Alien discussion questions and writing exercises:
These questions have no right and wrong answers. You may post alien at ponymoon (dot)com for the author’s slant on these questions. In all cases, append “Explain your answer” and try to find actual evidence within the writing and the story that will back up or explain your feeling.
(If you have taught using this book and wish to share some of your projects and ideas, post us: ideas (at) ponymoon (dot) com. We'll post your ideas on this site and give your name headline credt. Include the name of your school, also, if you like.)
1. Does the title suit the book?
2. Who is the Alien? Or is there only one? What does the title mean?
3. Have you ever been “the new kid” in any situation? Discuss your experience. Does this story connect with your own experience? How does it? Or doesn’t it?
4. How can being new in a situation allow you to see a situation differently than those who are closer to it?
5. How can being new in a situation allow you to see yourself differently?
6. Describe Ginny’s family situation. How do you feel about it?
7. Do Ginny’s parents act responsibly?
8. What kind of relationship do you share with your sibs? Could it be better?
9. Describe the relationship between Ginny and each of her brothers.
10. Do these relationships seem to be healthy and mutually beneficial?
11. Discuss the friendship that arises between Ginny and Hally. How did it begin?
12. Describe Hally’s character. What is it about the new friendship that allows it to grow?
13. Describe Caulder’s character. Do you like him at first? Do you continue to like him? Would you enjoy being his friend?
14. Discuss the friendship between Ginny and Caulder. How does it work, if it does? What is good about it? Where is it flawed, if it is?
15. Both Ginny’s and Caulder’s families have some common strengths. What are they?
16. What is “moral thinking”?
17. How moral is Ginny’s thinking? Caulder’s? Hally’s? James’? Charlie’s?
18. What draws Ginny to Smitty in the first place?
19. What keeps her interested in the situation? Why does she feel so connected to Smitty’s situation?
20. Why is Smitty so good at analyzing things?
21. Discuss the relationship between Smitty’s mother and father.
22. How do you think the relationships between Smitty and his mother, and Caulder and his mother differ?
23. What is it like to be “different” in school?
24. In how many ways can somebody be “different”?
25. Have you ever felt outside of normal in your school or work situation?
26. Have you known someone who seems outside of normal in your school or work situation? Did you ever do anything to get to know that person? If so, what did you learn about him or her?
27. Do you suspect that most people pretty much feel outside?
28. Why and how do communities define the parameters of what is normal? There may be very good reasons for it, and very bad ones. Don’t think this is an easy question. Some norms have been proven over thousands of years of human experience, while other norms may simply be the result of strong personalities’ fear of losing a grip on social power. Can some norms be true, but abused?
29. How can Ginny be so smart, but feel so inept?
30. How does she see Smitty at first? Why is she afraid of him? Is it really Smitty she’s afraid of, or does her fear run more deeply?
31. How does she lose her fear of him (if she truly ever does)? Do her brothers help (outside persuasion)?
32. How do you think the way she sees him changes after she seems to lose her fear?
33. But what happens after the breakthrough? How do her feelings change once he begins to speak? Do they actually change? How does she see him then?
34. Does Caulder’s view of Smitty change through these events? How?
35. Considering Ginny’s feelings after the note is read in front of the class, have you ever felt something like it? How did you feel? How did you wish other people, people who had witnessed your embarrassment, would act around you?
36. Have you ever witnessed another person’s humiliation? How did you treat that person afterwards? How long did you remember that event, and did you refer to it in front of other people later?
37. How can Caulder feel so confident, and still not understand Smitty’s situation as well as he might think?
38. Does Ginny actually understand Smitty better than Caulder does?
39. How does Smitty’s mother see him before the breakthrough?
40. How does she see Russell?
41. How do you think their father sees the two boys?
42. How does Smitty’s mother see him after breakthrough? After the truth is revealed? how does his father see him in these two situations?
43. Were Caulder and Ginny right to take Smitty to the films?
44. Did they have the right to push him socially? Did they truly care about him? Or were they playing a game?
45. How aware of them do you believe Smitty was throughout the first part of the book?
46. Did Smitty think of himself in the first person? Do you think of yourself that way? What form do your ideas take — words? Images? Do you often say what you think? Or do you speak one thing while thinking another?
47. What does Ginny notice about conversations? Have you noticed that about your own family? (See the dinner scene in While You Were Sleeping).
48. Do Ginny’s brothers lend her strength? How?
49. Caulder’s sisters do not figure largely in the plot, but what is your sense of them and of that family’s level of love and functionality?
50. Could you imagine Smitty’s poem? Should it be called Michael’s poem? Could you write it? What does the poem explain about Smitty?
51. Is Hally a good friend?
52. What is your concept of friendship?
53. Is friendship different than true friendship?
54. Describe your idea of what a friend should be like.
55. Name your friends. Do any of them fit the above description? If not, think through it and write down how they do not fit it.
56. Why do you consider them friends?
57. Do you fit what you have written about friends and friendship?
58. What would you have to change in yourself to become the kind of friend who is true?
58. What would that kind of change cost you? What would you have to give up or stop doing? If you could change those things and become that kind of friend, would it be worth the stuff you gave up?
59. Should you protect or defend a friend if that person has done something wrong, and you know they have done it?
60. Should you protect of defend a family member if he or she is doing something wrong, and you know they are doing it or have done it? Is it possible you could harm them by doing this?
61. Have you seen the movies mentioned in the book?
62. Why did the author choose those movies?
63. What is your favorite black and white film, produced before 1952?
64. Can you actually learn things about yourself and other people from movies? How? Is the movie actually teaching you? Or is it simply giving you a chance to look at yourself and think?
65. Understanding that movies are written by people who probably don’t know that much more about life than you do, how seriously should you take the concepts presented to you in a movie?
66. Do kids who are in high school still need their parents? How much do they need them?
67. Can kids in high school achieve the wisdom it takes to live well and safely? Do they have the discipline? This shouldn’t be an easy answer either. Give examples from your own life of both the really good and the really stupid choices you made in high school.
68. Should there be any shame in a kid asking a parent for advice?
69. Smitty has no experience in human interaction—think about how much goes into your interaction with friends and family. Notice the unspoken language around you. Notice how much direct eye contact—or avoidance of it—can actually say.
70. Look at the cover of the book. Does it say anything visually about the story, or about Smitty’s character? Do you think the author read the book before painting the cover?
71. What about the romantic elements of the story? Do you think the relationship that begins between Ginny and Michael is natural?
72. When Ginny sees Caulder holding hands with Hally, how does she feel? Have you ever felt that way?
73. How does Ginny feel when Peter comes up to talk to her? Why does she leave him? What does that say about her feelings concerning him?
74. What does she mean about unrequited love? Do you think she’s right?
75. Should love be fun all the time?
76. We have talked about friendship, but what about love? The Greeks had seven words for different kinds of love. It is said that English only offers one. Is that true? Can you list words for the different kinds of love any person might feel (all at one brain) for different people in their lives?
77. Why does it kill you when you feel one of those kinds of love for a person who feels an entirely different kind of love for you?
78. What did Smitty think his mother meant when she spoke the word “love”? What do you think she might have meant? Do you relate to this sitation?
79. Do different kinds of love carry different levels of duty and obligation?
80. How much would you sacrifice to serve a person you love?
81. Are love and sex the same thing? Can you have one without the other?
82. In this story, there is very little sexual element in the relationships – does that make them shallow or meaningless? Or does that give the people in the story a chance to deepen the relationships and turn them into something they can keep without regret for a lifetime?
83. After the party, there was The Kiss. Can a single kiss be the most romantic, killing, heart pounding moment in the universe? Can it be enough?
84. Ginny and Caulder are true friends. Do you believe that friendship between a boy and a girl, or between a man and a woman is actually possible? Do you wish you had a friendship like that? Do you have one? How valuable is it to you if you do?
85. Ginny tells Michael that he should not have put up with Russell’s treatment. What do you think about that? How easy would it be to stand up to someone who terrifies you?
86. What did Ginny find out about herself and her own fear?
87. If you are hiding pain caused by the treatment of a person in your life, what should you be doing about it? Who can you call for advice? How much courage would it take to act? And if you do act, will that be the end of it? Should that matter?
88. If you know someone in this situation, what should you be doing about it? Who can you call for advice? How much courage would it take to act? And if you do act, will that be the end of it? Should that matter?
89. As you read certain scenes in the book, what did the author do with the language to create a physiological response in you, the reader? Think about the scenes that you felt were very real, and read them again. The scenes were built out of words. What about those words made you feel the scenes?
90. Many younger readers of this book find that the ending leaves them hanging. Why did the author leave the story open-ended?
91. Do you think that Michael was ready to enter into a mature and long-lasting romantic relationship? Do you think Ginny was?
92. What would have to happen in order for Ginny and Michael to end up together in a deep and true and life-long partnership?
93. How important do you think Caulder and Ginny’s families will be to Michael over the coming years? How important do you think his own family will be?
94.There is a scene in which Ginny sits in the gutter. Have you ever felt that way? What images does the author invoke that communicate Ginny’s state of heart at that moment?
95. What was the strongest scene in the book for you?
96. What was your over-all response to the book? And what about the story made you feel that way?
97. Do you think that any of the characters seemed to carry the weight of the author’s own personality? What about the writing would suggest that to you?
98. List the characters and consider: How do you think the author herself feels about those people? Do you feel that she likes any especially, or dislikes any? Do you feel that the author stays out of the way? If she does or does not, is this good? Should an author allow her own attitude toward characters to show?
99. Is the narrator’s voice strong and true? How does the author accomplish this or fail at this through her use of language? Try to find evidence that will support your answer.
100. When you finished the book, did you feel sad to let go of that world? If not, why? What about the writing and the characters did not connect with you? If so, why? What about the writing and the characters made you feel so connected.
Activities and Projects
If you have taught this book and you’d like to add some of your successful teaching activities to this little list, we’d love to have you post them to us at ponymoon (teachingIdeas at) and we will add them to this packet and credit them with your name. (any such ideas will be considered a contribution to the public domain).
There are a number of tangents that can be pursued along with the reading of this book, and activities can be developed, and studies/research done in the course of pursuit.
The obvious ones: bullying and abuse and the effects of these things on the people involved.
Moving and its effects on kids.
Families – statistical and analytical studies of family structures and their effectiveness in preparing kids for life.
Peer counseling – its effectiveness.
Studies into gender performance in schools and gender perceptions –
The movies referred to in the book may be watched (only after the teacher has screened them) and tangents may come off out of the watching, including research done into the movies themselves.
Friendship and its statistical effects on people’s lives.
Friendship itself – personal experiences, expectations, disappointments – definitions, etc.
The concept of emotional maturity—how is it manifest? How old do you have to be to reach it? How is it developed?
The concept of duty — of obligation, of doing the right thing, at putting perceived needs of the self behind the needs of others.
The concept of emotional safety – is it possible?
What does character mean? The personality-endowed elements in a story are referred to as characters. Sometimes, in real life, we say that a person is a character, or that he is full of character, or that she has a lot of character. What do these things actually mean?
1. Character boxes, or character bags: chose a definable container so that the class is working under consistent restraints—same sized brown paper bags, for instance. Or allow the students to define their own container sizes and shapes.
The student chooses one character from the book, and then creates a “cover” design for the outside of the container, using whatever elements seem to communicate the student’s understanding of the character.
The container is then filled with things, or pictures of things, that demonstrate, symbolize, or typify the character. These may be things the character might like, use, wear—or things that seem emotionally appropriate for that character. There should also be a written explanation of each object and its significance.
Students may be asked to present their project and explain what they’ve done.
1. A personal project inspired by the book – can be a response to a specific thing that happens in the book, or to an emotional reaction to the book. Or it can be based on the book – plot and characters.
Some things we’ve seen done: collages, video productions, sculptures, quilts (miniature or large), written expressions (character journals, fan-fic that preserves the values and the true nature of the characters), songs (instrumental or with lyrics), dance, theatrical scenes, paintings, poetry, etc.
Friendships (perfect, yours) movies (why these? How real are movies?) characters (write yourself as one. Write one for the person you feel you want to be etc What sould you have to change? What would you have to stop? Would it be worth giving that up? What would you get in exchage?)
Character bags, boxes – forms – what does? Masks. Games
The best fiction is about people who do not actually exist, but who feel real enough to you that you almost feel like you know them at the end of the reading.