Bruce Coville was, in the 1990s, a leading member of the kids’ scifi and fantasy pantheon. He probably still is, there’s a lot of YA and middle grade these days but seems like not as much for the younger kids. The I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series isn’t his best in terms of quality, but I absolutely loved it when I was little and over the past year or so, I reread the first half of the series and got through the second half for the first time. The books have hardly any reviews on Goodreads or elsewhere on the internet, so I thought it might be useful to recap the whole series for you, in brief, to point out the highs and lows for you all and outline what to expect. It’s a good scifi series for our younger fellow-travelers!
The series consists of 12 books, all taking place over the course of a school year and all published between 1999-2001, which presumably explains the relatively low quality. Remember kids, we’re here for the ideas, not polished writing. (But kids won’t care anyway. The main character is 11, so target audience is that age down to a few years younger). Also, Bruce Coville is bisexual, as I found out rather recently. Most of his books don’t have overt queer content, but they often deal with themes of acceptance, as scifi does in general. Sixth Grade Alien also has a lot of not-at-all-subtle content against racism and for environmental concerns, so I have no qualms about the content.
- I Was a Sixth Grade Alien. The first book sets up the series with its central characters and relationships. There will be minor changes, but the core groupings stay pretty much the same. This also sets up the typical arc of a book, a lot of hijinx with aliens having different customs, a minor problem, and a quick resolution, often involving a Scooby Doo-style unmasking. This varies, it’s not even as repetitive as the Series of Unfortunate Events in its first half, but it’s the core set of tools.
- The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher. Mostly typical for the series, focused on a dealing-with-bullies theme that shows up on a regular basis. I like that the books never try to simplify this — the bullying is difficult for Tim but not overplayed or graphic, and there’s no easy solution presented. The books are mostly about putting up with a bully and trying to cope, not trying to teach a specific lesson.
- I Lost My Grandfather’s Brain. Again, pretty typical, but Pleskit’s grandfather is a memorable character and welcome addition. (I love that the families are varied in this series, almost everyone is living with a single parent, sometimes with the addition of extended family). I also still remembered, twenty years later, the feeling of elation and terror when Pleskit leaves the embassy without his bodyguard for the first time.
- Peanut Butter Lover Boy. I got a lot of ribbing at work over this title, and some reviewers on Goodreads seem to feel like talking about crushes isn’t appropriate for the age group. But it’s important to talk about consent early, there’s nothing sexual in this or any of the other books, and kids have crushes earlier than 11. What surprised me a lot more was the open discussion of mental illness in a book for kids of this age. The main theme of the book isn’t love or attraction, it’s understanding mental illness and how you can’t just will away a chemical imbalance. There’s also a fair amount of plot development for the series as a whole, and it’s one of the better installments.
- Zombies of the Science Fair. A typical installment with some fun alien science.
- Don’t Fry My Veeblax! Another fairly forgettable installment, but I liked that Meenom Ventrah (Pleskit’s Fatherly One) was in this one more. It’s also the one with the (probable) author insert Percy the Mad Poet, who is more willing to go along with crazy plans than any adult I can imagine.
- Too Many Aliens. This is where they get pretty good again. There’s a lot more plot in this one than some previous ones, more alien ambassadors and more complex interpersonal dynamics with the kids (Pleskit’s Hevi-Hevian best friend comes for a visit), making it pretty engaging. It ends on a cliffhanger, leading into…
- Snatched From Earth. I think this is the only Sixth Grade Alien book where they go off-planet, and it’s in the classic “wandering around an alien planet describing stuff” style. Probably less actually happens than in other books, but it’s longer and it moves faster. That’s helped along by how the adults in the story don’t treat the kids like kids, or act like them being children somehow trumps the fate of the galaxy. That, compounded by the genuine gravity of the choice that confronts Linnsy, makes it kind of intense. The villains are cartoonish as always, but this is, in my opinion, the high point of the series and its emotional core.
- There’s an Alien in My Backpack. After the previous volume this one swerves back into light fare, and I think that helps keep the whole series in the same age level instead of aging up, but it’s a little jarring. Other than that, unremarkable.
- The Revolt of the Miniature Mutants. This is the most straightforward Sixth Grade Alien hijinx since the early books. Jordan the bully actually writes a few chapters in this one though, which starts to humanize him. That process continues over the last three books, but never explains away his bullying or asks us to sympathize with it, which I liked.
- There’s an Alien in My Underwear. The penultimate book and an excellent entry in the series, incorporating several characters from previous books, building on the character development we’ve seen without making any sudden changes, and dropping everyone into serious trouble (which can still be satisfactorily solved in just a few pages).
- Farewell to Earth. I think I hoped for something flashier in the conclusion, it still seemed to me that not everything fit together perfectly and a few people acted slightly out of character. Still, there is genuine suspense in wondering if Pleskit will leave Earth, and it all ends in a satisfying way to sum up the school year and the themes of the series. (Also, I don’t know who wrote the description everywhere, but Pleskit doesn’t disappear. No one disappears. That’s not part of the plot. I don’t understand.)
As I’m sure you can tell, the series is uneven in parts, and I’ve already mentioned the slight slapdash quality of the writing. But as I hope you can also tell, there are some standout gems. The first book is the most memorable, and you’ll be able to tell right off if you or your child likes series. After that, I don’t think a kid would notice or care that the plotting is uneven, because the characters, themes, and reading levels stay very much the same. For adults who may be interested, or are reading to their kids, those gems like Snatched from Earth are worth making it through the less-interesting installments. It brought back all the feels from when I was a nerdy little kid, the craving for aliens and space and the love of uniqueness. This is a great series for a kid who loves scifi, or who needs a first introduction to it!
For added fun: There was a shortlived TV show based on the series, you can watch it on Youtube, and it’s basically the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Enjoy!