Finn and the Intergalactic Lunchbox might sound like an edgy indie band, but it’s actually the title of New York Times bestselling author and Akron native Michael Buckley’s latest work for middle-grade readers.
I spoke with Buckley about his latest work, his experience recovering from COVID-19 and how he predicts these unprecedented circumstances will shape this generation of kids.
Middle school is awkward enough, but for 11-year-old Finn Foley, things are downright rough. There’s a new school, a new city and bully Lincoln Sidana. Who would have thought it would be a unicorn lunchbox that would shake things up even more?
One day Finn mistakenly brings his sister’s flashy pink lunchbox to school and opens it, only for a wormhole to pull him in. Once the wormhole releases Finn, a strange device attaches to his chest. It becomes clear that he needs to keep this alien weapon away from the Plague, a locust-like alien race that has conquered civilizations far beyond Earth. To stop the chaos, he will have to join forces with Lincoln as well as Julep Li, his crush. The question is, can Finn and the crew save the universe from destruction?
Buckley drew inspiration from the wit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“It was so fun and funny and bizarre, and it reminded me a little bit of, like, Monty Python, which I grew up loving,” Buckley says. Buckley wished there was a story like that for his 12-year-old son.
Buckley went on to address another inspiration: school lunches. He admits, “My mother, you know, bless her heart, was not a great cook,” and recounted opening up his own lunchbox meals like “mayonnaise and pickle sandwiches!” This got him to thinking about how most kids have felt that same kind of surprise and disappointment. “It could be good, or it could be really bad!”
Childhood bullying is more visible than ever as social media continues to shape daily life for internet users of all ages. Buckley addresses Lincoln’s frustrating home life in this context, touching on how troubles within families can lead preteens to bully their peers. While he does not excuse bullies’ behavior, he says, “I do think they deserve a little bit more empathy than we give them.”
Buckley highlights the selflessness of today’s kids as they give up time with friends, and other parts of just being a kid, because people have asked them to during the pandemic. As a New Yorker, Buckley has seen and heard the cheering and banging of pots and pans in the city windows to honor frontline workers, and suggests people “bang the pots for the kids, too.”
“I would tell the parents to look to the kids on how to behave,” he says.
Our conversation moved toward his recent experience with the novel coronavirus and the pandemic’s impact on preteens. Buckley had a “relatively mild” case of COVID-19 and had since recovered at the time of our conversation. He described a few days of lethargy and fever and losing his senses of taste and smell.
Buckley expressed amazement that, despite misinformation and rapidly changing public health recommendations, “the people got together on their own” and made sacrifices together to combat the coronavirus.
On his upcoming story, he says, “It is a book about escape. It’s a book about being able to go anywhere in the universe that you would want to go.”
As many kids feel trapped as social distancing continues, they can find an escape of their own in Finn’s story.