Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos is a must read novel, especially for educators. Nova is a 12 year old girl with autism. She’s nonverbal and has been in foster care with her older sister, Bridget, for years. As Bridget approaches her 18th birthday, she runs away. Nova is on her own with a new foster family. Being away from Bridget is different for Nova, who has been called Bridget’s shadow.
While Nova is nonverbal, that doesn’t mean she is lacking intelligence. Bridget always says, “My sister is a thinker, not a talker.” Bridget is always there to remind people how smart Nova is, but without her present, teachers and case workers think the worse about her.
But Nova’s new foster family sees how smart she is. Nova’s been told by Bridget to never get attached to new foster families because they will be sent to the next place eventually. But the latest placement seems different to Nova. Could this be a forever home?
Nova loves everything to do with space, and the novel takes place in the days leading up to the Challenger launch in 1986. We all know what will happen that day, and we know the pain it will cause Nova. The constant countdown to the Challenger tragedy is one that eats at your soul as launch day gets closer. As Nova gets more excited, the reader is filled with dread. Nova knows everything about the Challenger mission, and she’s been waiting a long time for this day. Two great things are supposed to happen on launch day. First, she gets to watch the first teacher go to space. Second, her sister promised she would be back to watch the launch no matter what.
The book is a great insight into the life of someone who is nonverbal but who can still hear, understand, and read things around her. It’s an eye opening read that shows the power of believing in someone who is different. The narration from a girl who is nonverbal will show the pain students feel when we make assumptions about them. Planet Earth is Blue shows the importance of treating everyone with respect. It’s also a call for educators to treat each student as a learner.
As I move into a faculty position at Austin Peay, I plan to use this novel in my courses. It shows what students with disabilities face in our school system. While special education has come a long way since the 1980s, people still hold views about what students with disabilities can do. It’s why Kodi Lee, the singer who is blind and has autism, recently went viral for his golden buzzer performance on America’s Got Talent. When he walks out on stage, people think that he can’t possibly play the piano and sing. But novels like Planet Earth is Blue and videos of Kodi give me hope that we will see people with disabilities in a better light. Educators, please pick up this book and put yourself in Nova’s shoes. You won’t regret it.