Ambassador

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Complex adventure mixes immigration issues, space travel.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Interesting bits of knowledge, from vocabulary words (English and Spanish) and geography to the challenges of gravity-free environments. Multiple references to indigenous Mexican art, which turns up as part of the decor in Gabe's family home, and which may or may not be connected with beings from outer space. Readers will get a compelling, if somewhat one-sided, introduction to the issues confronting people caught up in illegal immigration, from a story that vividly describes the plight of U.S.-born kids blindsided by their family members' undocumented status and subsequent deportations. They'll also learn about a latter-day underground railroad that helped Central American refugees get safely through the U.S. to Canada, which offered asylum at the time. Gabe is studying Longfellow's Hiawatha in school.

Positive Messages

Responsibility, generosity, and love of family are strong themes here, as is willingness to take risks to help others and right wrongs. Being able to see things from other people's viewpoints (even when those people are other species from distant planets) and adjust to rapidly changing circumstances are important skills.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eleven-year-old Gabe seems to be a born diplomat, both smart and wise. He's able to understand and adapt to complex situations and craft good solutions. He also loves his family (which includes three rescued pets) and struggles to keep them safe. At the same time, he's a believable kid who, as the story opens, is in trouble for a rocket-related misadventure with his pal Frankie. His mom and dad prize education and family love and raise their kids with good values. They obviously have a loving relationship with their kids and each other. More ethically complex -- and discussion-worthy -- is their choice to settle illegally in the U.S., which gave their kids a great childhood in Minneapolis and now threatens to split the family for what looks like forever, sending the foreign-born members back to Mexico and preventing them from returning. 

Violence

The shock of having your parents taken away and deported is compellingly described. Older characters relate in broad terms the hardships and violent deaths of refugees trying to make it to the U.S. but make a point of sparing young listeners the gory details. Space aliens trying to kill Gabe blow up his house, though no one is hurt; one species of space beings has the reputation of causing mass extinctions of entire civilizations. A nonhuman character is cut to bits by an energy beam (though he eventually recovers). 

Sex

Gabe recalls when his mom was pregnant with the now-toddler twins and how this changed, among other things, her sense of smell.

Language

"Wise ass," "fart," "pee," "pissed" (angry). One scene deals with the practical difficulties of going to the bathroom in a gravity-free environment.

Consumerism

Mentions of superheroes and fictional characters including Batman and Zorro; Gabe's Coke is specifically identified as Mexican (with real sugar) rather than American (with high-fructose corn syrup).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ambassador, by National Book Award–winning author William Alexander, does not return to the magical steampunk world of Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish SongSet alternately in present-day Minneapolis and in various points in outer space, it shares many qualities with the earlier volumes: appealing characters, strong family values, and unexpected paradigm shifts, with life lessons and laughs along the way. Many laughs and lessons here have to do with learning to see things from others' viewpoints and the importance of empathy and flexibility in solving problems. It's told from the perspective of 11-year-old Gabe, whose world changes forever when his Mexican parents and older sister, in the United States illegally since before Gabe was born, are discovered and threatened with deportation. The story gives the issue of unauthorized immigration and its ramifications a heartfelt, one-sided perspective. Besides triggering discussions of immigration-related issues, this might launch some interesting conversations about how controversial issues are driven by different perspectives.

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What's the story?

Eleven-year-old Minnesota kid Gabe Fuentes thinks he's in for a really boring summer of watching his toddler siblings while his parents and older sister work -- that, and staying out of trouble after he and his best friend Frankie survive their first attempt at launching a rocket from the yard, with fatal results for Frankie's mom's lawn furniture. Unbeknownst to Gabe, a transparent purple being called The Envoy is about to arrive from outer space, presenting him with what may be a world-saving mission as Earth's AMBASSADOR to other planets -- just as a fateful traffic stop threatens the entire family, as Gabe's undocumented parents and sister face deportation back to Mexico with little hope of return. 

Is it any good?

Heartfelt moments, appealing characters, and thrilling adventures abound here, as the author and protagonist play with the concept of "alien," from today's immigration woes to sci-fi space travelers. The two plot threads -- the family's predicament with Dad in jail, and Gabe's mission to the spacefarers who just blew up his house -- intertwine, not always smoothly, but it's never boring. Many parents will find the treatment of complex political issues one-sided, but this can lead to some interesting, age-appropriate discussions about seeing things from various viewpoints -- an important theme.

Not unlike its two predecessors, Ambassador feels like the introduction to a series, and this volume ends especially abruptly, with many issues unresolved and new, intriguing possibilities emerging. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can discuss science fiction and why it's appealing. Do stories and characters set in outer space or alternate universes have anything to do with us? What might that be, in this story or other science fiction you know about?

  • Gabe's family has emergency plans for everything including alien invasions. Does your family have a plan for natural disasters and other emergencies? What is it?

  • Do you know the story of how -- and why -- your family, or your ancestors, came to America? What challenges did they face at the time? What's different today?

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