Planet Earth is Blue
A Near-perfect Middle Grade Novel
I picked up Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos because the cover reminded me of A Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly, which was a fantastic book. These novels have much in common; excellent writing, differently abled protagonists (Iris in Whale is deaf, and Nova in Blue is autistic), both girls are obsessed with atypical interests, and both are middle grade fiction. Iris’ passions are old radios and one specific whale. Nova’s passion is space and space travel. These both fall under STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, math) which is highly sought after in kid lit today, especially for girls. I highly recommend A Song for a Whale; you will not regret it.
Planet Earth is Blue is beautifully written and taught me much about the autism experience. Nova, a 12-year-old nonverbal girl, has been in foster care with her older sister Bridget for five years following the death of their father in the Vietnam War and the resulting emotional breakdown of their mother. The story is set in the winter of 1986 as the country and the world prepares for the launching of the ill-fated Challenger shuttle carrying the first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe. Nova’s life revolves around this countdown, while she navigates living with a new foster family, attending a new school, and missing Bridget who’s run away. All adults and many young readers know enough history to anticipate a heart-breaking experience for Nova when she, in her classroom, like so many thousands of students, watched the take-off of the Challenger. This brings the story to a critical climax, but there’s more to be revealed about Nova and her experience than the build-up and reaction to the Challenger tragedy.
The story is told in third person, with first-person narratives by Nova as she “writes letters” to Bridget in her notebook, allowing readers to get inside Nova’s head. The effective use of flashbacks, historical facts, the reality-based experiences of an autistic child in the foster care and public school systems in the 1980’s are all put together as tightly as a spacecraft preparing for flight. Culture and art references from the 1980’s and earlier are plentiful, including Nova’s fixation on the David Bowie song “Space Oddity”, featuring Major Tom (1969), adding a nice touchpoint for older readers.
This book is a study in compassion, acceptance, and advocacy for the vulnerable. From a writer’s perspective, it’s also a primer on what a compelling novel for young people that is sympathetic without being overly dramatic looks like. I cannot recommend it highly enough.