Back 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
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.
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.