Pho­to by Har­ry Shel­ton on Unsplash

Aliens might not be real, but my child­hood fear of them was.

In 1987, when I was thir­teen, I pur­chased a copy of Whit­ley Streiber’s Com­mu­nion with my Hanukkah mon­ey. Where­as his pre­vi­ous works had all been fic­tion­al, Streiber pub­lished Com­mu­nion as a mem­oir. In the book, he claimed to have been vis­it­ed mul­ti­ple times by extrater­res­tri­als. For months after read­ing it, I lay in bed at night scru­ti­niz­ing shad­ows, which looked even creepi­er in my eye­glass-less state. Was that an alien lurk­ing in the cor­ner of my room?

I wasn’t sure whether I believed Streiber’s claims, but I’d had a Star Wars child­hood. I’d watched reruns of Star Trek and Doc­tor Who on the small screen and seen ET on the big screen. Aliens were well estab­lished in my imagination. 

More impor­tant­ly, I lived in Las Vegas, Neva­da. Res­i­dents of South­ern Neva­da in the mid- and late-1980s noticed — and dis­cussed — air­craft that hov­ered in our desert skies, fol­lowed pecu­liar flight pat­terns, and some­times dis­ap­peared mid-air. Folks who worked out at Nel­lis Air Force Base mut­tered about areas they weren’t allowed to access. The US gov­ern­ment kept deny­ing there was any test­ing of exper­i­men­tal air­craft at Area 51, out at Groom Lake, even though peo­ple reg­u­lar­ly wit­nessed planes tak­ing off from behind the fence. 

Many times, I stared up at the night sky with my sis­ter, and some­times a neigh­bor or two, spec­u­lat­ing about strange lights over­head. What if they were UFOs? What if those UFOs were flown by aliens? Why were they vis­it­ing our plan­et? Did they have benev­o­lent motives or threat­en­ing ones? 

UFOs, aliens, and con­spir­a­cies asso­ci­at­ed with them became my fan­dom. I tore through both non­fic­tion books about space and sci-fi nov­els at the local library. I attend­ed lec­tures by so-called experts on UFOs. When a local reporter inter­viewed an indi­vid­ual who claimed to have the scoop on what was going on, I made sure I tuned in. I want­ed answers, because infor­ma­tion gave me some­thing to pro­tect myself with — or so I hoped. 

By the time the myth­i­cal con­nec­tion between South­ern Neva­da and aliens entered pop cul­ture — large­ly due to Inde­pen­dence Day and The X‑Files—few peo­ple liv­ing there were still wor­ried about UFOs. The gov­ern­ment had unveiled stealth air­craft to the pub­lic, pro­vid­ing a ratio­nal expla­na­tion for the night­time sight­ings of lights over Las Vegas. Sev­er­al promi­nent ufol­o­gists admit­ted that they’d lied about what was going on at Nel­lis and Area 51, and no con­crete evi­dence emerged to sup­port the claims of the rest. The bill­boards for Fresh Alien Jerky” that cropped up along I‑15 in the ear­ly 2000s were play­ful, not pan­icked. The rebrand­ing of the Las Vegas Stars as The 51s was a joke we were all in on.

From its incep­tion, spec­u­la­tive fic­tion has been used to intro­duce moral ques­tions and philo­soph­i­cal inquiries with­out the emo­tion­al bag­gage of his­to­ry or cur­rent events.

My lat­est book, How to Wel­come an Alien, is out in August from Kalan­iot Books. It details the crash-land­ing of a UFO on a moshav in Israel. Its friend­ly crew needs human assis­tance to get back on their way. In addi­tion to earn­ing some gig­gles, I’m hop­ing my pic­ture book inspires young read­ers to extend a warm wel­come to aliens lit­er­al and figurative.

It felt nat­ur­al to use an alle­go­ry to teach about hachnas­sat orchim—the mitz­vah of hos­pi­tal­i­ty — since alle­gories are com­mon in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. Among the more famous bib­li­cal mashal­im (“alle­gories” or para­bles”) are those about the theft of a poor man’s lamb by a rich man and the Song of Songs. In each case, a bib­li­cal char­ac­ter (Nathan and Solomon, respec­tive­ly) uses fic­tion to explain a deep­er moral truth. Lat­er Jew­ish fig­ures, includ­ing Rebbe Nach­man of Breslov, Rav Shalom Schwadron, and con­tem­po­rary teach­ers like Rab­bi Paysach Krohn and Rab­bi Fishel Schachter, have employed sim­i­lar techniques.

Sci­ence fic­tion lends itself well to the mashal. From its incep­tion, spec­u­la­tive fic­tion — a genre com­posed of sci-fi, fan­ta­sy, and hor­ror — has been used to intro­duce moral ques­tions and philo­soph­i­cal inquiries with­out the emo­tion­al bag­gage of his­to­ry or cur­rent events. We read Fahren­heit 451 and know Ray Brad­bury is teach­ing us about the lib­er­at­ing nature of lit­er­a­ture. Mar­garet Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale intro­duces us to the dan­gers of misog­y­ny and reli­gious extrem­ism. Like­wise, many of us have strong feel­ings about refugees, strangers, and for­eign­ers. By mak­ing fig­u­ra­tive aliens lit­er­al ones — and adorable, to boot — in How to Wel­come an Alien, I set all that bag­gage aside. 

My teenage chil­dren are amused by my child­hood fear of aliens. I’ve tried to explain what it was like liv­ing with mys­te­ri­ous flights over­head and the para­noia of the Cold War, and how anx­ious I was in gen­er­al at that age. When­ev­er gov­ern­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of UFOs or reports of mys­te­ri­ous downed air­craft hits head­lines, one of my teens wants to know the lat­est news, not because he believes ALIENS ARE HERE!, or because he’s afraid, but because he shares my fan­dom. We dis­cuss the Dark For­est Hypoth­e­sis. We bond over our mutu­al fas­ci­na­tion with alien-relat­ed con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and snick­er over the ridicu­lous­ness of most of them. 

One time, though, my son was scrolling through the library cat­a­log, look­ing for books to put on hold. Hey, Ima,” he asked, mind if I check out Com­mu­nion?”

Please don’t,” I said. I told him I didn’t want his lit­tle sis­ter get­ting her hands on it, read­ing it, and hav­ing night­mares; I told him that I think the book is bunk. 

The real rea­son: I didn’t want to see the book’s creepy cov­er in my house at night. So maybe I am still scared of extrater­res­tri­als — just a lit­tle. But I hope that when con­front­ed with aliens” of the human kind — strangers, refugees, and those who are treat­ed like out­siders — I prac­tice the same exem­plary hachnas­sat orchim as my char­ac­ters do.

Rebec­ca Klemp­n­er is the author of A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, Adi­na at Her Best, and Glix­man in a Fix. She lives with her fam­i­ly in Los Ange­les, where she wel­comes a wide vari­ety of guests…though, so far, no aliens.