By Nicole Panteleakos. Wendy Lamb Books, 2019. 240 pages. $16.99/hardcover; $7.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 8–12.Buy from QuakerBooks
Planet Earth Is Blue is an endearing story of a nonverbal child’s experience. The author grew up with sensory issues and was labeled “particular,” “picky,” and a “space cadet,” according to the author’s note; now she is studying for an MFA in children’s literature at Hollins University in Virginia. She draws from her own experiences in this beautifully structured first novel, which offers understanding and hope to those of us who may be familiar with young people on the autism spectrum. The story takes place in 1986 when less was known about autism spectrum disorder and pervasive developmental disorders.
Twelve-year-old Nova is a nonverbal child on the autism spectrum. Nova’s sister, Bridget, is five years older. After their father does not return from the war in Vietnam, their mother is unable to care for them. Bridget is the only person who understands Nova. She explains to her friends that Nova is a thinker, not a talker. The sisters share a strong interest in astronomy and space travel. The sisters become separated in foster care, and Nova waits for Bridget’s return so they can watch the Challenger blast-off together. Because the reader is familiar with this tragedy, we are prepared for disappointment, and we wonder, as we read, how Nova will react.
The book is written in two voices: in the narrator’s and in Nova’s voice. Nova has a rich inner imagination and memory that is demonstrated in letters to her sister. Bridget can understand her writing, which is described by her teachers as scribbling. Nova’s letters describe her frustration with repeated testing, her loneliness, and her longing for a “forever family.”
Panteleakos captures many moments as experienced by Nova. One heartbreaking moment occurs in the classroom when Nova becomes overstimulated and calls out for her sister. Her speech is impaired, and the teacher believes she is using profanity. Another is when Nova first attempts to interact with classmates. Nova writes about her difficulty with making eye contact. “At school, Miss Chambers makes me look at her eyes. I hate it. I hate doing it, but I know what her eyes look like because I have to look over and over and over again when she says my name.” Nova’s creativity, active imagination, memory, and language formulation abilities are demonstrated when she recalls the color of peoples’ eyes with the names of Crayola crayons. For example, she writes about her foster mother’s eyes:
Francine’s are Crayola Midnight Blue like the deepest part of the ocean when the sun’s going down, way out where you could swim and not see your feet beneath you. . . Dark, true, Midnight Blue.
There are many poignant moments in the book, and tenderly described steps forward that are made.
I loved reading this story. It has a reading level of grades 3–7, and will also appeal to adults. I think that the author presupposes that the reader will be familiar with the 1986 Challenger disaster. References to The Little Prince and David Bowie might also confuse some readers.
As a speech and language pathologist who has studied and worked with numerous nonverbal and neurologically impaired children, I have not witnessed evidence that supports the author’s depiction of Nova’s complex language abilities. However, I will not deny their possibility. The descriptions of Nova’s behavior when overstimulated and her attempts at communication have integrity. I wish that this book was required reading for educators and professionals in diagnostics and evaluation of neurologically based language impairments. The importance of friendship, compassion, and patience are demonstrated. The role of appropriate educational placement and a caring family cannot be underestimated. I think the story is valuable for the hope it provides. Positive expectations always improve our lives and enhance communication for everybody.