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Growing up, I was a big fan of the X-Files. I read anything by Bruce Coville (Aliens Ate My Homework, anyone?) and checked out as many books about UFOs from the library as I possibly could. And I was used to alien book covers that looked like this:

coville_mtiaa-7838013

From The Hungry Reader

It’s almost so bad it’s good, right? And then…then I found out the 1989 cover got a facelift in 2005 with this gem:

coville_mtiaa_05-23486032011 Me judges this cover with every fabric of her being, although I’m pretty sure 4th Grade Me wouldn’t have given it a second glance before demanding to read it immediately. But at least I can say from reading the novel that the cover totally matches the tone of its story. 

Aliens are a tricky thing, though. The older your reader demographic, the finer the line between a cover that’s completely comical and one that seems to contain a story you’d like to take seriously.

Such is the case with Cecil Castellucci’s First Day on Earth.

castellucci_fdoa-6112245I’m pretty sure it was the beginning of summer when this cover art caught my eye, most likely when Kelly over at Stacked posted about picking it up from this year’s BEA. Castellucci’s novels certainly are prone to getting some major cover love, but this one is my favorite yet.

I’m not quite sure where to begin with picking apart this cover. To be completely corny honest, Scholastic graphic designer Whitney Lyle had me at hello, plain and simple. Looking at First Day’s face makes me wonder what its MC, the quiet and embittered Mal, is thinking about. I love the balance of space (no pun intended) between the starry sky and Earth, the seamless placement of its title. Every design element of this composition blends beautifully together, from each choice of color to typeface selection to Mal, illustrated and bathed in the spaceship’s glow. It’s the type of cover art that makes you wonder. In this case, want quickly followed suit.

Beyond the cover –

The ARC that Scholastic sent me only weighed in at a measly 150 pages. I don’t know about you, but I trust skinny books like I trust skinny chefs (with special exceptions for Courtney Summers’ books and Anthony Bourdain). So when I flipped the book over in my hands and wondered where the rest of it actually was, I was a little wary.

And then I read it. Drawing on that whole skinny chef bit, I sort of ate my words.

First Day on Earth is about a guy named Mal who’s got the world’s biggest chip on his shoulder. Y’all, he’s an angry and extremely pensive kid, and with good reason. His ridiculous excuse of a father walked out on him and his mom when he was younger, his idea of a good day is talking to his mother while she’s sober, he has nary a real friend in sight, his classmates are jerks, and oh yeah this one time he disappeared for a few days because he was abducted by aliens. And he really hates Earth and wants to leave.

It took a few (short) chapters to wrap my head around Mal’s story and his way of narrating. Like I mentioned before, he’s pensive and angry. But he’s a good guy and is just doing things the best way he knows how. What’s more — he rescues animals (!) and takes care of his drunk mom and makes sure she does important things like eat. But it’s hard for him to shake that whole “I’ve been abducted by aliens” thing, even though he’s been going to abductee group meetings. Plus, he’s still really scarred with his abandonment issues. It’s not until you understand why he is who he is that you finally start to sympathize with Mal. And when he’s imagined and formed by Castellucci’s words, it doesn’t take that long. Her writing is sometimes sparse, sometimes achingly descriptive, but you get a clear sense of knowing exactly who Mal is and what he’s going through, regardless:

No one has ever said I’m sorry to me. So maybe I don’t know how to say it, even if I feel it. Instead, I look up at her and try to tell her with my eyes. I hope she understands how much I mean it. I am owed so many apologies that I don’t even know how to give one myself. I get that feeling in my chest. The one where I feel the hurt inside of me like an extra organ that was put in my body the wrong way.

Then there are parts where you get a sense of Mal’s wry sense of humor, even in the most serious of conversations.

(Mal) “Couldn’t you preach peace or something? Couldn’t you help us?” If he could help us, then maybe he would help me.
(Hooper) “No.”
“Why not?”
“Do you help ants?”
“What?”
“When you see an anthill, do you try to tell them what to do? Tell them where a better source of food is?”
“No,” I say. “But we’re not ants. Humans have a higher consciousness. Humans have souls. Humans have opposable thumbs. Art. Literature. Infrastructure. Quiche.”

First Day on Earth isn’t your plot-driven alien-action novel. This is not a book about adventure, nor is it filled with a bunch of funny one-liners. And this is definitely not a Kissing Book (but there is a smidgen of a crush!). It’s the kind of book that makes you think about your meaning in this world, and follows a story of a boy who just wants answers to big questions. And the whole alien thing? It certainly plays its role, but not in the way that you’d think. It’s woven in the fibers of the story in the way of theme, not planted as a plot device. First Day made me enjoy this story in a way that I didn’t expect, especially considering the fact that it had less than 200 pages and various one-sentence chapters that led me to its final page.

Not all of Mal’s questions are answered, but just enough were so that I didn’t pull any of my hair out, and it definitely left me thinking and wondering after I’d closed the book. The best part is that everything seemed to come around full circle — a book with a cover that sparked wonder, ended with it, as well.

Bryan Williams