Today wraps up our discussion of middle-grade novels being touted as possible contenders for the 2016 Newbery Award. The awards will be announced early this year: January 11. So on Saturday Betsy and Janie will post their highly-anticipated predictions. Check back next week to see how we did!
Betsy: Gary D. Schmidt is yet another formerly-honored Newbery author with a new title out this year. Orbiting Jupiter tackles some heavy subjects indeed in its short, suspenseful pages. 14-year-old Joseph Brooks joins 12-year-old Jack Hurd’s family as a foster son. Joseph has quite a past: his father is violent and inept, he’s already a father himself at his young age, and he’s spent time in juvie. Despite this, Joseph is a tremendously sympathetic character in many ways, and the reader grows to understand him through Jack’s eyes. This novel is for mature readers, those ready to discuss teen pregnancy, family violence, grief, loneliness, abandonment, and a host of related issues.
Janie, it’s hard to know where to start with this book without revealing all sorts of plot spoilers. Let’s start with the characters of Jack and Joseph. Do they work? Are they believable as characters, particularly given their backstories? In particular, what do you think of their ages?
Janie: You can’t help liking Jack. He’s obviously benefited from loving, understanding parents who have somehow instilled open-hearted compassion in him. Mr. and Mrs. Hurd have taken in foster children in the past (though it’s been a long time since) and once they hear about Joseph, they immediately offer to take him. That’s actually the first red flag for me: Joseph has obvious “issues” and was expelled from his last juvenile home for attacking a teacher (this is all in the first few pages, so I’m not giving much away). Wouldn’t the parents want to think about it first, especially with a younger child in the home? Apparently they go on instinct, and their instincts are correct because, as you mentioned earlier, Joseph has a noble soul lurking under that hair-triggered exterior. He’s very guarded and solemn and can’t stand to be touched, but this is all because of what’s been done to him. (Some of that is unstated, but we understand his father is an abuser and the boys in juvie regularly beat up on him.)
Well, okay, I get that, but Joseph is not an entirely believable character to me. We know, very early on, that he impregnated a girl when they both were 13, but she was the only lovely (and lovable) person he had ever known. Afterwards, he stakes his whole identity on her and their infant daughter; they are his north star. His love is presented as naive but sincere–still, I don’t understand how Joseph could sincerely love at that point in his life, since he hasn’t known much love. It’s something you learn. His age isn’t too unusual, actually: one of my nephews fathered a child at age 14 and it wasn’t out of love at all! I’m trying not to be cynical here, and it’s certainly not impossible for God to gift a young man with an exceptionally tender heart. But original sin seems to have skipped over Joseph, and I have a hard time buying it.
Betsy: Interesting point, Janie—it’s as if Joseph is just the victim of other people’s “original sin,” scarred but still tender. I think the age that bothered me (from a literary standpoint) is Jack’s: because a 12-year-old is narrating the story, it’s tempting to think of this as a “12-year-old book” or even younger. And it isn’t. There is so much going on in this book that more mature audiences are a better fit, both in terms of handling the content and being able to wrestle with the ideas and themes. Certainly one can draw loose parallels with the Josephs in the Bible: the Old Testament Joseph is the victim of many harsh circumstances and emerges faithful. The NT Joseph is similarly at the mercy of hard Providence in that his betrothed has a baby, and they must flee abruptly to Egypt. And yet, both of those Josephs are used by God as direct agents through which the Lord’s redemption of his people is wrought. One stewards food for the starving; the other nurtures the Son of God himself. In Orbiting Jupiter, Joseph is a victim and—while you might argue that redemption for his daughter and those close to him is brought about through his agency—it’s largely a passive agency in that he is again a victim of unbelievable circumstances. This latest circumstance is heart breaking and leaves the reader feeling somewhat betrayed. Perhaps if Joseph were a more active participant in the working of that final redemption, we as readers would feel more satisfied? What do you think about the biblical parallels and our reaction as readers to the final chapters in the book?
Janie: He’s not totally passive–remember he makes a sacrificial decision in the end that may have saved Jack’s life. That’s why the author rounds out the story by quoting John 15:13, making Joseph a kind of Christ figure (it’s really hard not to give away too much here!). I think Jack might be the age he is because the author wants us to see Joseph’s story through more innocent eyes. Jack doesn’t have all the hard or edgy preconceptions an adult or cynical teen might have, so the focus is softer.
I’m very interested in what you said about the biblical examples. The comparison with the NT Joseph is actually made in the book, but I hadn’t thought of the OT Joseph: as you say, a victim who overcomes harsh circumstances through faithfulness. Joseph Brooks is also faithful—his devotion to his daughter is almost supernatural—but he’s hardly rewarded for it. I agree with you that the ending feels like our strings have been pulled a little too hard. The novel has its strong points: the writing is beautifully understated and I appreciate that many of the adults try to help Joseph any way they can. But it seems the deck is stacked against him. I’m left with the same question I had after reading The Nest: What message are middle-school kids supposed to take away from this?
And what might the Newbery selection committee make of it? We’ll soon find out! In the meantime, see our discussions of Drowned City, Gone Crazy in Alabama, The Thing about Jellyfish, The Nest, and Most Dangerous.