One of the things I love about discovering a new favorite contemporary author is the gift of waiting with eager anticipation for their next book to come out. I’ve been enjoying that anticipation over the past few months since I heard about the October publication date for Gary D. Schmidt’s new book, Orbiting Jupiter. I got myself on the library waiting list and happily picked it up last week. I’m a big fan of Schmidt’s other novels, especially The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now (and I heartily recommend both for middle-school-age readers). At first glance, Orbiting Jupiter is simpler than some of Schmidt’s other titles; it’s less than 200 pages, with wide page margins and generous spacing between lines. But don’t let the simple design fool you into thinking this is a story for younger readers; this tale is complex and heart-wrenching and deals with tough stuff, and it’s oh-so-beautiful.
Twelve-year-old Jack Hurd is the narrator of the book, walking us through his daily life on a farm in rural Maine. The book opens with Jack and his parents agreeing to be a foster family for Joseph Brook, a fourteen-year-old who is leaving a juvenile detention center and can’t go home to his abusive father. Joseph is quiet and jumpy, and his caseworker fills the Hurds in on his story. Joseph was in juvenile detention because he attacked a teacher, even though he only did that because another kid gave him some bad drugs. Also; Joseph has a daughter. She is three months old. He’s never seen her.
The painful heart of this story is the tension between Joseph’s desire to see his daughter and the mostly well-meaning attempts of adults to do what’s best for everyone involved (except for Joseph’s father, who has motivations of his own). It revels in the gray areas; the balance of the law against the force of love, general rules vs. individual cases, reason against heart. I loved the varied responses of the adults in the book to Joseph and his background, especially the teachers at the boys’ school; it paints a real-world picture of people who can’t look past their prejudices as well as those who encourage potential in even the toughest cases. I appreciate how Joseph’s pain is treated so gently; Jack’s simple loyalty to his foster brother and the tender way in which the parents ease Joseph in to their daily life on the farm is beautiful to read. Another of my favorite parts of this book is the beautiful way in which Jack’s narration sets up the visuals of the Maine farm. Most of the book takes place during winter, and the way Jack describes the cold, the stars, the night, the woodsmoke; everything is so immersive, so easy to imagine. With the wide spacing and short sentence structure my eyes were tempted to just skim across the pages; I had to force myself to slow down and really picture each scene as Jack narrated it, and I’m so glad I did. This is a story that rewards the reader for taking her time and living in it; my heart broke for the characters as the ending unfolded, and it’s a truly accomplished author who can make the reader cry with sadness but also gladness in only the course of a few pages.
Nothing about Joseph’s story is easy to read; his home life before coming to stay with the Hurds, his schooling, his struggles with the foster care and legal systems. Schmidt presents these difficulties in a factual way, but also in a way that gives hope, both for the reader and for Joseph, that he has people watching his back and wanting the best for him. The publisher’s “ages 12 and up” recommendation for this is a bit older than Story Warren’s usual audience, but I hope you’ll pass along the recommendation to your older kids or teens, or read it yourself. It’s a beautiful story, and one that I think will stick with you for a long time.
Featured image by Paul Boekell