Title: Planet Earth Is Blue
Author: Nicole Panteleakos
Date of Publication: May 2019
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading Planet Earth Is Blue, the story of a largely nonverbal autistic tween in foster care. I was apprehensive about stereotypes, afraid that situations would be overblown, worried that the book would be poorly written (when I have high hopes for a story, I also tend to have a lot of nervousness about it!). But what I found was an deeply moving story of a girl navigating a difficult time of life, seeking stability in an unstable environment, struggling to communicate, and learning about the kind of love that sees the beloved for who they truly are and fights to help others see and understand them as well.
I read it all in one day, in 5-10 minute snatches as I worked, going so far as to set up my phone on the lab bench to catch the next sentence in between pipettes. (This is not recommended best practice for either lab science or book enjoyment. I just couldn’t put it down.) I cried at least three times and was very thankful my coworker happened to be on the other side of the lab. And at the end, through all the hurt and misunderstandings, there was hope (which I think is particularly important as this book is aimed at the 11-14 year old age group, and when kids that age find a character they identify with they need to know that there is hope for kids like them even when life is hard).
The story begins with our protagonist, Nova Vezina, waking up in the home of her new foster family, having run away from her previous home with her older sister, and missing said sister profoundly. As the story alternates between third person descriptions – often including flashbacks and memories triggered by events in the primary narrative timeline – and first person letters written by Nova to her sister, powerful messages about ableism, humanity, family, and love come to life on the page. Early in the book, for instance, Nova writes,
"I know you always say 'Foster families are not forever families' and 'We should not get attached,' but I think you might like Francine. She talks to me the way people talk to you. Not too loud and too slow, the way they talk to me. "She talks like I am a person."
Throughout the book, Nova’s feelings, sensory processing, and behaviors – the things that bother her, the things she gets excited about, the stimuli that overwhelm her, her physical expression of all these things – are presented authentically and seriously. They are just as real as any “normal” character’s emotions would be in any other book, and just as deeply important to her. Instead of fitting into the constraints of a stereotype, Nova appears the way a real person does: emotionally complex, internally conflicted about herself and her situation, and passionate about the things and people she loves. We can feel her joy rising like a rocket when she gets to experience the planetarium for the first time, or the deep pit of anxiety when she breaks a toy bound up with personal meaning. The slow buildup of sensory and emotional overwhelm are both portrayed with not only technical accuracy but a style that places the reader in the moment with Nova, seeing and experiencing life from her perspective. And her perspective is never cheapened or flattened.
Nicole Panteleakos drew on great depths of experience with autism to write Nova’s character; diagnosed with autism and OCD herself as an adult, she also worked for years teaching creative writing and communication to autistic kids with limited speech and volunteered with autistic children in various programs and through foster respite care. Additionally, she had multiple autistic tweens and adults read through her drafts to help ensure Nova wouldn’t fall into stereotypes or caricatures. Her exposure to the breadth of the autism spectrum as well as her personal insider’s understanding of it enabled her, I believe, to craft a genuinely human autistic protagonist, unlike any I have encountered from a neurotypical author.
Panteleakos’s Author’s Note at the end of the book also deserves a special mention, being everything I always loved about author’s notes when I was in the target age group for this book (and still love today, to be honest). However, you’ll have to read the story first and discover this on your own 🙂 But with a character like Nova, and with all she gets to experience of unconditional love and belonging as she works to process and overcome not her disability but the challenges of her circumstances, there are countless other reasons to read this book, and no reasons to wait.
As far as I know this is Panteleakos’s first book – I hope she writes more in the future! She does have an excellent article about writing Planet Earth Is Blue that touches on some of the experiences that influenced the book as well as the value of autistic representation in fiction.