"Beauty’s only skin deep
It goes just so far ‘cause
You’re only pretty as you feel”
--Jefferson Airplane (1971)
Do you remember when Dr. J. ruled the NBA; when everyone played Donkey Kong and hacky-sack, and watched Family Ties? Those of us who are now forty and beyond lived through those Reagan years. And we vividly recall the 1986 Challenger catastrophe.
For me, it was half a lifetime ago. I was the bookkeeper for a health food manufacturer, and we had the plant radio tuned to the launch that day. Like the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations of my childhood, living through the Challenger explosion is one of those events that marks my personal history.
Late last night after the horns and fireworks, just a couple of hours into this new decade, I reached the end of WE DREAM OF SPACE, a can’t-put-it-down middle school-age tale against which I will now have to measure the rest of my 2020 reading. I will long remember its jaw-dropping portraits of toxic parents. It takes place during the month in which the 1986 Challenger disaster was witnessed by me, my Boomer peers, and millions of American schoolchildren.
WE DREAM OF SPACE features the three Thomas siblings who are each in their own separate orbits, each employing coping strategies to survive at home. Cash is resigning himself to being a failure. He’s repeating seventh grade, the same grade in which his younger twin siblings are now enrolled. Bird is an overachieving“good girl” who tries to remain invisible. Fitch, whose birth name is Henry, is an angry kid whose male friends make things worse by mercilessly teasing him about an ungainly female classmate who has been nice to him.
“‘Hey, Vern. Hey, Henry.’ She smiled and half waved as she sat down. She looked different today, but Fitch couldn’t figure out why and he didn’t want to spend too much time studying her face for an answer. ‘Did you have a good weekend,’ she asked.
He decided to ignore the question. Let Vern answer, since he was such a ladies’ man.
‘I certainly did,’ said Vern. ‘What about you, Henry?’
Vern kicked the back of his chair.
Fitch bounced his knee up and down, up and down.
Andrea Blumenthal, who sat in front of Amanda, glanced between him and Amanda and smiled knowingly. It was a smile like Rachel’s. Fitch could practically read her thoughts. You make a cute couple.
He mumbled something like ‘yes.’
This ‘Henry’ thing was getting out of hand. It really was.
An angry buzzing pulsed under his skin.
‘My weekend was okay,’ said Amanda, though no one had asked. And now she launched into a breathless description of all she’d done--she went to the mall with her mother, she bought new sneakers, she rented movies--as Fitch faced forward, suddenly mesmerized by Ms. Salonga standing at the classroom door, his knee bouncing up and down and up and down, his skin buzzing, beads of sweat pushing their way out of his neck. He couldn’t really hear anything
Amanda was saying, but one word rang like a bell and set his fingertips on fire. Henry, Henry, Henry.
‘...do you like movies, Henry?...what do you think, Henry?
It was the last ‘Henry,’ the final ‘Henry’ right before the tardy bell, that set him off. Flicked a switch. Set fire to every cell in his body. He shot out of his chair with so much force that his desk shook and wobbled out of place, and he faced her, this Amanda, this girl who had ruined his mornings and now his afternoons, this girl with her round, ruddy cheeks and her big hair, this girl who just had to talk about his red face, who played Skee-Ball and gave him stickers, and he realized now why she looked different--she was wearing makeup, makeup. His red cheeks blazed. He clenched his fists at his sides, took a quick, deep breath, and yelled, with all the rage firing through his body: ‘My name is Fitch, you FAT, STUPID COW! Fitch! If we’re calling each other by our real names, I guess I should call you Chewbacca!’
A piece of spittle flew out of his mouth and rested on his chin. He picked up his notebook, the one with the TIE fighter doodle that started it all, and hurled it across the room. It hit one of Ms. Salonga’s bookcases, fluttered open like a butterfly, then fell facedown. Someone screamed--a short, quick scream of shock--and then the bell rang and everything was silent, as if he’d stepped into a deep void in space.”
I wish that books like this had been available to me in middle school. Had I been able to read the likes of WE DREAM OF SPACE, I might have felt less alone in my struggles at home and might have been able to recognize and articulate my own family's dysfunction. My high school years and the following decades might have been much happier for me and for those around me.
The Thomas parents verbally abuse one another in expletive-laden tirades while repeatedly dressing down the three children for minor transgressions. They never acknowledge their children’s successes, instead scorning and demeaning them. The father is a jerk who sits in front of the TV. The mother, a former cheerleader, projects her own eating disorder onto her perfectly fit daughter, attempting to infect Bird with anxiety about her eating habits.
Over the years, a couple of notable books dealing with toxic parenting have had lasting meaning for me. For example, Cynthia Voight’s THE RUNNER (1983), features a nightmare father and climaxes with Abigail Tillerman and a telephone call about her son’s demise. It all still resonates, making it the most memorable book out of my all-time favorite series. I also can’t forget Heather Hoodhood finally reaching the point when her father’s hell leads her to run away from home in Gary Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS (2007).
A notable aspect of WE DREAM OF SPACE are the chapters in which Bird engages in imaginary internal dialogue with Challenger Mission Specialist Judith Resnik. Bird, a budding scientist who dreams of one day commanding a space flight, feels an intimate connection with the professional female astronaut aboard the Challenger. Having been chosen as one of the students permitted to leave class and watch the Challenger launch, Bird is thereby witness to her hero’s disintegration on live TV.
It is Bird’s nihilistic reaction to the tragedy, her inability to make sense of what has happened, that leads her two siblings to come to her rescue and create real family within their crumbled family structure
Many tweens will be forever indebted to whoever turns them on to this brave exploration into the psychology of family dynamics and how parents’ dysfunction plays out in their children’s lives. I guarantee that you’ll be hearing a lot about WE DREAM OF SPACE in the coming months.
400 pages 978-0-06-27430-3 Ages 9-13
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
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