(Note: Review contains some spoilers.)
Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski is a boy on a mission. He’s making a series of recordings that he wants to launch into space — just like his idol, Carl Sagan, once did — in the hopes that they’ll one day reach extraterrestrial beings.
Alex has very specific ideas and plans about how he’s going to accomplish his mission, starting with getting himself and his dog (also named Carl Sagan) to New Mexico for a rocket festival. Slipping away without alerting his strangely uninvolved mother isn’t a problem, but from there, things start taking twists and turns that Alex never could have expected — and that will change his life forever.
Jack Cheng’s middle-school novel “See You in the Cosmos” is made up entirely of “transcripts” of the recordings that Alex makes for the aliens. It’s an interesting format that conveys the events of the story mainly through Alex’s own eyes, but also gives us glimpses of the larger reality around him — a reality that Alex doesn’t fully grasp. For instance, the reader understands long before Alex does that his mother is severely mentally ill, and that his long-absent father was not the wonderful figure Alex believes he was.
While the concept is interesting and creative, I admit I found the writing style tedious in the extreme. Alex is a sweet, earnest character, who has no trouble winning the hearts of all who meet him. But to read more than 300 pages of his narration is like listening to one of those overexcited little kids who talk for hours straight, without stopping for breath, about everything that has ever happened to them in their entire lives. It doesn’t help that Alex’s obsessions, mannerisms, and lack of social awareness often make him come across as even younger than 11. Younger middle-schoolers might not mind these stylistic issues, but older kids might find some of them a problem.
Also, for many middle-schoolers, the mixture of Alex’s youthful mentality and manner with some of the adult goings-on in his life may be a somewhat uneasy one. Most of the people whom Alex meets on his journey are kind and helpful, but they, like him, sometimes find themselves in over their heads. For instance, when Alex and his newly discovered half-sister, Terra, are staying at the apartment of some friends from the rocket festival, Alex witnesses the adults drinking and partying, and finds Terra with Nathan, one of the guys, in Nathan’s room. It’s never confirmed what’s going on — Alex thinks they’re just talking — but the incident leads to a physical fight between Nathan and Steve, his roommate, who also likes Terra.
There are, in fact, very few stable adult figures in the story (though Terra in particular does a lot of growing up by the end). As his new friends slowly learn, Alex has had to fend for himself for much of his life because of his mother’s illness. The good news is that his presence in their lives leads them to learn a few things about self-sacrificial love and generosity, and they do all they can to help his mother get the care she needs and to get Alex into a more settled situation.
The one quasi-religious figure in the story is Zed, another friend from the rocket festival. Zed, who is unfailingly helpful and considerate, is probably the most admirable character in the story, but we never learn the details of his religion, except that it involves meditation and vows of silence. Alex, though his worldview has room for little but science, is interested in Zed’s spiritual practices, and the two agree that “science can be deeply spiritual too” and that “most religions started off being based on science.” Aside from the adult behavior already mentioned, the book contains occasional profanity — mainly the use of God’s name — and references to adultery, bigamy, and homosexuality.
Ultimately, I didn’t find “See You in the Cosmos” appealing, but some middle-schoolers might, especially those interested in science in general or astronomy in particular. Parents should be aware that behind the childish style are some issues and ideas that younger kids may need some help dealing with.
Image copyright Dial Books. Review copy obtained via NetGalley.