Inspiring Young Readers
Alienated: Grounded at Groom Lake by Jeff Norton
This is the first book in a new adventure series aimed at readers aged nine and above by award winning US author, Jeff Norton. I am not usually a fan of science fiction, but I’m pleased to tell you that this one is fizzingly funny and packed with jeopardy right up to the final chapter.
Norton explains that he had been a reluctant young reader but is now a passionate believer in the power of storytelling to ‘deliver the themes of inclusion and diversity via an unforgettable roller coaster ride.’ He is clearly influenced by and includes cultural references to War of the Worlds, Star Wars, Men in Black, Star Trek, Independence Day and other books, films and music throughout.
Apart from all this, this is a story about teenagers learning to fit in at a new school, making new friends with the temporary but intense joys of sharing pizza, popcorn and falling back on chocolate mint ice cream when things get difficult. Norton writes from personal experience although he says of himself that ‘I’ve never been to a high school for aliens, but I sure did feel like an alien in high school’.
Fourteen year old twins Sherman and Jessica Capote and their widowed dad have been forced to move back to the USA from their air base home in Germany because of a serious interplanetary diplomatic incident caused when Sherman, a renowned lover of rocket technology, launched a home- made rocket into space. As a punishment, the whole family has been relocated to Groom Lake in Area 51, which is a secret air base long rumoured to be concerned with alien cover ups. Dad has been demoted from his high ranking position and life in their new home is very tense.
When the twins turn up for their first day at Groom Lake High School, they realise that they are the only two human kids there and so are looked on as a great curiosity. The thirty eight other species at the school include Houston who is a moody robot; Sonia the pink lizard; Graz the ‘six hundred pound beast with TRex teeth’; and Octo the ventinent who has twenty tentacles and soon develops a big crush on Jessica. It doesn’t take long for Sherman to fall foul of the school bully, NED, a minor deity who swaggers about in an entitled way as his species ranks highly in the interplanetary hierarchy.
The teachers are also non-human and variously described by Sherman in vivid cartoonish detail. I particularly liked the sound of the Planetology teacher, Mr Orton, who is a rock:
‘He looked like a sandstone take on a snowman, and when he moved he made a sound like bricks being rubbed together’.
I also giggled at the thought of Mr Zvisst, the Home Economics teacher:
‘Who looked like wobbly cherry Jello and could divide himself into however many chefs a kitchen- or classroom- required’.
It takes a while to figure out the pecking order in the school canteen and to eventually make some firm friends, but both Sherman and his sister find their feet pretty quickly and start to find common interests with some interesting individuals. Sherman finds that he has a liking for drama and is stunned to be cast as Romeo opposite Juliet, a beautiful goddess. Will she agree to go to the school Prom with him or is she hopelessly out of his league? But there are more serious perils on the horizon and he is able to use his interest in rocket technology to good effect, working alongside his buddies to prevent NED’s family’s evil intentions from coming to pass.
Despite playing his part in saving the destruction of Earth, Sherman also holds onto his principles and despite his hatred of the bullying NEDs tries to find a way to prevent what looks like their terrible fate. He wants his dad to be proud of him, and to do what his Mom would have wanted. As Juliet tells him:
‘This is a bit what it feels like to be omnipotent .... every moment of every day, there are worlds to save and species to save’.
Anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy will gobble this one up and learn a lot about planetology along the way. The energetic writing is top notch, packed with startling descriptions and pacey dialogue between members of the different species. And the good news is that there are more books to follow soon