Sea chests, gravity surfing, and cow palaces.
Sputnik’s Guide is a fairly innocent and charming read, with some genuinely funny moments.
We follow Prez Mellows as he arrives at Stramoddie Farm as a foster child from Temporary. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Prez’s grandfather has been declared unfit as Prez’s guardian due to his dementia. Prez, long used to looking after his grandfather, doesn’t really speak much but does his best to get along at the farm until one day the doorbell rings – despite the farm not having a doorbell – and an odd boy with goggles and wearing a kilt is there asking for Prez.
The boy turns out to be an alien named Sputnik who has come to get Prez’s help saving the Earth from being shrunk to the size of a tennis ball in order to declutter space. Together, they create a list of reasons that the Earth should be preserved. Oh, and also, only Prez sees Sputnik as a boy; everyone else sees him as a dog.
The comedy comes mainly from the fact everyone thinks Sputnik is a dog, while we know that he is actually the one responsible for giving little girls lightsabers to wreak havoc with, for rebuilding Hadrian’s wall, and for breaking a bunch of young offenders out of jail.
We are told that Sputnik is Russian for companion, and it becomes clear that companionship is what this book is all about. There are madcap adventures but in the end it’s about a boy’s wish to help his grandfather. But it’s also about what it’s like to be a foster child, to want a dog, to work on a farm, to care for a relative with mental health issues, and about finding your home. It’s about relationships, and the complexity of all Prez’s relationships are summed up in clear language that really helps the reader identify with him and get a sense of his emotional state, even if Prez doesn’t realise it fully himself.
Sputnik himself is a wonderful character, a liberating enabler who provides not only humour but some magical moments too as he gives insights into how the universe works, how stars are born, and how you can surf on gravity waves. He is constantly reminding Prez not to be limited by the world and more importantly not to be limited by himself. Sputnik is not one to be held back by the laws of common sense or politeness and doesn’t see why you should be either, preferring instead the laws of physics. He helps Prez confront the things that are stopping him from moving forward and leaves him with a world filled with opportunity, so it’s definitely an optimistic book in that sense.
Since the main focus of the book is Prez and his grandfather, some of the adventures did seem a little out there. There was also the question of urgency – Prez had until the autumn to save the planet but time marches on and he doesn’t seem too concerned as leaves start to fall. There are also some little twists but they’re not groundbreaking – perhaps a little too obvious for any readers who really focus on detail. I also wish Prez had spoken a little more, especially at the end, as it would have given me more of a sense of his development.
The book put me in mind of last year’s contender by Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, which is all about kids coping and which I thought was great. This book is a little similar, but with a much lighter touch and is a shorter read. As such, I’d recommend it for teens on the lower end of the age scale.