The Big Idea: William Alexander

Who would you want as the first speaker to an alien civilization? National Book Award winner William Alexander proposes an intriguing candidate in his middle-grade novel Ambassador, and after reading his Big Idea piece, I can’t say I entirely disagree with him.


I love the word “ambassador.” I remember rolling it around in my eleven-year-old brain while watching Star Trek TNG. Ambassadors command reverence and respect. They defeat villains by knowing what to say and how to listen. They can end wars with words. Supposedly. Federation ambassadors seem to accomplish all of these things offstage, but on board the Enterprise they suffer tragic deaths or are otherwise incapacitated right before a commercial break. Then Picard takes over, quotes Shakespeare, and fixes things. I wondered what an ambassador might actually do if they could just live through the commercials.

“Neoteny” is another favorite word. It means “the retention of juvenile traits in adulthood.” Biologists usually use it to describe physical traits like the muppetish gills that axolotls keep when they refuse to grow up and become salamanders. But neoteny also refers to social and cognitive traits like curiosity, empathy, and the ability to learn new skills or form new social bonds.

Most social creatures ditch those childish things by adulthood. Consider sheep as a random example. Lambs frolic. They explore, play chase games, and taste whatever they can find. Meanwhile the adult sheep stand still and chew. That’s pretty much it. They’ve already learned everything and met everyone they need to know in order to survive, because they have survived, so now the curmudgeonly elders enjoy their right to masticate all day long and grumble about frolicking youth. This makes solid darwinian sense—provided you have a stable environment. But if you happen to live in rapidly changing circumstances, then the set of things you should know by the time you grow up destabilizes accordingly. Curiosity becomes a vital survival trait, even among adults.

Stay childish, everyone. Our continued existence will depend on our neoteny.

You might consider reading kidlit. Or writing some.

A few years ago, at my friend Ivan’s apartment, I paged through a coffee table book about interspecies friendships. Huge photographs documented adorable, improbable bonds between foxes and hounds, gorillas and kittens, crocodiles and parakeets, and so on. Such friendships usually form early, between juveniles.

The words “ambassador” and “neoteny” collided in my brain. Kids have not yet fixed the boundaries of their social worlds, or limited those boundaries to the worlds that they happen to be standing on. Ambassadors between planets should be kids.

I wrote those two favorite words on a scrap of paper and stuffed it in my pocket.

Fast forward to the present. The book Ambassador stars eleven-year-old Gabe Sandro Fuentes. He’s a second-generation Latino immigrant to the United States. (So am I.) He has all of the cognitive, code-switching benefits of a bilingual brain. (I don’t. My family tried very hard to assimilate, so my own command of Spanish atrophied. I miss it.) He knows how to move smoothly between worlds, languages, and cultural expectations. Curiosity, empathy, and skilled communication are his survival traits. And the word “alien” throws off many different kinds of sparks inside his head, both before and after he becomes the ambassador of our planet.

I wish I still had that little scrap of paper. I don’t. It probably went through the laundry and got compressed into a dense nugget of linty pulp. But those two words were too important to forget, and their collision gave me the concept, the protagonist, and the title of Ambassador.

Maybe I’ll call the sequel Neoteny.

Probably not.


Ambassador: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

14 Comments on “The Big Idea: William Alexander”

  1. That truly is a wonderful idea…!

    PS: Though you might not want your ambassador to hit puberty when he/she is in the middle of some rather sensitive negotiations. Best case scenarios: the ambassador writes terrible poetry late at night. Worst case scenario: the ambassador leaves the conference room, shouting, ‘Nobody understands me!’, slams the door and an inter-Galactic war breaks out like spots on the Ambassador’s face.

    PS2: Sorry about that. I will order the book though, ’cause it is a great idea.

  2. This sounds fantastic. It gets my interest right away. I grew up in Honduras and I’m trying very hard to keep my kids speaking Spanish. So far I’ve succeeded, but it is hard. I wish they could see the benefits as I do. I see them everyday in the easy way they learn new words and–at their young age–serve as interpreters between my parents and in-laws. It’s amazing!

  3. Very cool idea! After reading your post I now need two books. The book you wrote, and the coffee table book on interspecies friends!

  4. It’s amazing to me that none of the Foreigner series books by Cherryh are called Ambassador.

    This sounds like a fun read.

  5. As someone of Mexican descent who had to learn Spanish in high school, I can confirm that there is a cognitive benefit to being bilingual (or sorta bilingual, in my case). This concept is really, really cool.

  6. Native Tongue by Suzette Hayden Elgin explores inter-species (baby) ambassadors also, although her series emphasis is feminist.

  7. UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS might be the name of the coffee-table book mentioned. It is very cute.

    And this is a great idea. I know just the kids to give this book to after I finish it!

  8. Anne McCaffrey had a 6(?) yo accidentally end up as the translator/unofficial ambassador in Decision at Doona. Her emphasis there was not just kids learn languages quickly, but that kids don’t really follow all the twisty, complicated tricks and concepts that negotiators are trying for, so the negotiations end up more honest and straightforward than if an adult were handling the transactions.

  9. Unfortunately, it’s peers not parents that drive language acquisition, hence all the second-generation immigrants who can kind of understand the old language, but don’t speak it, and third-generation ones who don’t at all. It takes a lot of hard work to make a kid speak a language none of his friends do. The book sounds cool.

  10. Parents and family members can also drive language acquisition. If a second language is regularly spoken in the household, children will pick up that second language. This is true even if the second language is only used for holding conversations that the adults don’t want the children to understand. A person I knew in grad school initially learned Spanish that way. Her parents wanted to integrate the kids fully into US society, so didn’t speak Spanish to them. But, her parents would hold conversations in Spanish, thinking the kids didn’t understand it. The children gradually learned what was being said. The woman I knew, said that she could understand Spanish, but, didn’t learn to speak it until she was older.

    When I lived in Tucson, I knew a couple families where 3 generations lived in the same house. The grandparents (or, in one case, the grandmother) only spoke Spanish. The parents were bilingual, and the children were also bilingual. The grandchildren, however, could only understand Spanish, but couldn’t speak it. But, by the time the grandkids came along, their parents had, in general, moved out of the house.

    I also should note that the 3rd generation who lived in the house where the grandfather was bilingual, did not speak Spanish as fluently as the households where neither grandparent spoke English.

  11. This sounds great! I added it to my wish list on Amazon. It sounds like an amazing book for a birthday present to an 11 year old. Plus that way I get to read it.

  12. Great concept – I remember reading Decision at Doona as a kid, but I expect this takes things in a different direction. The “anti” Ender’s Game?

    Child diplomats, rather than child soldiers?

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