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compassion, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Middle Grade Readers

ORBITING JUPITER by Gary D Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter is a beautiful story, ultimately about compassion, kindness and empathy. The story is partially about fourteen-year-old Joseph Brook, and is told by twelve-year-old Jack. Jack’s perspective provides the second half of the story. Jack’s family lives on a farm in Maine. At the beginning of the book Joseph comes to live with Jack’s family as a foster child. Joseph has been in a juvenile detention facility because he had tried to kill one of his teachers (after being given drugs by another student) and having been removed from his father’s home. Joseph also has a three-month-old daughter named Jupiter.

When Joseph arrives at Jack’s home he rarely speaks or smiles. Jack begins to count the number of times Joseph smiles as a way to assess how he is feeling/adjusting to life with the Hurds. Jack’s (and his parents’)compassion for Joseph and his lack of judgment about his past provide the foundation of the story as it moves forward. Jack takes note of the hostility and suspicion with which Joseph’s presence at school (and in their community) is met. He observes that both adults and peers make judgments about Joseph based on the color of his skin and the fact that he was in a juvenile detention facility and has a daughter when he is still a child, himself.

Jack sees Joseph for the person he is and, recognizing in Joseph a good heart and a vulnerable soul, Jack always chooses to behave toward him with respect and kindness. Jack offers friendship to Joseph and at first, Joseph struggles to accept it. Jack feels protective of Joseph, realizing he has clearly been hurt and carries heavy sorrows.As I read the book, I absolutely did too. Joseph’s gradual acceptance of the Hurds and their compassion leads him to ask for their help in finding his daughter–whom he has never seen. Obviously, this is a complicated situation due to Joseph’s age, legalities and the angry addition of Joseph’s father. As such, Orbiting Jupiter moves inexorably toward a conclusion that acknowledges the simultaneous feelings of hope, futility and sorrow that often accompany so much of life’s circumstances.

This is a book I will absolutely recommend–however, I will be selective as to whom I do recommend it. It’s written perfectly for a middle-grade reading and content level, but of course, each individual child is at different stages of development at different times. Orbiting Jupiter, by its main premise (that Joseph has a daughter) acknowledges the existence of teenage sex. When it is acknowledged within the story it is done without being inappropriately graphic. Also, as I have stated, Orbiting Jupiter focuses on compassion and kindness, rather than making moral judgments about Joseph’s actions which led to his having a daughter. Although Joseph’s motives in that situation are not malicious, they ARE naive and I would want to have that conversation with my child before, during or after he/she read the book. I would not use Orbiting Jupiter as a read-aloud in a classroom due to its situational theme/content, but I can see using it as a read-aloud at home with my own kids in 6th/7th grade because we would have the opportunity to talk about any issues that might come up as we are hearing Joseph’s story. Orbiting Jupiter is an absolutely worthwhile read–but I believe it is best read by a child who has access to a trusted adult throughout the reading experience.

If you are looking for a way to introduce a conversation/begin teaching about compassion, kindness and empathy in difficult, complicated situations often fraught with big emotions with your middle schooler, Orbiting Jupiter is a perfect way to initiate that conversation.

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