Big Themes for Pre-teens

orbiting jupiter

So I don’t tend to feature YA (young adult books) on my website, having stated my remit as being 5-13 years – I had to stop somewhere! However, a book fell onto my desk a while ago that made me think. It defies categorization, as does its protagonists. It deals with issues that many would consider YA – love, teenage pregnancy and grief. And yet, the narrator is 12, and the boy he writes about is just 14 years old.

Published by Andersen Press, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt is targeted (according to them) at the 12+ age group, so just sneaks into my website review criteria. Although I wouldn’t recommend it without mentioning the themes above. Consider yourself warned.

But, this is a phenomenal book. One of the best-crafted, most heartrending novels I’ve read this year (and I include all the adult fiction I’ve read in that too). It’s a one-sitting read; the prose is stark, impeccable, faultless. No word out of place, nothing superfluous. What’s more, although it features those themes outlined above, it does so from a distance, with subtlety. There is nothing graphic. Sex happened but is not mentioned, a baby has been born, grief is the undercurrent.

Jack and his parents take in a foster brother, a fourteen year old who almost killed a teacher and has a three month old daughter called Jupiter, whom he’s never seen. Joseph is so hurt that he doesn’t show his emotions and won’t be touched – but the pain is there in a tightly woven knot, which his new family struggle to untangle.

In essence, this is a story about fathers. Jack’s father is the ideal – he believes in structure and hard work and shows his love with tenderness and moral rectitude. Joseph is a father, who longs to own up to his responsibilities despite his age, and who feels a love inside despite being unable to project it. And Joseph’s biological father is the last – the antithesis of Jack’s – the villain of the piece.

It’s also about brothers, or friendship, as Jack and Joseph form a bond over working on Jack’s parent’s farm and navigating the sometimes terrifying territory of school together. Gary Schmidt manages to portray those in society who are often overlooked or dismissed, as well as tucking into this slight novel the importance of reading, a sympathetic teacher, and the impact of extreme weather (and how to care for cows).

It’s a magnificent novel, in that although Joseph’s opening up is portrayed as profoundly slow with many setbacks, the novel races from scene to scene with skill and an edgy compulsion.

Not everyone in life is given a second chance, and not everyone grabs it when they are, but this is a beautifully written novel about just that. I cried at the end, for the story itself and also for having finished it so quickly.

In the main, it’s quite easy to distinguish between books aimed at the pre-teen market and those ‘YA’ books that are definitely for fully-fledged teenagers – by the scope of the protagonist (their world view), the language, the content, and the length of the book even. But every so often a book comes along that smudges the lines.

Schmidt has spoken about how the seed for the idea sprung from a news item about a thirteen year old father. And so, because big themes do happen to small people, if authors write stories about them as beautifully, poignantly and sensitively as this, we’d be terrible ‘gatekeepers’ if we held our children back from them.

You can buy it here.