D.J. is an average kid living in Berke County, USA, but his life becomes extraordinary when Hilo literally crashes into it. Hilo fell from the sky and landed with no memory of who he is or why he came to Earth. He is also completely new to ordinary things like speaking English, eating food, and wearing clothes which has hilarious results as Hilo concocts a flimsy cover story for himself and follows D.J. to school.
To further complicate things, D.J.’s old friend Gina has just moved back to town. D.J. never felt as if he was particularly good at anything except being Gina’s friend, but he quickly realizes that things aren’t going to be the same after all this time. For her part, Gina’s been living in NYC for the past few years, and isn’t sure if she likes being back in Berke County. Though she’s glad to see her old friend D.J. again, she knows he’s hiding something about his weird new friend, Hilo, and quickly discovers the truth. The three friends soon become aware of a calamity—giant robot ants, or RANTs, have followed Hilo to Earth and are launching an attack. To fight this threat, all three of them find reserves of power within themselves they weren’t aware of before.
Though you may not be able to tell this from the cover art, D.J. and Gina, the Earthlings, are people of color, and Hilo, the otherworldly visitor, is white. I found this choice extremely interesting. Most kids will find Hilo very amusing but ultimately very strange. Conversely, D.J.’s and Gina’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are those of typical kids. Winick appears to be directly challenging a tendency in our culture to assume a white perspective as default.
The story is fast-paced and utterly compelling for a middle grade audience (grades 4-8). It opens in media res, focusing on the initial attack of the RANT, and then pausing for highly entertaining backstory and character development for D.J., Hilo, and Gina. There are several deftly handled emotional scenes as well between D.J. and Gina that demonstrate D.J.’s insecurities and Gina’s ambivalence, mostly through their actions and sometimes through the artwork.
Speaking of artwork, it is extremely well executed here. It’s clear, dynamic, and expressive, both during the frequent action sequences but also during smaller, more emotional scenes. During some scenes, the panels are smaller and broken up more frequently for comedic effect, while in others, dramatic action sequences are depicted in large, almost cinematic spreads.
Readers who enjoy Stephen McCranie’s Mal and Chad series or Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space series will absolutely love this series opener that has similarities in genre, pacing, characterization, and humor.
Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth, volume 1
by Judd Winick
Random House, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12