Five Reasons You Should Read The True Meaning of Smekday

the true meaning of smekdayBack in July I wrote a Trailer Tuesdays on Home, an adaptation of a children’s book called The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. After doing some research, I found out that the book was intended to be a satire of colonialism, and I thought to myself, “Luce, you should so read this book.”

So I did. And guess what? You should too. I have five very compelling reasons, as well as some slight spoilers, for you after the jump.

The True Meaning of Smekday is about a young girl, Gratuity Tucci, who has to write an essay on “Smekday”, the Boovish name for Christmas, after the Boov have left Earth. The Boov are an alien race who invaded Earth and then left, for reasons unknown at the start of the book. While they were here, they conquered Earth and sent each population to a tiny corner of its own land in the name of peace—Americans, for example, were told they could keep and live in Florida. When the story begins, all Americans have to relocate to Florida as soon as humanly possible. Gratuity, or Tip, as her friends call her, is on her way there in a car, with her cat named Pig, when she meets a Boov that calls himself J.Lo. (Apparently his real name is too difficult to pronounce.) J.Lo is hiding from the other Boov because he accidentally alerted another alien race to the presence of the Boov on Earth. The other alien race is now coming to fight the Boov for Earth. Thus begins Tip and J.Lo’s excellent adventure, and this list of reasons to read Smekday.

1. The protagonist

Whenever we have a story set in a dystopia or in a post-apocalyptic world, the protagonist is almost always a white person (or whitewashed). This sends the message that only white people survive in apocalyptic times and that only white people have stories worth telling, neither of which are true. Tip’s mother is white and her father is (or was) Black, making her a great representation of a mixed-race family. Beyond that, she’s smart, resourceful, clever, and pragmatic—a good role model for every child. And in general, making a child the protagonist of a children’s book is pretty straightforward, but because Tip is a child, she can comment on things like institutionalized racism without the prose sounding preachy.

“I only usually shout at the white people,” he said. “Tradition. I’ve got no beef with you.”

“I’m half white,” I said, folding my arms.

“Hrrm. Which half?”

I blinked. “Uh… dunno. Let’s say it’s from the waist down.”

—from The True Meaning of Smekday, p.274

Tip’s narration is both hilarious and heartwarming, and gently pushes you towards thinking about social issues. Speaking of which, here’s reason #2:

2. The racism

The author, Adam Rex

The author, Adam Rex

In a story about herding a native population onto a reservation in a clear allegory to what the early Americans did to the Native Americans, there are obviously going to be some serious themes of social justice. But Rex doesn’t stop at just the allegory—he includes people of all races and genders in Tip’s journey. This is not only good representation, but also shows the audience the true diversity of the human race—in short, the diversity of what the Boov are destroying. While the aliens are taking over Hollywood landmarks like New York City, they’re also terrorizing Tip’s middle-class, mixed-race family, Hispanic boys in Florida, white families in Arizona, and even a Native American caretaker at Roswell. We’ve written before about how there needs to be more racism in pop culture media for the audience to fully understand how harmful it is, and The True Meaning of Smekday does that fantastically. Are people still going to be super racist in the middle of an alien invasion? Sorry, Hollywood, but yes.

3. Actually unique aliens

So who are the Boov, anyway? Well, they’re these short creatures with eight little legs, usually wearing rubber suits of some kind, and they eat things like soap and tin cans and cough syrup. Although they can speak most human languages fairly fluently, they find writing to be completely beyond them, because the Boovish language is made up of bubbles. Actual bubbles. And get this, the Boov do not adhere to our outdated gender binary!

“So… you Boov have boys and girls… just like us?”

“Of course,” said J.Lo. “Do not to be ridicumulous.”

I smiled a wan little smile. “Sorry.”

“The Boov are having seven magnificent genders. There is boy, girl, boygirl, girlboy, boyboy, boyboygirl, and boyboyboyboy.”

I had absolutely no response to this.

—from The True Meaning of Smekday, p.77

The gender binary is something that we humans came up with, and the idea that extraterrestrial characters would be confined by it shows a certain lack of creativity. Fortunately, Rex does not have this problem, and J.Lo is even annoyed enough by a bathroom stall’s drawing of a two-legged man that he adds six more legs to it. If there were ever a funnier example of the need for representation, I haven’t read it.

4. Cultural sharing—and the lack of it

Tip and J.Lo start off as very reluctant allies, but gradually grow to know, respect, and love each other as faithful friends. This involves one of my favorite things: talking with each other about their cultures. J.Lo has learned the English language, but he doesn’t know about human families and how humans raise their children, and Tip doesn’t know anything about the Boovish childrearing system or the Boovish homeworld. They learn that they don’t have to mistrust each other—important for a story firmly against colonialism and imperialism. It gets even better when the other aliens, the Gorg, land on Earth. The Gorg are a particularly violent race of aliens who like to punch people, and in the hands of a lesser writer, these Gorg would have easily been made into the one-dimensional villain of the story. But, as we’ve learned, The True Meaning of Smekday is not about blindly hating people other than yourself. So the cool thing about these Gorg? Well, as J.Lo tells Tip, the Gorg have always fought, so they found superficial reasons to fight each other until finally there was only one Gorg left standing. That Gorg, the most prejudiced, violent Gorg, had cloning technology. He cloned himself over and over until the whole Gorg race was just him. So the Gorg race—the villain aliens—are a testament to one alien’s determination to have nothing different, nothing diverse, nothing that he didn’t personally approve of, in his species. That’s a pretty scary villain.

J.Lo and Tip

J.Lo and Tip, the early days

5. Super effective allegories

Or really just the one allegory. I said in a previous point that The True Meaning of Smekday is a clear allegory of what we did to the Native Americans, and I found it particularly effective because I was an American reading the book in the U.S.A. I was caught up in Tip and J.Lo’s adventure, but I was also, somewhat subconsciously, thinking to myself, look what they did to Disney World! Whole buildings were gone. And after Tip and J.Lo finally make it to Florida, they’re told by a bored Boov that the Boov have discovered oranges—which they don’t even eat, they just wear—and all humans must now go to Arizona, so that the Boov can have Florida’s orange-growing lands all to themselves. Once they’ve arrived in Arizona, which has been somewhat pompously declared the United State of America (meant for, of course, the Americans Noble Savages of Smekland), they find people trying to live in whatever abandoned buildings there are left, trying to find their families. Even though it’s told from Tip’s casual point of view, I was struck by how much I empathized with the conquered Americans. If you’re looking for a book full of aliens, fun, and adventure, but which will also make you think and make you sad, this is the book for you.

Those are some good reasons you should read the book, but they are also reasons that I am now really worried about Hollywood taking on this film—while they’ve kept the Black female protagonist and the alien invasion idea, I have to wonder if DreamWorks will be able to handle the plot with the subtlety and nuance with which the book is written. From the trailer, it looks like they’ve made Tip’s mom Black as well, and they’ve changed the gender of Tip’s cat, all for no discernible reason. Will the movie be able to incorporate the uniqueness of the Boov, or will they be a squishy summer merchandise item like the Despicable Me minions? More importantly, will the satire of colonialism still be present in the plot, with a cast of characters of color to support it? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll stick with the book—and I’ll hope that this won’t be yet another case where the book is far better than the movie.

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12 thoughts on “Five Reasons You Should Read The True Meaning of Smekday

  1. I read this book as an adult and thoroughly, completely enjoyed it. What immediately caught me up was that Tip was a little black girl. Growing up ,there was no Black representation for me outside of Star Trek ( so, yeah I’m an OG Trekker.) I’m going to get this book for her so thanks for this great review. It’s time to get her doing some Geek reading.

    I plan to introduce my 9 yr. old niece to this movie. She’s at that age where I think that in order to foster a love of all things Geek ,she needs to see herself represented in the culture. So I make an effort to find movies, books, games and music that’s girl friendly without an over reliance on the color pink ( which is a perfectly acceptable color too.)

    To date, her main takeaways of Geek culture is some Anime she picked out on her own, Spirited Away, Hitgirl from Kickass and this Fall…Annie!

    And hopefully, Tip.

    • Why do you call her a ‘little black girl’? She is half black and half white. She is mixed. She is NOT black, she is BIRACIAL. Why is it that when ever any other race is mixed with black, they are suddenly black and nothing else?

      • because once some black is in you your black okay… black and white black and grey black and pink but still BLACK!!!

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  6. Well I watched the movie last night…. after reading this, all I hope is that you did not.

  7. This is fantastic! I created the cuilverse in order to finally see people like myself represented. So far, cuil fiction is the most diverse and intersectional genre. It centers and features marginalized voices, openly acknowledges and deals with things like rape culture, racism, poverty, disability, being intersex, being genderqueer, being poly, etc.

    Many of the main characters are read as Black women, the stories are trauma-informed, and every character is dynamic. It’s science fiction and fantasy that doesn’t have some cardboard cutout Everyman despite the worlds being imaginative. The aliens, Others, and even humans are just as unique as the worlds they inhabit.

    I love Home, but I think the book it’s based on is what I’ve been craving in fiction. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this! It gives me hope that maybe people will want to read stories featuring people like me. For the record, I’m Black (with Irish and Cherokee thrown in to fuck things up further), autistic, aromantic, noetisexual (a new term coined by yours truly), demisexual/asexual (though not a celibate one), polyamorous, Relationship Anarchist, autodidact, relationship fluid (an invention of Louisa’s), disabled, single parent, in poverty, kinky switch/Dom/me, assigned female at birth, synesthetic, intersex, genderqueer, Army brat, survivor of several forms of abuse, left-handed, singleish, and pansexual.

    My disabilities and health conditions consist of endometriosis, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, fibromyalgia, eczema, secondary anxiety and depression. I’ve had several major surgeries, survived more rapes than I can count, and narrowly escaped stalkers, domestic violence, and murderers.

    So yeah, I appreciate actual diversity, instead of tokenism.

  8. This is one of my family’s all time favorite books. Especially the audio! Treat yourself to Bahni Turpin’s masterful interpretation of Tip & JLo and you will be glad you did. (Tragically, the movie left out almost everything that was joy-inducing in the book.)

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