The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, by Ronald L. Smith (review and interview)

I first had the pleasure of meeting Ronald L. Smith at Kidlitcon back in 2015 (PSA--come to Kidlitcon 2020 in Ann Arbor next March!).  His first middle grade book, Hoodoo, a tale of supernatural horror in the south, had just been published, and I enjoyed it very much (my review).  I likewise enjoyed The Mesmerist (2017), about kids fighting evil in 19th century London (my review).  I never reviewed Black Panther: the Young Prince (2018)….someday I will.  So in any event, I was very excited about his most recent book, The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away (Clarion Books, February 2019).

This is the story of an air force kid, Simon, son of a black mom and a white dad, who's obsessed with aliens.  He's convinced owl-like aliens have arrived, watching and experimenting on humans.  His family has no time or patience for aliens, so Simon is alone with his fears of the Grays, as he calls them.  When something very strange happens on a camping trip with his dad, Simon is convinced he was targeted by the aliens, and that a chip has been implanted in his stomach.

Are the aliens a projection of Simon's own anxieties (he feels his father is disappointed in his lack of athleticism, fondness for gaming, and his social insecurity), or are they a real threat, that no one else around him believes in?  His parents think his fears are psychological, and take him to a psychiatrist who medicates him, but Simon doesn't cooperate.   Readers must keep guessing; Simon's other obsession, the fantasy book he's writing, makes it clear that he's a tremendously imaginative, creative person, and are the Grays simply another story he's telling himself?

Whether or not the aliens are real, Simon's distress certainly is, and the scary tension keeps growing throughout the book!  Young fans of sci fi horror creeping into our world will love it, especially those who feel that the grown-ups don't take them seriously.

Here are some questions I had for Ronald L. Smith, that he graciously answered.

What inspired you to write Owls? 

Well, I have a lot of ideas brewing in my brain. I thought it would be cool to try something more contemporary than my other books. I have an unhealthy fascination with UFOs and aliens so I thought it would be a good subject. Also, the book is set on an Air Force base, which is where I spent my life growing up. There is a whole subculture around military bases that people don’t know about. It’s a certain way of life. Since I know it well I thought it would provide a good backdrop. Also, aliens and UFOs are a timeless subject.

Part of what makes Owls so interesting is the uncertainty about the whether the aliens are real or not.  When you started writing Owls, did you know which way you were going to go?

Yes. But the book also changed a little in edits. The big idea stayed true to what I envisioned. 

Likewise, although Owls is a middle grade book (9-12 year olds) it felt to me like it could easily have been born a Young Adult book....did you always think of it as middle grade, or were there times it wanted to be YA?  (would you like to write YA?)

I always thought of it as MG. That’s the category I like most. It would be a little different, though, if it were YA. My main character, Simon, would have had different hopes and fears. A younger protagonist allowed me to tap into the mind of a twelve-year-old and imagine how he would handle such a weird subject. As to writing YA, I have some ideas. Maybe one day!

(a question for those of us who have read the book...) Do you think the ending is entirely happy?  

Well, I’ll leave that one up to the reader. It’s hopeful but also kind of disturbing! 

Which of your books did you most enjoy writing, and what are you working on now?

Oh, wow. I’m sure you know the answer, as you’ve interviewed a lot of writers. I can’t really say which is my favorite. They all have their challenges and bright spots. I really enjoyed writing Owls. It was fun to write something contemporary but with one disturbing—albeit big—element to it. My next book is called GLOOMTOWN. It’s a fantasy novel about two kids named Rory and Isabella who live in a town called Gloom. The sun never shines there. But there’s a reason for that. There’s also a creepy mansion called Foxglove Manor, Black Sea mariners, a carnival and a scary group called Arcanus Creatura. It’s gonna be fun! 

Finally, any advice for young writers and/or young believers in aliens? 

For young writers, read a lot. Fiction. Nonfiction. Comics. Graphic novels. Memoirs and biographies. Newspapers. Just read. Reading is your best teacher. Share your work with like-minded friends and writers. Try to write a little each day, even if it’s just your own thoughts. And if you believe in aliens, you’re not alone! (See what I did there?) 

Thank you, Ronald!  I'll look forward to Gloomtown.  I love creepy mansions!

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