Clarion, 2015 183 pgs.
Newbery and Printz Honor author scored a National Book Award this year for this sad tale of loss, overcoming the past, and redemption. Sixth-grade Maine farm-boy, Jack's family agrees to take in a troubled foster eighth-grade boy named Joseph. Joseph was given drugs and attacked a teacher while under the influence, sending him to juvie, where he was somehow abused by the other boys. But this is not his biggest secret. Joseph, though only in eighth grade, is a father. The baby, Jupiter, has been put in foster care, awaiting adoption, and Joseph is not allowed by the law to see her. He is dealing with the loss of his former girlfriend, the hole in his heart where his baby is missing, former abuse from his father and juvie boys, and adjusting to a new school, where everyone knows his history and has made blind judgments about him. Joseph takes to the routine and peace of farm life and slowly begins to trust Jack and his family. At last he opens up about his past and they start to merge as a family, finally choosing to help Joseph connect with Jupiter. The legal process is slow. When the social worker accidentally slips the town where Jupiter is staying, Joseph runs away, trudging through the harsh Maine winter to find her. The family is eventually reunited and all seems well. Peace is destroyed when an unexpected and most unwelcome guest shows-up at the house, threatening the tranquility that Joseph has finally achieved, driving the novel to its surprising and heart-wrenching conclusion.
Gary Schmidt is a consistently excellent author. He does not stick to a style or genre, but does stay with an intended age and always maintains a high level of quality in his work. Orbiting Jupiter did not win the National Book Award for nothing. It is a well-crafted emotional journey from beginning to end. The Maine setting is an integrate feature to the book and serves as a desolate and snowy backdrop for the morose tale. It is interesting that Schmidt chooses to tell Joseph's story through the voice of Jack, adding a further dimension to the narrative. We peel the layers away from Joseph, as Jack learns more about his new brother and we feel the love and loss right along with him. I must warn the reader: this book is a tear-jerker. There are many opportunities for tears, but the ending will have even the most most hardened-heart breaking for the characters. Yes, there are deaths (don't the best books contain at least one?), but it isn't a young girl dying of cancer and isn't the main focal point of the book, so I didn't roll my eyes muttering "not again". Best of all, this is a book featuring boys and meant for their readership, although girls will like it too. It also will work well for classroom use, since the novel contains foreshadowing, imagery, and anti-bullying themes, as well as offering a cautionary message about teen (tween?) pregnancy. I appreciate how the novel did not get muddled up in other story lines. It was a straight plot, beautifully constructed and executed. Gary Schmidt can't swing a cat without winning an award, so it's bound to get something at the Newbery/Printz Awards announcements in January.