First Day on Earth is Cecil Castellucci's latest young adult novel (see my reviews of Beige and Boy Proof). The story is narrated by Mal,a teenage loner. Mal lives in Southern California with his helpless alcoholic mother, six years after the two of them were abandoned by Mal's dad. Mal's bitterness towards his dad, and the damage that this abandonment did to his self-esteem, permeates the book. As does the question of whether or not Mal was abducted by aliens shortly after his dad left. Mal believes that it happened. He disappeared for several days in the desert, and has vague memories of experiments.
Castellucci keeps the reader guessing about what really happened. Is this science fiction? Or is Mal crazy? And what about the others that Mal meets in his alien abduction support group? One of them, Hooper, is awfully convincing...
Mal's voice is strong and plausible. I'm not sure how a grown woman is so able to inhabit a brooding, damaged teenage boy, but Castellucci nails It. Like this:
"You think that you're something. You think that your dumb teen problems are so big and important. you think that that who's popular in school and who wears and says the right thing is important.
You're ignorant. Asleep.
I've been to outer space and back again. I've been caged. I've been probed and spliced and diced and I am being tracked. They are going to take me again one day. I know it because I heard them say it in my brain. They are out there and they are watching us. And just move like a sleepwalker from class to class whenever the bell rings.
I think you are sheep" (Page 2)
"As soon as I see the windmills, I pull over and climb out of the car and stumble up toward them. The air is crazy. All swoooshing and electric. I feel as though I'm a piece of machinery that has been suddenly set to full throttle. And there's a noise. Not a noise that sounds like anything else you've ever heard. It is a whirring whisper with a purr. It is steady and magnificent, the windmills capturing energy right from the sky." (Page 6)
I love "whirring whisper with a purr." And I like that Mal is not one of the popular kids. He's "the kid slumped in his chair in the back row, with greasy hair, wearing all black." Throughout the book, other aspects of Mal's character reveal themselves, and render him likeable (though always bitter, and not always kind). I could actually see teens, after reading this book, perhaps giving some of the invisible kids in their classes a closer look. Realizing that they might be real people.
There are several other strong characters in the book, too, including Hooper, Posey, and Darwyn. Posey is a popular girl who demonstrates surprising compassion towards Mal. Darwyn is a wanna-be. A boy who doesn't quite know how to connect socially, and is willing to accept being taken advantage of as a substitute for popularity. I'll bet that there are plenty of kids out there like Darwyn in reality, though one rarely runs across them in novels.
The number of scenes in which Darwyn and Posey crop up suggest that Mal's high school is very small, though I don't think that this spelled out. There are also a few coincidences tying the book's threads together at the end. I'm normally not a fan of this sort of thing, but with First Day on Earth, it feels more like some larger force is at work than like the author couldn't tie things together any other way.
First Day on Earth is a quick read - only 160 pages, with short chapters. It's not a verse novel, but it has the spare feel of a verse novel. There's one entire chapter that's just a list of words that start with "Mal" (all negative). The latter part of the book is a bit of a road trip novel, and the ending is quite suspenseful. Due to some language and drinking, I do think that this more a high school book than a middle school book.
First Day on Earth is a great choice for reluctant readers, kids who wonder whether or not there might be life on other planets, and/or anyone who has ever felt alienated in high school. Highly recommended for boys and girls, particularly for fans of Castellucci's other novels, John Green's work, and How To Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford.
Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: November 1, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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