A non-trivial percentage of YA fiction deals with themes of alienation; Cecil Castellucci’s First Day On Earth dabbles with making the conceit more literal than most. Mal, the hero of the book, is a moody loner. The child of a broken home with a drunk for a mother, he heard his father simply slip out the door years ago. Now he’s a moody underachiever at school, tormented by the popular kids and burdened with far too much responsibility at home.
Then there’s the fact that he’s been abducted by aliens, or at least he thinks he has. Between the trauma of his father’s departure and his mother’s suicide attempt and alcoholism, and the Alateen meetings and the full-time job that keeping the rest of life at arm’s length has become, it’s a little hard to tell.
And then there’s Hooper, who might be a crazy homeless person and might be an alien from another planet doing a little hands-on work on Earth. Hooper’s leaving soon, or so he says, and it’s in getting him to the place where he’s supposed to be picked up that Mal finds his purpose. Along the way, he also finds a sort of ad hoc family coalescing around him, from the girlfriend of the popular guy who makes Mal’s life hell to the gentle giant who is just as much the butt of the cool kids’ jokes.
As they head to Hooper’s rendezvous with either a lot of empty desert or his people, Mal learns some interesting lessons about not having a monopoly on pain, courtesy of his new friends. He also comes face-to-face with the two opportunities he’s been dreaming of for years: the chance to confront his father, and the chance to go away for good. The choices he makes, and the reasons he makes them, are what gives the book its emotional heft.
First Day On Earth is a fast read, with a staccato prose style and short chapters that jump back and forth just like Mal’s thoughts. It’s also a little tricky to get into; Mal’s narrative voice is guarded and hostile, full of pain and disjointed. Sticking with it, though, is rewarding. Just as Mal grows and develops, his voice becomes more inclusive in a way that leads to the deeply satisfying ending.