Books

Book teaches kids what it can mean to be different

“Planet Earth is Blue” by Nicole Panteleakos. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary.
“Planet Earth is Blue” by Nicole Panteleakos. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary.

Imagine how you would feel if almost no one understood you. In your head, your thoughts make sense, but words you speak or write mean little to classmates, teachers and neighbors. They talk to you loudly and slowly, as though you’re a baby.

Nova has that frustrating experience in “Planet Earth is Blue” by Nicole Panteleakos. The 12-year-old has problems communicating, often squeaking and humming instead of speaking in words. In the mid-1980s when the story is set, less was known about how to help people such as Nova, who is on the autism spectrum.

Autism isn’t the only complication in Nova’s life. Her father died in the Vietnam War, and her mother had a mental illness that made her unable to care for children. Nova and her big sister, Bridget, have been sent from one foster family to the next.

Bridget’s love and support were the only things that made the situation bearable. Bridget knows Nova is smart. She would tell people who were critical: “My sister’s not dumb. She’s a thinker, not a talker.” Bridget also inspired Nova’s love of the space program. The two were excited that NASA was sending the first teacher to space. They counted down the months until the space shuttle Challenger was to launch. Bridget promised they would watch on TV together.

But then Bridget disappeared. She left Nova with a new foster family. The couple seems nice, but Bridget always warned Nova about getting too attached. “Foster families aren’t forever families,” the teenager would say.

In the days before the launch, Nova writes Bridget letters looking for help navigating her new surroundings and reminding her sister that they planned to “rocket out of foster care” when Bridget turned 18 and, one day, travel together into space.

Nova’s letters, which reveal how much of a “thinker” she is, help readers understand that people such as Nova need more than one Bridget in their corner. They need more people willing to look beneath the surface and help them follow their dreams.

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• Michael Morpurgo’s “The Day the World Stopped Turning” (ages 10 to 14). This story is about Lorenzo, a boy who has autism and who lives in France during World War II. He befriends a girl whose family runs a carousel. When the Germans invade, the kids have to figure out whom to trust to survive.

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• “Bat and the End of Everything” (ages 6 to 10) is the last book in Elana K. Arnold’s series about a boy on the autism spectrum who is caring for an orphaned skunk kit. As the end of third grade nears, Bat worries about saying goodbye to his favorite teacher, the class pet and most of all, Thor, the young skunk who needs to return to the wild.

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