You see, as much as I enjoy books about proper spooky things like ghosts and ghouls, the stories that terrify me the most are ones about aliens. And that’s primarily because I’m not much of a believer in the supernatural. I don’t think scary monsters and sprites actually exist. Extraterrestrial life, though? Um, yeah. And extraterrestrial life paying us visits? Well… still not much of a believer there, either, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. And if there is even a small chance… well, that creates enough of a suspension of disbelief in me to be able to generate a good and proper scare.
It’s the implication of it all, I think. Either these things are actually happening in real life, or they are happening entirely in people’s heads. Your opinion may differ, but it’s the latter possibility that I find most disquieting. Monsters from outer space are peculiar in that regard. Because, in the general opinion at least, the people who witness and believe in them tend to be considered… not mentally well. Ghosts and demons? Well, obviously you are in need of spiritual help. Aliens? You probably need medication. It’s a little unfair, and more than a little problematic, and that’s an aspect that is explored in Ronald L. Smith’s The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, the story of Simon, a biracial boy growing up in a military base, whose main preoccupation in life happens to be aliens — Gray aliens, to be specific (a fear that originates with Whitley Strieber’s book Communion, which I can identify with as that book also absolutely terrified me). It’s a worry that erupts into full-blown fear while on a camping trip with his parents, where he goes through an experience that he believes to be an actual alien abduction.
Belief is the key term here. His parents — a doting and overly-concerned mother and an emotionally distant, callous father — soon find out, quickly assume the problem to be a psychological one, and he is promptly sent to be checked out by a doctor. And this constitutes the main conflict of the story: did this all happened to Simon in real life, or was it all inside his head?
Does it matter either way?
It’s an interesting and promising premise, but one with which, unfortunately, Smith doesn’t really do a whole lot. There are a lot of themes to be discussed within it, ranging from the importance of mental health awareness all the way up to toxic masculinity and its effect on young men. These topics are touched upon in the story, but only — frustratingly — on the most superficial of levels.
And I get it — this is a middle grade novel, which can present a number of restrictions: from the way you write about certain topics, to just how much you can discuss them without losing the interest of the younger audience. Writing about serious subjects well in children’s fiction demands a delicate balance, but it’s one I’ve seen struck successfully before, and often enough to not feel let down when coming across a story that doesn’t seem entirely willing to make the effort.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any redeeming qualities in the story. Smith’s writing is economical and immediate. And while I don’t think he delved into the themes as much as he could have, he does allow us to view them through a more traditionally fantastical lens, with a story-within-a-story that is ostensibly being written by Simon, excerpts of which are peppered throughout the novel, and the writing for it is lavish and lofty and impressive. The metaphoric meaning behind it is not entirely subtle, but I found it to be an effective device, and these extracts were my favorite part of the story. I wouldn’t mind if Ronald L. Smith pulled a Rainbow Rowell and built an entire book around this nested narrative.
Smith also writes characters that are honest and compelling. His protagonist, especially. It’s easy to love and feel for Simon, who spends most of this story smothered and trodden — by the adults around him, by the aliens he believes are invading his life. In the end, Simon is just someone who wants to be seen and heard. Someone who just wants validation. The story gives it to him, and I can’t fault it for doing so. Because kids like Simon need spaces to breathe — spaces where they can just simply exist — and they deserve more stories that can provide that for them.