The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
The neighborhood space monster

The neighborhood space monster

A review of the Andre Norton Award winning novel “Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion” by K. Tempest Bradford
“‘This neighborhood isn’t big enough for the both of us’” by Brian S. Pauls, 2023; Digital illustration using Midjourney
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If you want to identify an insect, Ruby Finley is your girl—unless no one’s ever seen it before. The amateur entomologist finds an unknown bug in her front yard. When she shares a picture of it online, things in her neighborhood get wild.

Bradford tells the fast-paced story of Ruby and her friends dodging adults in a race to find the missing bug.

Bradford also presents readers with the distinctive challenges Black Americans often face. Outside authorities descend on their community, looking for the bug.

Consider the following at the beginning of Chapter 3:

Since the G-Men weren’t letting anyone down their street, Ruby’s parents both arrived home late and at the same time, which didn’t happen often. They were complaining about the delay as they walked in the door and both of them were big mad.

“He kept my ID for over half an hour, like the address was gonna magically change to something else the longer he held on to it,” Mamma said to Gramma.

‘They were running background checks, I bet.” Daddy’s voice was calm, but with a tone Ruby recognized as held-back anger. It was the way he talked when people on the City Council were trying to pull “some shady stuff” on him or other community organizers.

Bradford never loses sight of the plot. The search for the bug drives the action. But we view it through a lens of Black frustration, which can be an everyday reality.

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I enjoyed both the warm and the acrimonious relationships between the kids in the story.

When Ruby's parents learn she has broken their “no social media” rule, she visits her cousin Hollie:

“Yeah, she’s here. Hold on,” Hollie said into her headset, then she paused the game. “How long will you be on punishment?”

“No xCUBE for two weeks, no unsupervised tablet for a month.”

Brandon laughed so loud she could hear it from the headphones.

“Shut UP!” she leaned into the mic to shout. Hollie pushed her away playfully. “Ask them if they’ll come out. We could go to the playground or something.”

“Fiiiine,” Hollie said. “Jackie says yes, too. Brandon says no and, guess what, no one cares. Alberto says he’ll meet us there. He’s going to the store first. And now Brandon is coming anyway.”

“Okay. We should go by Mayson’s and see if she wants to come.”

“I suppose.” Hollie rolled her eyes. She didn’t like Mayson as much as Ruby did but, because she was a good cousin and best friend, she didn’t complain about it. Too often.

This felt like a real-life group of children living close to one another.

The bug, as most readers will sense from the book’s title, is more than an unidentified species of insect. Chapter 11 provides the first clear sign it comes from further away than Ruby has guessed:

At around one in the morning, when her eyes were starting to droop, Ruby figured she should go to bed for real. Then she saw something, or thought she did, in the trees behind the house. The binoculars were still in her room and she grabbed them fast to get a closer look. Just when she raised them up there was a flash of light, then another, then more, sort of like a strobe light going off. Then a dark shape shot straight into the sky. It was hard to make out, and she blinked a bunch of times trying to see it better. Before she could, the thing flew away so fast it didn’t seem real.

The mystery of the missing bug and what it’s doing in the neighborhood drew me into the story. Ruby’s drive to find the answers kept me reading until the end.

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I wish Bradford had made the resolution less predictable. It's too much like other stories targeted at this age group. And I wish she had made the speculative science near the end a bit more thoughtful. It's a little too much of a hand-wave.

Still, this is a good book for eight- to twelve-year-old readers. Especially those who identify with a smart, assertive, Black girl. Other children can learn from friends living together within a Black community.

Recommendation: Read it!

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