Planet Earth Is Blue

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Trade Paperback

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“Tender and illuminating. A beautiful debut.” –Rebecca Stead, Newbery Medal-winning author of When You Reach Me

A heartrending and hopeful story about a nonverbal girl and her passion for space exploration, for fans of See You in the Cosmos, Mockingbird, and The Thing About Jellyfish.

Twelve-year-old Nova is eagerly awaiting the launch of the space shuttle Challenger–it’s the first time a teacher is going into space, and kids across America will watch the event on live TV in their classrooms. Nova and her big sister, Bridget, share a love of astronomy and the space program. They planned to watch the launch together. But Bridget has disappeared, and Nova is in a new foster home.

While foster families and teachers dismiss Nova as severely autistic and nonverbal, Bridget understands how intelligent and special Nova is, and all that she can’t express. As the liftoff draws closer, Nova’s new foster family and teachers begin to see her potential, and for the first time, she is making friends without Bridget. But every day, she’s counting down to the launch, and to the moment when she’ll see Bridget again. Because as Bridget said, “No matter what, I’ll be there. I promise.”


— For —

Meadow & Brayden,

Kahliel & Caleb,

Jordyn, Josiah & Benjamin

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,

and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.


Bridget was gone.

And Nova was broken.

Nova hadn't wanted to run away from the last foster family. They were nice enough. Sure, it wasn't easy sharing one bedroom with four other girls in three sets of bunk beds. There was no privacy for Bridget, who liked her space, and there was no room for hand flapping or bouncing, which Nova liked to do while pretending she was in space.

Plus there was a rule no shower could last more than eight minutes.

And they weren't allowed to watch TV, listen to records, or drink anything with caffeine.

But there had been hot oatmeal in the mornings. Cold lemonade with lunch. Warm blankets at night. Nobody yelled bad words or spanked them. Nobody made Bridget scrub floors like Cinderella. Nobody called Nova Dumbo because she couldn't speak. Most importantly, they were together.

Bridget hated it anyway.

"I'm out of here," she kept saying. "I can't stand it another day. I'm losing my mind."

Nova wasn't worried then. She knew they'd end up somewhere else eventually.

When the time came, though, leaving was different. No social worker to transport them. No paperwork for adults to sign. Bridget didn't even glare at the failed foster parents and say goodbye. Nova and Bridget just piled into a car and drove away. This was not their routine, which made Nova's tummy hurt because she hated goodbyes, but she hated deviating from the routine even more.

"Don't worry!" Bridget had kissed Nova's forehead. "I'll take care of you like I've always taken care of you!"

Now Bridget was gone.

And Nova was worried.

She rocked back and forth on her knees, hugging NASA Bear to her chest, and glanced around her newest bedroom. The first room she'd ever had all to herself.

Diagonal from the door was a double bed with a fancy carved headboard. The mattress was soft, the pillow was softer, and the blanket was plush and purple, covered in tiny silver stars.

It was too big.

The bedroom was long but narrow. It had two windows, one facing the front yard and the other facing the back. Out back there was an in-ground pool, covered up for the winter. Out front a pathway leading up to the door was guarded by two giant stone lions. At midnight the town switched off the streetlights, which made Nova happy because total darkness meant she could see the Big Dipper lurking along the horizon, where the sun set shortly before dinner each night.

It was too nice.

The upstairs bathroom had a tub long enough to stretch out in. The kitchen always smelled of fresh-baked brownies or banana bread and the color television had a remote control. Most rooms had wall-to-wall carpeting. There were lots of windows through which the sun shone.

It was too much like a home.

Nova didn't want it to start feeling like home. Bridget always warned, "If it feels like home, it's harder to leave."

Nova hugged her teddy bear tighter, trying to picture her big sister in the bedroom beside her. What had Bridget been thinking, deciding to run away like that? It was already January 1986, and in August she'd be eighteen. Then Bridget could raise Nova herself, like they'd always planned.

Only Bridget was gone.

And Nova was lonely.

"You'll start school on Monday," new foster mother Francine warned during breakfast.

Nova hated new schools more than she hated new foster families. New schools always spent the first week or two testing her and always came to the same conclusions: "Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded."

Bridget hated the word retarded.

"My sister's not dumb," she'd tell anyone who'd listen. "She's a thinker, not a talker."

The truth was, Nova rarely spoke and when she did, she had difficulty controlling her volume, so sometimes she'd be whispering on a crowded playground and other times she'd be shouting in church. Even when she did manage to find the right sound, forming a whole word was its own challenge. She could say "Oh" or "Kay" but not "Okay." She could say "Wah" or "Ter" but not "Water." She could say "Coo" or "Kee" but not "Cookie." And sometimes when she'd try to say a simple word like "Cat" an entirely different word would come out, like "Boo," which didn't make sense to anyone, not even Bridget.

Most of the time Nova didn't bother to speak at all.

Rocking back and forth on top of the fluffy blankets in the bedroom she had all to herself, Nova wondered for the two millionth time where Bridget had gone and whether she would keep her promise to return in time to see the first teacher skyrocket into space.

"No matter where we end up," Bridget had said, "even if we have to be separated for a while, I'll come back to see NASA make history, okay? I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Both sisters had been dying to see Challenger launch ever since President Reagan announced the contest to find the perfect teacher over a year ago. Nova was glad the waiting was almost over. She wondered if Bridget was glad too.

Nova kissed NASA Bear's belly. His plastic bubble astronaut helmet pressed against her forehead. He had been a gift from their mama, who had very strange ideas about how the 1969 moon landing actually happened.

"Government orchestrated!" Mama liked to say. "All on a soundstage, babies, thanks to movie magic! Did you see the way the astronaut's boots kicked up dirt? The way the flag waved? There's no wind on the moon, girls! How was it waving? It was government orchestrated, that's how! That means the government made it up, to trick us!"

Their mama thought a lot of things were government orchestrated.

"Nova, honey?" foster mother Francine called through the cracked-open bedroom door. "How about we go to the store and get you some school clothes? You've almost grown out of everything the last family sent."

Most of what the last family had sent wasn't even hers, but they needed it to seem like they'd been providing more than fraying sweaters and too-small stretch pants so they sent along a big cardboard box full of clothes their other foster daughters were growing out of. They kept the heavy winter coat they'd bought for Nova and all the slouch socks Bridget had given her for her twelfth birthday.

The only clothes in the box Nova would willingly wear were three pairs of pj's, one pair of red overalls, and two T-shirts she'd inherited from her sister. The first had the words ONE SMALL STEP on the front with the moon landing date on the back, JULY 20, 1969. The second was from David Bowie's 1978 World Tour, black with red and blue print, which they'd found at a thrift shop.

Nova's other possessions included NASA Bear, Bridget's Walkman and favorite mix tape, the Little People figure who looked like an astronaut, the one they'd stolen from a previous foster home where they had so many Fisher Price sets no one would notice, a small spiral-bound notebook, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a few faded photographs, a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons, and a silver-banded mood ring with a sky-blue stone that didn't change color anymore. Francine and Billy had given Nova a toy box—her first-ever toy box—in which she could keep her treasures. It was a large wooden crate with JOANIE ROSE stenciled across the top in flowery Carnation Pink letters.

"It belonged to our daughter when she was little," Francine had explained. "Pink is Joanie's favorite color. She's so happy to have you here, Nova. She hated being the youngest and the only girl. Growing up with three big brothers was lonely, I think."

James, Joseph, and John. Those were the three big brothers. Shortly after Nova arrived at the Wests', Billy had pointed to a picture of the boys hanging on the wall above the television. "My three sons!" he'd said proudly. "Doctor James, Carpenter Joseph, and Recreation Director John."

Nova couldn't ask where the three brothers had gone, whether they'd disappeared like Bridget. Maybe they went to the moon, thought Nova, picturing the boys from the picture floating weightlessly above a crater. She imagined James with a stethoscope and Joseph with a hammer but didn't know what a recreation director might have.

"Every Christmas Joanie wrote Santa asking for a little sister, but we had our hands full then."

Nova glanced down at Francine's hands. They weren't full anymore. They were placed upon the wooden lid of the toy box. Her nails were long and shiny and she wore three rings, two sparkly gold ones on her left hand to show she was married, and one thin silver band on her right pinkie. Her fingers ran over the letters spelling JOANIE ROSE like there was something in the box much more important than toys.

"When the weather gets nicer," Francine had continued, "we'll buy some wood stain and paint and have it redone with your name."

Nova stared at the toy box and imagined her name in place of Joanie's. NOVA BEA VEZINA. It was a perfect name. Bridget said so, and Bridget never lied.

"Nova?" asked Francine again, poking her head into the bedroom, tugging Nova free from the memory. "Clothes shopping?"

Nova shook her head one-two-three-four times. She did not want to go clothes shopping. She hated trying things on, pants that pushed against her belly and socks that touched her ankles and shirts with itchy tags and dresses—oh, the dresses! Nothing could be worse than something she had to wear tights under. Tights stretched from her waist to her feet and always, always had a seam line across her toes. She hated lines across her toes.

Francine stepped all the way into the room, which made Nova hug NASA Bear tighter. "Mrs. Steele told me how you feel about clothes, but we need to find at least enough to get you through this first week of school, right? You can't wear jammies forever."

Mrs. Steele had been Bridget and Nova's social worker for most of the years they'd been in foster care. She was okay. Except she used the R-word a lot.

Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.

Bridget hated the R-word.


Nova let out an involuntary squeak. That happened sometimes. She couldn't help making noise, even when she was trying her hardest not to.

Francine sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, facing Nova.

"I'm sorry. I know this must be very difficult. But Billy and I are so happy to have you here. So is Joanie."

Billy was Francine's husband, Nova's new foster father. Joanie was their daughter, home from college on winter break.

"Mm," said Nova, nodding her head ever so slightly. She imagined what Bridget would say: "Suck it up, Super Nova, 'cause you can't go to school nekkid."

Nekkid. Nova's lips curled into a smile, then parted to let out a high screech, followed by several hiccupy squeals. Her body twitched, her hands flailed. Bridget loved the word nekkid.

"Are you laughing?" asked Francine, her smiling growing into a grin. "I haven't heard you laugh before! I love your laugh!" Francine laughed too, for some reason, so Nova kept right on flailing and twitching and laughing about Bridget and nekkid. She laughed until tears stung her eyes. She used NASA Bear's matted furry leg to wipe them away. Nekkid. Oh, Bridget!

"Come with me, Nova. You can pick out whatever's comfortable. If you want to buy nothing but T-shirts and overalls, that's fine. No dresses, I promise."

Francine stood, holding out her hand. Nova mulled this over for a moment before taking Francine's hand and allowing herself to be led out of the bedroom, not loosening her grip on NASA Bear.

Maybe clothes shopping with Francine wouldn't be too bad.

Maybe they could buy slouch socks.

JAN 18, 1986

Dear Bridget,

T-minus ten days until Challenger launch.

Today is Saturday. I don't know how long it's been since I got here, but you missed Christmas. I missed you on Christmas. It was not Christmas without you.

I'm sorry I did not write before today. My hands and arms and shoulders were hurting and I was tired. Plus maybe I was angry.

I am angry because you are gone.

I am angry because Christmas was not Christmas without you.

I am angry because only you can understand my letters, because everyone else calls them scribbles, because without you here to see the words I try to make, it's like I'm writing to nobody.

I'm ready for you to come back.

I have a new foster family.

The mom is Francine West. She is tall and skinny with light skin and light hair. The dad is Billy West. He is shorter and rounder with dark skin and no hair. They have a daughter named Joanie West who lives here, except when she's at college, plus three grown-up sons who live far away.

Francine says I am their first-ever foster child.

I laughed today and she did not yell "Stop making that weird noise!" like our last foster mother. Francine laughed when I laughed but it did not feel mean like when kids laugh.

Will you be mad, Bridget, if I laugh and you're not here?

Will you be mad if I laugh with Francine?

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.

This is a nice house, Bridget. There are four big bedrooms. One is for Billy and Francine, one is for Joanie, one is for me, and they said the downstairs one is for guests. My bedroom has a door in the back of the closet that goes to the attic, which is my favorite part of the house, even though there is a lot of dust that makes me sneeze. The attic is dark with sloped wooden ceilings and a round window at the far end. It is a perfect place to pretend to be in space.

In the upstairs living room, they have cable. Have you seen cable? Cable is where there are extra TV channels and one is called Nickelodeon, special for kids. Nickelodeon has a show of The Little Prince. The same one from our book! Joanie puts it on for me every single day and does not get mad when it makes me so happy I jump on the couch and squeak and flap. She just says "Sit quietly, Nova," and then I try to sit quietly.

The launch is in ten days, Bridget. It was in the newspaper this morning. Billy read it out loud: "T-minus ten days until Challenger launches!"

I am glad it is ten days. I can count up to ten and I can count down from ten. Ten is my best number! Every countdown starts with ten.

This means you have ten days to find me so we can watch it together like you promised.

Maybe if you decide it's okay to be a foster kid again, Francine and Billy will let you have the guest room.

It does not lead to the attic or even the basement, but it has carpeting.

Please come back.

I miss you.


Your Super Nova

Francine held Nova's hand as they walked up the stairs to Jefferson Middle School, a rectangular two-story building with a brick façade and windows that stretched from ceiling to floor on either side of centered double doors. Nova hugged NASA Bear with her free arm. Billy led the way, talking the entire time.

"You'll love it, Nova. All our kids went to Jefferson from fifth grade through eighth. That was back before they moved the fifth graders into the elementary school building to make way for more specials. Do you know about specials?"

Nova made her "Mm" sound, which the Wests were learning to recognize as a yes. Some of her old schools called classes specials if they were taught by teachers who were not the classroom teacher. Other schools called them electives or extras or enrichment courses.

"Here they offer all the regulars—music, art, gym—but they've also got home economics for the girls, and woodshop for the boys, and once a week they have X-Block."

Nova cocked her head to the side.

"I know what you're thinking," said Billy. "What the heck is X-Block?"

Nova smiled. That was what she was thinking—minus "the heck."

"X-Block is the most special of the specials. You can sign up for a fun class you want and you get to pick a new one each quarter. They started that when our son John was in sixth grade. It was his idea. He wrote up a formal proposal and presented it to the teachers during a faculty meeting. We were so proud of him…"

Billy's voice cracked. Francine picked up where he left off.

"…for taking the initiative. Johnny was a shy, sweet boy who always wanted to learn new things but had trouble making friends. This helped him meet kids with similar interests."

"Now he's a recreation director," said Billy. "Planning activities for at-risk kids!" He gave Nova's shoulder a squeeze. She pulled away.

Francine continued the explanation.

"During X-Block, kids can decide whether they want to do band, chorus, soccer, softball, archery, book club, dance…We talked to Mrs. Pierce; she's going to be your special education teacher, and she said kids who are more—more like you—they usually stay in the special ed room during X-Block, but we thought…well…"

"We thought you'd prefer something fun!" Billy finished. "They have a planetarium here and offer astronomy this semester, so we requested that for you. Do you know about astronomy? Have you ever been inside a planetarium?"

Nova tapped her right middle finger and her forefinger rapidly against her chin. She hadn't been in a planetarium before, but of course she knew all about astronomy. The study of stars, planets, moons, comets, galaxies…Bridget had taught her lots about astronomy.

"Mm," she answered finally, even though the answer was technically half yes, half no.

Francine and Billy smiled. They had reached the double doors. Billy knocked on the glass. From inside the building, a heavyset man wearing a blazer with jeans was making his way toward them. He opened the door.

"If it isn't Mr. and Mrs. West!" The man shook Billy's hand and kissed Francine on the cheek. Nova promptly stuck her hand out like Billy, ready to shake, because there was no way she wanted this man's beard and lips anywhere near her face.

"How polite!" exclaimed the man, taking Nova's hand. "You Must Be Nova!"

"Mm," said Nova. She was certainly using that word an awful lot today.

"My Name Is Principal Dowling!" Like so many of her former teachers and foster parents, Principal Dowling emphasized each word as if Nova couldn't hear well. "Nice To Meet You! Ready For The Grand Tour?" He put his face close to hers so she had to look at him. She did not make her "Mm" sound or look at his eyes, but she did notice his front teeth, which were crooked like her own, before shifting her gaze to the yellow-and-blue-tiled floor.

"We're ready," said Francine. "Lead the way!"

The school was as flat and rectangular on the inside as it was on the outside. From the main entrance, hallways stretched to the left and to the right, and a wide staircase stood before them.

"We had a long talk with the powers that be and determined it would be best for you to go back to sixth grade," explained Billy. Nova narrowed her eyes. She was already halfway through seventh grade. Why go backward? You only went backward when you were counting down to lift-off. Did this mean she would repeat fifth grade next year and fourth the year after that? She pictured herself seventeen like Bridget, squished into a kindergarten desk, and frowned.

"You Will Love Sixth Grade!" Principal Dowling was smiling with too many (crooked) teeth. Nova covered her ears and hummed but she could still hear him talking to her foster parents.

"As you know, upstairs we have seventh grade, eighth grade, and the planetarium, but unfortunately Mr. Mindy keeps it locked up when he's not here, so she'll have to wait and see on Wednesday. That's when sixth grade has X-Block." He turned to Billy. "Did you tell her about X-Block?"

"We sure did!" said Billy, smiling. He nudged her playfully. "Right, Nova?"

"Mm," she said.

It seemed like an okay school. The walls were lined with recently repainted lockers. (Nova knew they were recently repainted because she touched one and got paint on her finger, which she licked off. It did not taste as orange as it looked.) Above the lockers and on teachers' doors were posters and projects by students who'd designed their own book covers. Nova recognized one title right away: Bridge to Terabithia. Bridget had read her the first two chapters but ended up finishing it on her own one night while Nova was asleep. She'd apologized in the morning, explaining she "just had to" know the ending. Nova didn't mind. Bridget had promised they'd start A Wrinkle in Time next, and Nova already loved it for its dusky blue cover with green and black circles.

"Sad book." Francine tapped the Bridge to Terabithia poster. "I don't think kids should read books about other kids dying."

Kids dying.

Nova shuddered.

Kids should not be dying. Bridget had taught her that last spring when she'd done a project on starvation in Ethiopia.

"This shouldn't happen." Bridget slammed her research book shut. "Not to kids. Kids don't deserve to die. Leave the dying for the people who start the wars that create the famines, not the kids who can't do a damn thing about it!"

Nova didn't understand words like starvation and famine and didn't have the first idea where Ethiopia was (far from their home in New Hampshire, she guessed), but she understood that it was bad, because Bridget swore. And Bridget almost never swore. Not in front of Nova.

"Do you see?" asked Billy, jostling Nova out of the memory. He was pointing at another poster, which featured a girl jumping over a brook. "That's what your classmates are learning."

Nova couldn't understand all of the words on their projects, but she could tell that these kids weren't reading picture books, which were the only ones teachers ever gave her. They usually weren't even good picture books. Each boring book had two or three boring words on each boring page under boring pictures. See cat. See cat run. Run, cat, run!

Nova hated those books.

On Sale
May 5, 2020
Page Count
240 pages