two excellent middle grade books in which Black kids meet aliens

One of the reasons I enjoy reading for the first round of the Cybils Awards is that it puts books in my hands that I might otherwise not have read and enjoyed, such as these two excellent books in which Black kids meet aliens...and their real-world lives are turned upside down.

Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion, by K. Tempest Bradford, feels like realistic middle grade fiction for about the first half of the story, but the signs are there that it is anything but. Eleven-year-old Ruby is young scientist in training, fascinated by insects, hanging out with her friends, leading an ordinary life. But when she captures a bug she's never seen before, her life becomes very unusual indeed. The bug escapes, burning a hole through her window. Then government investigators show up looking for it, disturbing and disrupting the neighborhood. Ruby and her friends (all of them very smart in their own different ways) are looking for answers too, and though there is no interstellar invasion, the "bug" is indeed an alien, in trouble and far from home. And Ruby is determined to help....

A lot of the story, even after the alien plot begins to be revealed, is real world happenings (including racism, most notably dealing with an unpleasant white science teacher who won't believe Ruby is capable of the science fair project she's been planning), and this is where the book is strongest. The sci fi part takes the better part of the book to really get going, and then wraps up in a mad rush of excitement at the end (like a fireworks show). Kids who come for an interstellar invasion might well put it down halfway, which is too bad, because it all comes together in the end to make for a fun sci fi read, full of science, mystery and great team work.  

Since this is gift giving season, pair this with a magnifying glass and a guide to insects for the science loving kid in your life.

Nothing Interesting Ever Happens to Ethan Fairmont, by Nick Brooks, was subjected to the daunting task of sustaining my interest while horribly expensive repairs were happing to my car, which I needed for a six hour drive the next day....and it came through with flying colors. Ethan's home town of Ferrous City used to be an industrial powerhouse, but those days are gone, leaving behind a huge abandoned factory and lots of junk. Ethan's an inventor, and this junk is the raw material for his creations (along with the family vacuum cleaner, which did not go over well with his parents), and so he visits the factory often, even though it's forbidden. On one such expedition, he and the new kid in town, Juan Carlos, find a big silver ball that seems to have crashed into the factory.

It is an alien space craft, and its occupant is desperate to get home again. Communication is difficult and choppy, but Ethan is determined to help the alien, nick-named Cheese (its first English word) repair its vessel. There are complications. Ethan's former best friend, and school bully and his sister who he's now pals with, find out about the alien, and get involved in trying help (there's a nice bit of real world friendship tension sub plot I liked lots here). The other complication is worse--the feds have come to town, working with the local police to track the space ship down, and Ethan's Black community is threatened, with his father getting arrested. (This is the first middle grade sci fi/fantasy book that I have read that shows police brutality to people of color right there front and center, and the first in which the parents have to have the Talk with their son....).

Nick Brooks strikes a lovely balance between the entertaining story of "boy meets alien" (it's lots of fun, sometimes goofy--note, for instance, Ethan's hamster on the cover--but never ridiculous) and the more serious aspects of book. I truly enjoyed it.

Could be paired as a Christmas gift with the box of miscellaneous bolts you have in your garage and/or a gently used vacuum cleaner.....or more reasonably a lego spaceship (safer except when you step on them...)

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