How to Become A Planet – Nicole Melleby – Algonquin Young Readers – Published 25 May 2021
For Pluto, summer has always started with a trip to the planetarium. It’s the launch to her favorite season, which also includes visits to the boardwalk arcade, working in her mom’s pizzeria, and her best friend Meredith’s birthday party. But this summer, none of that feels possible.
A month before the end of the school year, Pluto’s frightened mom broke down Pluto’s bedroom door. What came next were doctor’s appointments, a diagnosis of depression, and a big black hole that still sits on Pluto’s chest, making it too hard to do anything.
Pluto can’t explain to her mom why she can’t do the things she used to love. And it isn’t until Pluto’s dad threatens to make her move with him to the city—where he believes his money, in particular, could help—that Pluto becomes desperate enough to do whatever it takes to be the old Pluto again.
She develops a plan and a checklist: If she takes her medication, if she goes to the planetarium with her mom for her birthday, if she successfully finishes her summer school work with her tutor, if she goes to Meredith’s birthday party . . . if she does all the things that “normal” Pluto would do, she can stay with her mom in Jersey. But it takes a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new (and cute) friend with a checklist and plan of her own for Pluto to learn that there is no old and new Pluto. There’s just her.
How To Become A Planet is a novel about anxiety and depression, friendship and gender identity exploration for upper middle graders. Perfect for students just transitioning into high school and confronted with new levels of expectations, new hormones and feelings, and dealing with mental health and complicated feelings from family breakdown and changes in friendship groups.
Pluto has depression and anxiety and at the moment that’s all she really knows about herself. She struggles to get out of bed, and certainly doesn’t want to spend her summer break at her mother’s pizzeria and with a tutor so she can go to eighth grade next year. When Pluto unexpectedly makes a new friend, they each make a list of things they want to do this summer. Pluto’s list is all about returning to the girl she was before her diagnosis. For Fallon, her list is about telling her mother how she feels about having long hair and wearing dresses.
Pluto starts to develop romantic feelings for Fallon – funny feelings in her tummy and wanting to touch Fallon’s face. No labels are applied, but Pluto is supported by and identifies with her tutor who is in a homosexual relationship. Again, no labels are applied to Fallon’s desire to cut her hair short, and wear her brothers’ clothes, but these discussions and feelings are a major part of the book, giving readers something to identify with and relate to without applying labels.
Mental health is also a huge topic in this book. Pluto is open with the reader about her feelings and her diagnosis of depression and anxiety. At first, she is reluctant to take her medication or engage with her therapist, but by the end of the book, she is using a variety of strategies to help herself get through each day. Instead of pinpointing anything as the one things that ‘works’, the book is more about Pluto accepting herself and being okay with not returning to the girl she was before her diagnosis.
Pluto is very close to her mother and this relationship features in the book. Pluto feels like her mother doesn’t understand what she is going through, but isn’t sure she wants to move to live with her dad either.
Friendship, the sweet start of romantic feelings, growing up, facing high school, and struggling to find your place in the world, How To Become A Planet is an important upper middle grade novel to include on library shelves.
The publishers provided an advanced readers copy of this book for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.
Category: Middle Grade Fiction
Themes: Friendship, identity, depression, anxiety, mother-daughter relationships, mental health, LGBT+, gender identity, sexual identity, space.
Reading age guide: Ages 9 and up.
Advisory: References to armed robbery, injury, trauma and gun violence.
Published: 25 May 2021 by Algonquin Young Readers.
Format: Hardcover, ebook, audiobook. 288 pages.