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Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Science--astronomy, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

PLANET EARTH IS BLUE by Nicole Panteleakos

Planet Earth is Blue centers on Nova Vezina, an autistic, largely nonverbal 12-year-old who loves astronomy and is anxiously awaiting the launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. She and her sister, Bridget, have been in foster care for several years. Nova’s story begins with the words: “Bridget was gone.” We realize, through flashback, that Bridget had tried to take Nova and run away from their previous foster home. That escapade resulted in Bridget’s no longer being with Nova and Nova coming to a new foster family by herself. But Nova remembers Bridget promising her that, even if they were separated, she would make sure she found Nova in order to watch the Challenger launch together.

Now the Challenger launch is 10 days away.  As she tries to adapt to her new foster family and attending a new school (again!), Nova is counting down the days until the launch in her head, expecting Bridget to show up on that day to watch the historic event together. Because Nova has difficulty speaking–the words just don’t come out right even when she tries to speak–social workers, teachers and her foster families usually think she does not have the mental capacity to read or understand events going on around her. While it is true that Nova processes information differently, she does NOT have diminished mental capacity and this discrepancy between others’ assumptions and her reality increases her frustration.

Bridget was always Nova’s staunchest defender. She didn’t like people calling Nova ‘retarded,’ telling people her sister is “a thinker, not a talker.” Billy and Francine, her new foster parents begin to see signs in Nova’s behavior and interactions that she is capable of much more than most of the people around her have assumed.

The structure of the novel is interesting. It alternates chapters that tell Nova’s story–how she is navigating all her new, unfamiliar circumstances–chronologically in the ten days leading up to the Challenger launch, with letters written by Nova to Bridget during the same ten days. The letters that Nova writes look like scribbles to everyone else, but within the construct of the novel the reader is able to understand them, hear Nova’s frustrations and fears and have a better understanding of why school and daily life present significantly different challenges for her than the average person.

Panteleakos does an amazing job of allowing the reader the opportunity for empathy with an individual we might struggle to communicate with and understand in our daily lives. I truly believe opportunities like this can fundamentally change both our attitudes and behavior toward people who–for a myriad of genetic reasons–process the world differently. Panteleakos also succeeds in creating fully developed characters in Nova, Billy and Francine. The secondary characters of Bridget and Jeannie (Billy & Francine’s college-age daughter) also fill out the plot in both Nova’s past and present. I recognize her representation of how Autism was viewed, identified and treated in the 1980s as eerily accurate.

I remember the Challenger disaster. I knew teachers who had applied to be part of the crew. Like so many others, I was watching the live TV feed when it happened. Pairing the Challenger experience–in particular the launch of Christa McAuliffe as the first teacher in space–with Nova’s story is remarkably poignant. Nova survives the many obstacles to her dreams just as McAuliffe’s message that anything is possible for each of us, has survived beyond her life to inspire us to persevere.

Planet Earth is Blue was a 4-star read for me.  It is tender and loving and helps readers to forge a new perspective toward individuals who are unable to communicate verbally. Nova is a strong, young female character whose extraordinary resilience is wonderfully written in a way that unfurls itself naturally within the context of her story and character–as opposed to being manipulated by the author’s external intent. This could be a terrific independent reading choice or a read-aloud in a middle grade classroom or at home. Planet Earth is Blue lends itself to discussions about empathy and inclusivity, as well as science units on astronomy, NASA or the Space Shuttle program.

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