Two books in my 1993-era elementary school library had a waiting list to check them out: One of them was Draw Comics the Marvel Way. The other was the children’s novel My Teacher Is an Alien, by Bruce Coville.
My Teacher Is an Alien didn’t have a comic book universe, an animated series, or a set of pogs featuring its characters to back it up. What it did have was the raddest cover art ever.
That’s one way to get third graders into reading.
What I didn’t know at the time was that My Teacher Is an Alien was also my introduction to left-wing political theory. As I try to recall the media from my life that first exposed me to ideas like income inequality and social justice, these alien teachers keep coming up.
The pulp horror covers are a bit of a red herring. MTIAA was actually the start of a series that asked some big questions about the future of the human species. In subsequent novels My Teacher Fried My Brains, My Teacher Glows In the Dark, and My Teacher Flunked the Planet, Coville suggested that humanity was on a path leading to its own destruction, as well as the destruction of its galactic neighbors. The alien teachers who keep showing up and scaring the shit out of white, American schoolchildren are evaluating humanity to see if it is too dangerous to exist.
Why would the aliens think that? Well, there are the obvious reasons like the unending stream of blood, devastation, death, war, and horror that are a constant feature throughout human history. But the aliens are also concerned about the way we don’t take care of our sick or feed our hungry unless they can pay. They’re disturbed by our recklessness with technology, and our lack of consideration for the impact and the danger of our creations.
When I spoke with Coville over the phone, he said the social justice bent of the series was a bit of an accident after the surprise success of the first book, which was intended to be a one-off adventure novel. His other novels (and he has written a lot of novels) rarely indulged in politics, but he was inspired to add an element of social criticism the Teacher is an Alien series after reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.
“The pleasure of writing about aliens is they could see our nonsense from the outside,” Coville told me. “It’s an insane way to live.”
In the final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, the child protagonists of the first three volumes are given the task of convincing the Interplanetary Council to not blow Earth up (the planet having, as the title hints, flunked its alien evaluation). As part of the assignment, their alien teacher, Broxholm, takes them on a tour of Earth and asks them to answer for humanity’s behavior. They hit up war zones, impoverished cities and, most notably in my memory, a refugee camp:
On the far side of the tent I saw a young woman sitting beneath a ragged, drooping tree. The woman was holding a baby to her breast, which was as flat and wrinkled as a crumpled paper bag. She had no milk. I looked at her for a long time.
After a while she lowered the baby into her lap and closed her eyes. Her shoulders began to shake.
That was when I realized the baby was dead.
I turned and ran.
“Why did you take us there?” demanded Susan when we were back on the ship. Her face was pale, her cheeks moist with tears that kept coming, no matter how many times she wiped her eyes. She was as angry as I have ever seen her.
“Because we want you to explain it to us,” said Broxholm.
Susan responds that they just don’t have enough food or resources to take care of everyone on the planet. Broxholm then takes her around the world in his flying saucer, showing her scenes of luxury and decadence. Years before it was a big part of the American political discourse, this book was introducing me to the idea of income inequality.
That’s dark stuff for 8–12 year olds. It was dark for Coville, too, who said the research he conducted for the segment of impoverished and war-torn areas of the world was harrowing.
“I got away with it because it was the fourth book of the series,” he said. “That book sold a million to a million-and-a-half copies but I feel like a lot of it was a secret between me and the kids who read it.”
Politics in children’s literature is nothing new, but I feel like this series was particularly subversive, tucking these ideas into genre books that would be shelved side-by-side with popular series like Goosebumps. R.L. Stine certainly didn’t put any woke werewolves in his novels.
And just as a reminder, this was Flunked the Planet’s cover.
No Newbery Medal here.
I wasn’t the only one this series had an effect on. Coville told me he frequently hears from readers whose political formation took a leftward bent after reading. One reader wrote him to say the books were her inspiration for joining the Peace Corps. Another letter read: “My mother blames you for my politics.”
He might be getting another letter from my mom after she reads this post.