
--even though the ending suddenly introduces a whole new plot twist, and doesn't actually Finish anything, the story hung together enough that I didn't mind (though I know of others who did object, so your mileage may vary....). I am actually rather glad to have the sequel to look forward to in an active spirit of anticipation.
--the intertwining of socio-political contexts, with refugees in space and on Earth, was very satisfying.
I am not always on board with the opinions of whoever is reviewing middle grade science fiction and fantasy for Kirkus, but in this case I agree that this one deserves its star.
(I also like it when book covers go well with my blog's color scheme; Ambassador might have been designed with my blog in mind, and I appreciate that.)
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration