Dreamworks Animation has announced their big film for 2014, an adaptation of The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. This children' novel was published in 2007, and we're excited to see the cross-country adventures of Gratuity and J.Lo. (not that one) on the big screen. So what exactly is this book about? Spoilers ahead...
Smekday is funny –- sometimes laugh-out-loud funny –- but Rex manages to combine this humor with moments both suspenseful and touching. The novel is framed as Gratuity's eighth-grade report about her experiences during the recent alien invasion and her feelings about the new holiday of Smekday.
Her teacher gives her a C+ and Gratuity ends up writing a longer, stranger version of her experiences as an eleven-year-old. Her mother was abducted before the Boov invasion, so Gratuity is not particularly inclined to hop on a rocket ship heading to the new human reservation in Florida. Instead, she packs up her mom's car, grabs her cat Pig and heads to Florida herself. Along the way she meets a Boov calling himself J.Lo., who makes her car fly. J.Lo. is on the run from the Boov himself and the two fugitives have more in common than they first suspect.
When they reach Florida, they discover that the Boov have relocated the humans to yet another reservation, this time in Arizona, so they head west. But they're facing increased threats, both human and interstellar. The comparison between the plight of Native Americans and the more recently conquered Americans is just implied until they meet Frank, a Navajo who is mostly called Chief throughout the book. Whenever he's with Gratuity and an incognito J.Lo., he's probably the most reasonable and sane adult in the book. Around others, he has some anger issues, but he doesn't blame Gratuity for what happened to Native Americans (or rather he only blames half of her since she's biracial). Rex's subtlety about Gratuity's race -– he doesn't bring it up until it matters for the plot – is really well done to boot.
Smekday is part road trip, part alien invasion, and part comic book (J.Lo. is an excellent artist, you see). The combination of occasionally juvenile humor — Rex makes it clear that boys cannot be trusted to create acronyms — with the absurd and a good dose of social satire gives Gratuity a voice that feels realistic for a thirteen-year-old faced with the improbable.
She comes across as smart, resourceful, and incredibly brave (although the book never acknowledges this, since it's from her point of view). J.Lo. is a great character too. He first comes across as a buffoonish incompetent.
But as the story goes on and Gratuity gets to know him and his culture better, he emerges as a real character. His English improves over the course of the book too, but there're still plenty of excellent conversations like this, about life forms of the Boov world:
"Is there a short-eared koobish, then?"
"Mmmyes..." said J.Lo. "But it is technically not really a koobish. Is more alike a kind of singing pumpkin."
It's clear why the book is getting the animated film treatment: the illustrations are great and the whole thing is action-packed and funny. Dreamworks has already announced the voice talent for Gratuity and J.Lo. Rihanna will be voicing Gratuity, who will be aged up a few years to teenagerhood. And Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, will be voicing J.Lo. It's hard to imagine that they won't make Gratuity an angry rebellious teen with a love interest or won't turn J.Lo. into an officious jerk. But Dreamworks managed to infuse How to Train Your Dragon with sweetness and a generous heart, both of which are at the core of Rex's fantastic book. Definitely check it out before the film hits theaters.