HOW TO BECOME A PLANET, by Nicole Melleby, Algonquin Young Readers, May 25, 2021, Hardcover, $16.95 (ages 9-12)
A teen struggles to find herself within the confines of her newly diagnosed anxiety and depression in Nicole Melleby’s How to Become a Planet.
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. —Synopsis provided by Algonquin Young Readers
How to Become a Planet is one of a growing list of middle-grade books that tackle mental health issues — anxiety, depression, OCD, ADD/ADHD, etc. The focus ranges from parents and siblings to friends and neighbors, and each offers a different path through whatever issue a particular character is facing. These books can help readers feel at ease with their own personal situations, whatever they might be.
Author Nicole Melleby does an excellent job conveying the pure exhaustion, stress, exasperation and anger that come with depression and anxiety. But because she does such an excellent job, it’s not an easy read. Often, as the reader, I found myself almost too inside of Pluto’s head. I found it effected my own mood, requiring me to read in spurts rather than my normal pace.
Melleby easily sets a scene, and her writing is smooth and full of emotion. Pluto feels authentic, as do her actions/reactions. Pluto’s parents come across as annoying, but given that they’re seen through Pluto’s lens, that’s not unexpected.
Another key element of How to Become a Planet is Melleby’s look at queer exploration. This storyline is as gentle and sweet as they come, and fits naturally within the confines of the book. It also adds some much needed lightness throughout.
Because mental illness is never a one-size-fits-all situation, different books are going to be more accessible to some than others. In the case of How to Become a Planet, I struggled. It’s not a good fit for me, but it could be for you. I’d try the first few chapters and see how it fits for your/ your child’s situation.
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