Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review: Greetings from Planet Earth

It's 1977 and twelve-year-old Theo is obsessed with space. So he's excited when his science teacher, Mr. Meyer, tells the class that the Voyager probes will "each...carry a golden record: a message, in pictures and sounds, from Earth to any aliens out there in space." Mr. Meyer charges the class to bring in one picture and one minute of sound conveying "what they thought was most important about Earth."

Without getting into what an amazing teacher Mr. Meyer is, let me tell you that this project gets Theo thinking. And he has quite a bit to figure out. You see, Theo's father never came home from the Vietnam War and Theo's mother doesn't want to talk about it. In fact, she tears up whenever Theo asks a question. Fortunately, Theo's grandmother, JeeBee, recognizes that Theo wants answers and helps him by talking about Theo's father and sharing his letters from Vietnam.

As Theo searches for the answer to what is most important about Earth, he becomes more and more frustrated because he doesn't know what's most important about himself and his family. He finds out his mother has hidden all his father's letters to her and to Theo and his sister. JeeBee knows the answers, but she's still not to the end of the story. Theo's frustration boils to such a point that he destroys his airplane and spacecraft model collection.

Barbara Kerley skillfully weaves Theo's thoughts about space and space craft, told in first person, with Theo's story, told in third. Theo is a compelling character, thoughtful and bright, and we sympathize with his search for answers. The ending is a complete surprise, yet utterly plausible.

The parallels between 1977 and 2007 are difficult to ignore, as is the thematic role of secrets in the novel. Secrets, no matter how well meaning, damage a family and a community. And they're particularly dangerous for a child like Theo. As Mr. Meyer tells him, "I've met a lot of people in my life, Theo. People who truly examine things--examine themselves, even. And people who don't. I see it in school all the time--the kids who memorize for the test and the kids who really want to understand." Theo wants to understand, even if it is more difficult.

Greetings from Planet Earth is highly recommended for children ages nine to fourteen. It's the perfect Middle School novel--ideally suited for kids who are just beginning to question everything themselves.
I requested this review copy from the publisher. I enjoyed Greetings from Planet Earth so much, I've invited Barbara Kerley to an interview here.

Check out Jules' interview with Barbara Kerley over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.