The True Meaning of Smekday, written and illustrated by Adam Rex, 432 pp RL 5

Adam Rex's debut novel has been a family favorite since we first read it in 2007. Most recently, we listened to the excellent audio version with our 8 year old and my 20 year took the book and audio version to college with her. Coming from Dreamworks in 2014, the movie version of The True Meaning of Smekday, retitled HOME (click here for details) which will star Rihanna and Jim Parsons as Tip and JLo, respectively!

I am reposting this review from 2008 for a few reasons. The movie, the fact that the original review was kind of a fanatical mess, and to call attention to the audio book of The True Meaning of Smekday, narrated by Bahni Turpin who is BEYOND INCREDIBLE! The way that she characterizes both Tip and J.Lo is just phenomenal and worthy of the Odyssey Award honoring excellence in children's and young adult books, which it received in 2011. I have been listening to this (for a second time) at night with my eight year old son and am in awe of Turpin's skill and, even more deeply impressed with Rex's writing. Really, if you think about it, The True Meaning of Smekday, which, with it's story of a girl trying to survive an alien invasion, really is at the front of the red-hot-post-apolcalyptic trend that peaked with The Hunger Games, which came out in 2008, a year after Rex's book...

***A Word of Warning*** I am a huge Adam Rex fan and, since he is both an author and artist, I have added as much of his incredible artwork as I could squeeze in here, as well as mentioning all (well, most) of his other projects, past present and future. For the actual book review, scroll down past the Boovs. FYI:  Boovs are an alien life form that invades earth in The True Meaning of Smekday. For a very, very entertaining and instructive video clip created by Rex (and puppets created by Rex. He sculpts, too) of a Boov explaining their improvements to the human calendar click HEREThe True Meaning of Smekday, available in paperback, is the first young adult novel by picture book illustrator and author Adam Rex, who was first featured at books4yourkids.com in my round up of the Best Picture Books of 2008. Rex is an extremely gifted painter and illustrator with a sometimes ironic, sometimes adult, sometimes obscure sense of humor that comes through in his writing and art. I hope you will read through this review and then enjoy looking at Rex's picture books and other works! So, please enjoy my loosely-cleaned up but still mostly fanatical re-review of The True Meaning of Smekday, which, an eighth grade teacher with a classroom library of 5,000 books, recently informed was THE hot book last year. So, be ahead of the curve and read it before it hits the silver screen! And, if you have already read this book (or someone you know has) or listened to the audio, please let me know with a comment!! 

Before writing this review I did something I almost never do. I read a customer review on bn.com (and a review on amazon.com by a person who took issue with some of the saucier words used, words that are always followed by a "Pardon me," from Tip - see end of this review for list of words) which was written by a parent who read The True Meaning of Smekday out loud to kids ages 15, 12 and 8. This got me thinking, especially because, after hearing me laughing to myself as I read, my husband spirited the book away from me and read it in a day (curse him!) and my daughter did the same thing to me even though she has already read it (curse her!) and, as I finished it up just as the sun was setting on my quasi-holiday weekend, I found myself continually shouting out funny bits like, "Spoon Possums," and "Chairman Moo's Calfeteria" to them and cracking up together. This ALMOST induced my non-fiction loving son (who does not read fiction even for money) to read the book, but the best I could get him to do was read the 2 page comic spreads sprinkled throughout the pages. Reflecting upon this I thought, "This book really should be read out loud and shared!" Like the (adult) book Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists, which can also be read at McSweeney's Lists, the writing in The True Meaning of Smekday is funny, but even funnier when read out loud and shared. So, keep this in mind when you read it or give it to kids to read.

The True Meaning of Smekday is a first person narrative, ostensibly an essay written by Gratuity "Tip" Tucci as a school assignment but also for entry into a contest being held by the National Time Capsule Comittee in Washington DC. An essay of at least five pages must address the topic, "The True Meaning of Smekday," and, when Tip's initial essay is handed back for improvements, she manages to crank out a 400+ page book, with photographs (excelent illustrations by Rex that have been "taped" into the book) taken during her search for her mother that took place between the first and last Smekday which occurred roughly one year apart. Tip's odyssey takes her from her home in Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida and a visit to the eerily empty Happy Mouse Kingdom, (yes, it is a relatively genlte parody of The Magic Kingdom which nonetheless gave me pause when I noticed that the publisher of this book, Hyperion, is owned by Disney...) Roswell New Mexico and a stop at the UFO Museum and finally Flagstaff, Arizona and the new seat of the (defeated) government. Along the way she meets an interesting assortment of adults and children, all renegades who have refused to follow the Boovs' orders to relocate (every single citizen in America) to one state. Tip also meets a Boov going by the name J.Lo who has just inadvertently alerted a race of aliens called the Gorg, Nimrog or Takers, to the existence of Earth and its bounty and is on the run from the Boovish authorities. When he fixes her car, making some excellent Boovish additions that include fins made from a slushy machine, she christens the vehicle "Slushious," one of the best names ever, and the two head south along with Tip's Boov loving cat, Pig, who plays a pivotal role in the salvation of the human race. There are also koobish, alien-type animals, the idea for which sprang, literally, from Adam Rex's ankle. For a full creative discourse, check out the explanation he recently posted on his blog. See a picture of J.Lo and a Koobish below.

This is a hard review to write because Rex creates such a complete, fully realized post-apocalyptic world that I feel like leaving even the smallest detail out would be an injustice. For a really concise, well written review, the one that prompted me to rush out and buy the book in the first place, read children librarian Lisa Von Drasek's New York Time's Book Review from November 11, 2007. For a more lengthy commentary on the multitude of details and a few good quotes, continue reading here. I have laid out the basic plot of the story in the above paragraph. Below I examine aspects of Rex's social commentaries and observations on race and gender in the story, among other things.

One intriguing aspect of The True Meaning of Smekday that adds to the complexity of the story is the social commentary that Rex makes. Rex takes lots of pokes at our consumerist American culture, from "Noda (the soda substitute)" to J.Lo's description of Boov television. After an explosion of shows on Boovish networks, Boov television scientists theored that there would be a point in the future when, in J.Lo's words, "everys Boov has his own show and this show only shows him watching shows." The governmental response to this potential nonsense is for, again in J.Lo's words, "the HighBoov decree: no more television but what the HighBoov say. And the HighBoov say mostly cooking shows." Rex also takes on race and gender. When Tip tells J.Lo that she needs to use the bathroom, a discussion on Boov gender ensues. As J.Lo says, "The Boov are having seven magnificent genders. There is boy, girl, boygirl, girlboy, boyboy, boyboygirl, and boyboyboyboy." When the two encounter Chief Shouting Bear in Roswell, Vicki Lightbody, a bossy busybody who takes in Tip and J.Lo asks if the Chief has been drinking when Tip brings him to her for help after a Gorg attacks him. When she hears what really happened she responds, "Don't you look at me like that. I was just asking is all. Indians drink - I saw a special about it." The Chief, who shouts at white people because he has a beef with them and he says he is retired and it is his hobby. When Tip reveals that she is half white he asks her which half and is given the nickname "Stupidlegs" by him. Later in the story the Chief tells Tip about his hospital roommate, Mr Hinkle, who spends a lot of time telling the Chief that Indians should live somewhere else. Mr Hinkle is in the hospital because he got "beat up by someone who thinks gay people like him ought to live somewhere else." A plot thread at the end of the book that I found especially interesting also involved Tip being half white and half black. When she and J.Lo finally make it to the United States of Arizona and register with The Bureau of Missing Persons of the United State of America, Mitch, the man who runs it, has his people look for a thrity-year old black woman. Tip also gives her mother's name to the Lost List, a grassroots, NGO organization. The Lost List finds Tip's mother despite the extensive efforts of the bureau because they are looking for Lucy Tucci, not a 30 year old black woman. Looking at Tip, Mitch makes an assumption about her mother that leads his people to look for a black woman. This is a very small part of the story, but it is one of the many details, be they social, political, humorous or strange, that Adam Rex packs in to this book. This is some pretty serious stuff for a children's book, although Jacqueline Woodson explores the topic of race in her excellent book, feathers and Ellen Potter's wonderful Owen Birnbaum, narrator of SLOB has a sense of wary observance and pointed opinions of the world around him that is similar to Tip's perspective and voice. There is definitely a precedence for young adult books that take on similar complex, meaningful topics and share an observant narrative tone, however I have not come across any that weave brilliant threads of humor and satire into the plot so seamlessly and with such frequently lovely writing.

Most of the comic relief in The True Meaning of Smekday comes from J.Lo, who speaks like a cross between early Saturday Night Live characters The Cone Heads and the Festrunk Brothers, the wild and crazy Czech characters created by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd. Perhaps because this is a first person narrative, the pace of Smekday is different from the bulk of the fantasy books I have been reading lately. Despite my reference to this book being like a Jerry Bruckheimer film, Smekday is not  crammed with non-stop action. There is a lot of dialogue between Tip and J.Lo as they pass the time during their cross-country car trip. Tip even saying toward the end of the book, "We could have made it to the Arizona border in a few more hours if we hadn't been distracting each other with stupid little arguments...I'm not sure there's a person in the whole world I could be with twenty-four hours a day for three weeks without getting a little snippy. If I ever meet such a person, I'm marrying them." One of my favorite exchanges involves J.Lo trying to teach Tip how to bubble-write (the Boov form of communication) her name while Tip tries to teach J.Lo letters. When Tip unknowingly writes a rude Boovish word for elbow, J.Lo cracks up. She responds,

"YOU have no room to laugh, that's all. I'm not doing any worse with Boovish than you did with English."
"Get off the car," J.Lo huffed. "I am an English superstar."
"Uh-uh. There's no comparison. 'Gratuity' in written Boovish has seventeen different bubbles that all have to be the right size and in the right place. 'J.Lo' in written English only has three letters, and you still spelled it 'M - smiley face - pound sign."

Another hilarious exchange comes when Tip shares the story of Noah's Ark during a rainstorm the two are waiting out. J.Lo replies, "Huhn. This is very interesting. The Boov have a religion story about a girl who keeps all the animals into a big jar of water for when there is a year of no rain."
"Do they make it through the year okay?"
"No. She forgets to punch the airholes and they die of asphyxiation."

Ok, so this book definitely isn't for every sense of humor. But, as Lisa Von Drasek writes in her review, fans of Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" books and Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series will appreciate The True Meaning of Smekday. And remember, read it out loud to someone, even if it is just tiny bits here and there!

Potentially objectionable language to be found in Tip's essay: "God's sake." "Ass," as in, "And you don't fall to your knees, you fall on your ass into a patch of crabgrass like the Idiot of the Year." This sentence pertains to Tip's description of how she felt and what she did as she watched her mother being sucked up a tube into an alien space ship on Christmas Eve. Tip later apologizes for her language. There are a few more instances of taking the Lord's name in vain and one or two other minor swears ("I'll go to hell, pardon my language," page 150) that can be heard on a prime-time network television show. This doesn't make it acceptable, however in the context of the story, a first person narrative describing what could also be the plot for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie - an alien invasion of earth that leaves an 11 year old girl motherless and on her own. Without Rex's sense of humor, this could have been a much bleaker, darker book. As it is, I think that he does a fine job of mitigating the more somber, frightening aspects of the story with humor and irony. That said, this isn't a book for most 7 year olds, whether it is read out loud or individually. There are so many cultural references that the humor will be lost on most kids. Actually, in that sense, the book can be compared to a movie like "Shrek." Ostensibly and ultimately it is for kids but there are winks and nods to the parents taking them to the movie also. The kid's won't get it, or they'll get it on a certain level and laugh and that's ok. Rex's book is like this, but infinitely better. More like Monty Python, really. Funny sight gags and comic relief from J.Lo, with a sometimes biting commentary on our consumerist, self-centered society.

Rex is also the author of Cold Cereal, book one in a trilogy, and the heartbreaking, hilarious Fat Vampire.

Rex is a renaissance man of sorts, painting and writing. He is remarkably good at both. Here's a look at his picture books. Coming in January, 2013 - Chu's Day, written by Neil Gaiman! Here's a peek at the art...

Rex is probably best known for his bestselling picture books Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake.

However, my favorite picture book by Rex is Psst!, which induced serious belly laughs from my four year old upon first reading, and my second favorite is the gorgeously silly Tree Ring Circus.

Adam Rex has worked with Mac Barnett, Writer & Strongman for Hire, on three picture books now: Billy Twitter and his Blue Whale ProblemGuess Again! and Chloe and the Lion.

Finally, in October the dynamic duo brings us a chapter book (with a jacket quote from Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series) titled The Brixton Brothers and the Case of the Mistaken Identity, which follows twelve year old detective Steve Brixton and poses the questions, since when can librarians rappel from helicopters and if Steve is an only kid, why is the series called The Brixton Brothers? Looks like there are some overtones of MT Anderson's Monty Python-esque first book in a series, Whales on Stilts.

This is Chimpanzeke, on of a handful of creations on Adam Rex's blog who is a: Character in Search of a Story.


Brenda said...

I love Adam Rex's work. Thanks for the review of some of his work, I have a few more books to look for.

Tanya said...

Adam's immense talent, as a writer and artist, continues to astound me. glad to hear you love his books, too!