Carsen Smith, a 2018 Vanderbilt graduate now living in New York City, loves comedy. As a kid, she was fascinated with Area 51, the top-secret U.S. facility in Nevada, and the mythology and urban legends it spawns. Today, she combines those two things — comedy and possible aliens — in her sci-fi (and very funny) middle-grade novel, Alien Summer #1, the first installment in a series called Area 51 Interns.
Written with writer, producer, and actor James S. Murray of the TV show Impractical Jokers, the book is a thrill ride featuring protagonist Viv Harlow, her two friends, and the object of her crush. Oh, and aliens. Tons of them. The parents of these pre-teens work at Area 51, after all, and what the kids think will be a brief visit to the facility for Take Your Kids to Work Day turns into an alien invasion.
Smith, who writes for Impractical Jokers, began outlining the novel with Murray via Zoom back in 2020 during the pandemic’s early days. “We created the whole world of our fictionalized Area 51,” she told Chapter 16 via phone. “Once the outline was done, we started diving in and writing. The concept itself and the story flow are extremely collaborative. And when it comes to the writing, we prefer to put our nose to the grindstone and get something out on the page, and then we share chapters back and forth until we have something polished. We have really similar tastes and writing styles — [we’re] action-heavy, very visual writers. We both come from a screen background. The collaboration part was a breeze.”
She and Murray also had a blast brainstorming the gadgets that reside at Area 51, the ones the kids use to defend themselves against the aliens: an Olfactory Deterrent Offensive Rifle (O.D.O.R), grape-flavored antigravity gum, duplicator gauntlets, a flight suit, and more. “When we knew they were going to end up in the gadgets room, we wanted to create this endless inventory of everything that you could ever even imagine,” Smith says. “James and I scrolled through ancient medieval weaponry archives, wondering, What could we do with this? How can we make a flail updated and cool?”
But the heart of the story is more than just cutting-edge sci-fi gadgets, aliens from Planet ZR-18, and domed terrariums in Sector 77. At the story’s emotional center is, as Smith describes it, “Viv and her friends and her struggling with who she is at this time in her life.” In one pivotal plot scene, we read that these kids “weren’t brave for themselves. … They were brave for one another.” Viv, who learns shocking information about herself during the alien invasion, is 12 years old, and Smith notes, “James and I each remember that year so vividly in our lives, because there is so much change happening. You start your blossoming into adulthood. I think we all remember what being at this age was like and how uncertain it is. For Viv, we wanted to make that as hard and as alien as possible.”
Smith recalls how this time in her own life drew her to comedy. “When I was 10,” she says, “I lost my older brother. I think that was a turning point for me. When everyone feels sad around you, you have to crack jokes. That’s the only way to survive, the only way to keep going. From that moment, humor was my refuge, and I developed this absolutely bulletproof sense of humor.”
At Vanderbilt, she majored in, among other subjects, biology — but she says discovering comedy was a game changer. “When I got to college and I found out that you could do improv and organized comedy with other people and collaboratively work together on building a performance or a video or an hour’s worth of stand-up, that was enlightening to me. I really found my world and my people through that.”
Currently making a living as a comedy writer in NYC —”I think that’s where I’ve fallen into my niche” — Smith is able to incorporate her childhood love of animals and the natural world, as well as her love of comedy, into this book series. “I was constantly fascinated by ecological and evolutionary research,” she says. “That comes into play in our second book, which is cryptid-focused — Bigfoot and Chupacabra and the Loch Ness Monster [are] all being housed at Area 51, and the kids accidentally release them. I’ve always been fascinated by those urban-legend creatures.”
Meanwhile, the first book is potentially being optioned for a TV series, and Smith hopes to publish a collection of essays and short stories this year. She is also excited about book two in the series, due this fall: “I think it’s even better than the first one. We introduce a new character, an Einstein Fellow at this Area 51 program. She is this hotshot 14-year-old, and it throws Viv for a complete loop. There will be a lot of jealousy and drama.”
Julie Danielson, co-author of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and The Horn Book. She lives in Murfreesboro and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.