Nicole Melleby debuted on the children's literature scene in 2019 with her acclaimed middle grade novel, Hurricane Season, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Now we're thrilled to reveal the cover of her next book, How to Become a Planet, a heart-wrenching yet joy-filled story about the summer that changes everything for a girl named Pluto.
Here’s the official synopsis of How to Become a Planet from Algonquin, Melleby’s publisher:
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.
Pick up a copy of How to Become a Planet from your local bookstore or library on May 25, 2021. In the meantime, you can see the incredible cover of How to Become a Planet, which was created by David Curtis, and read a Q&A with Melleby and an exclusive excerpt from the book. Just scroll down!
What was it like to see finished cover of How to Become a Planet for the first time?
First and foremost, I have never been so excited to have the letter O in my name before! David's art is stunning; the first time I saw the cover I didn't even know where to look first. The colors, the planets, Pluto-as-Pluto! This is probably the smallest thing, but I also immediately was drawn to Pluto's little flipflops and the way her toe is curved to hold it on her foot! I seriously couldn't have asked for a better cover. It's gorgeous and absolutely something that would have pulled me to a book when I was young and browsing the shelves at a bookstore.
Was How to Become a Planet the working title of this novel all the way through the creative process for you?
This was the first of the three of my published books for which the working title actually ended up being the finished title, and it came about in kind of a boring but amusing way: When I started writing Pluto's story, I knew that I wanted the main character to have depression, and I knew that I wanted her name to be Pluto. When I was a kid, Pluto-the-planet was still a planet, and while I knew it's not considered one anymore, I didn't really know why, so I Googled it to find out. I typed into the search bar: "How to become a planet." It all kind of clicked into place from there.
Like your previous books, Hurricane Season and In the Role of Brie Hutchens, How to Become a Planet is rooted in the experience of an authentic and nuanced female protagonist. Could you introduce us to Pluto and where she's at when readers meet her? Are there any pieces of you in here?
At the start of the novel, Pluto has just gotten a diagnosis for depression and anxiety. The summer is just beginning, but she hasn't been to school in over a month; she hasn't been texting with her friends in just as long; she's pretty much shut herself down. Now that it's summer—and her mom has a pizzeria on the boardwalk to run, and Pluto is now on medication—her mom isn't letting her isolate herself anymore. It's a struggle for them both, and Pluto can't help but compare how last summer (and all the summers before it) started and felt with how it feels now. And she feels kind of helpless because of it; she doesn't know how to be her old self again.
My second book, In the Role of Brie Hutchens, was probably my most personal book: I put a lot of myself into Brie, which is always challenging and hits different emotionally while writing. While I can absolutely empathize with Pluto, and while I wanted to explore summer from a Jersey beach kid's perspective (which was my life growing up), Pluto-the-person is very different, personality-wise, from me. She makes choices I wouldn't; she's gentle in ways I'm, well, not; and I've never been a big science buff (I actually had to do a LOT of astronomy research for this book!).
What are some things you love about writing middle grade books and writing for middle-grade readers?
I write very purposely about mental illness and LGBTQ+ characters, and I love being able to connect with my middle-grade readers about that. I think that, with mental illness especially, people tend to treat it like an adult issue, but it's not, and I want my readers (and my LGBTQ+ readers especially) to know that I see them and that they aren't alone. I've done school visits where kids come right up to me, open and honest in ways I couldn't imagine at that age, and they tell me exactly what it is they love about my work—why it's important to them. And while I will always say yes, I write books for the kid I used to be, I mostly write books for the kids who need them now—who need much different things than I did and who are so, so excited that there's a place for them on the shelves.
As a fellow self-avowed Jersey girl, I have to ask you about the New Jersey-ness of Pluto's story. What are some things you love about New Jersey that people who've never lived or visited there might not know about? How do they manifest in How to Become a Planet?
There was a poem in the Asbury Park Press about growing up on the Jersey shore that I heard when I was a kid that started with the line, "Beach kids feel no pain. . . ." that's always stuck with me. Obviously that's not true—we felt pain, all of us—but there was still something so magical about spending our days at the water.
I think people tend to think about two things when they hear Jersey Shore: Snooki and the rest of the MTV crew, and the tourist-heavy fancy beaches people drive down to on the weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For us, though, the beaches were—are—home. The Keansburg boardwalk, where Pluto's mom's pizzeria is, was where I went to countless birthday parties, just like Pluto and her best friend Meredith. My dad's first job was at the Olde Heidelberg hot dog joint, which I name-dropped in the book, because it's still there!
That feeling of being a beach kid in the summer is what I wanted for Pluto—even if she can't experience it like she used to, the beach is still home. I think it'll always feel that way for me, too.
When it finally came after 180 long days, the first day of summer break didn’t matter to Pluto. The countdown she’d made with Meredith still read 34 Days Until Freedom!!! because Pluto hadn’t been to school in over a month. She hadn’t had to worry about end-of-the-year pool parties, or endless have a great summers, or Meredith begging her to just be her friend again.
And, finally, she didn’t need to worry about school calling home, asking where she was, asking when she was coming, making her mom’s voice tremble as she spoke into the phone, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do, either.”
Instead, what Pluto did have to worry about was that her mom was already out of the shower, shuffling around in the bathroom they shared, nearly ready to start the day. The hall light was on, bleeding into Pluto’s bedroom, making the thick purple curtains that blocked out the morning sun null and void. If she had a bedroom door, she would close it to block out the light and the sound of her mom as she hummed while she got dressed.
But Pluto did not have a bedroom door, and hadn’t had a bedroom door for a little over a month now.
Her mom stuck her head in the doorway. “Hey, Shooting Star,” she said, words mumbled as she spoke around the toothbrush in her mouth. “You’re with me today, kid, so start making some moves.”
Pluto and her mom both knew she would not be “making some moves.” Pluto resented the fact her mom even suggested it, that her mom went about her morning as if nothing had changed inside Pluto, as if an endless month in bed could suddenly come to a stop without trouble.
When she didn’t move: “Plu, I’m serious.” As if that made a difference.
Pluto was serious, too. She needed to stay in bed, under her thick purple blanket covered in white little stars. Her mom had picked out the bed set the moment Pluto outgrew the small wooden crib with the solar system mobile. The blanket was warm, and it was soft, and it was not something she was willing that morning, or any other, to give up.
The bed shifted as her mom climbed in, smelling like the Taylor Swift perfume Pluto had bought her for Christmas last year. Her mom’s arms wrapped around Pluto’s middle, holding her close against the scratchy fabric of one of the low-cut tops her mom always wore that Pluto hated. Her mom’s breath tickled her ear. “I don’t want to pay for a sitter, Pluto. I want you to come with me.”
Pluto felt a familiar feeling rise from her stomach up into her throat, one that made her want to scream and cry and argue, if only she weren’t so tired. Tears came anyway. Twelve-year-olds couldn’t stay in bed all day on their own, no matter how much they might need to. If she was older, an adult, she would stay in bed and no one could force her to do anything, a fixed planet around which everything else moved while she ignored it. But for now, Pluto was the moon and her mom was the planet she was forced to orbit.
Even if that meant being pulled out of bed, every inch of her silently protesting, while an invisible rubber band that kept her body strapped down was yanked taut as her mom tugged her into sitting. “There’s my girl,” she said, as Pluto blinked at her slowly. Her mom’s eyes were gray, like clouds during a rainstorm, and while they were always so gentle when they looked at Pluto, they hadn’t wrinkled at the corners with a genuine smile in what felt like forever. That, though, was comforting, because Pluto could not remember the last time she really smiled, either.
“Get dressed,” her mom said simply, as if she wasn’t asking her to do something that required a Herculean effort on Pluto’s part. “I’ll go make you something to eat. It’s the first day of summer, Plu. It’s time to start having fun again.”
She left Pluto alone to fight the urge to curl into herself and sleep. Standing hurt. Looking over at the Challenger book still placed on her desk with the ripped spine hurt. She picked it up, and the cover and first handful of pages slid away from the rest. Even broken, it was heavy in her hand, which was heavy on her arm, which was heavy on her shoulder. Gravity, it seemed, was extra hard on Pluto.
In fairness, gravity had been harder on the Challenger. The shuttle had fallen from the sky before it was even close to orbit. It all happened so quickly, the smoke and the explosion and the destruction. Pluto often wondered about what that moment had been like, the one after everything was okay, but before everything was not okay, where the Challenger and the seven lives on it were somewhere in between, not okay but not not okay.
Pluto called the Hayden Planetarium Astronomy Question and Answer Hotline to ask, once. After a brief moment of absolute silence, the voice on the other end of the phone quickly launched into a detailed account of all the mechanics of why the Challenger didn’t have a successful takeoff, which didn’t answer Pluto’s question at all.
She placed the broken book back on her desk and reached for her phone instead, the one she got for her 10th birthday “just for emergencies” but mostly used to download podcasts and, at the time, text back and forth with Meredith.
There was a notification that one of her favorite astronomy podcasts had a new episode about meteoroids, comets and asteroids waiting to download.
Pluto knew a lot about meteoroids, comets and asteroids already. She knew that when objects speed into Earth’s atmosphere, the heat produces a streak of light from the trail of particles they leave in their wake.
She looked over at her bedroom wall, at the little white specks left in the gray paint from where she’d yanked off the plastic stars one by one a month ago, hearing her favorite podcast narrator in her head: Like an asteroid, Pluto Jean Timoney leaves a trail of her own destruction in her wake.
“Pluto!” her mom called. “Don’t forget your meds!”
The little orange bottles sat right on top of her desk, next to the broken book. Take 1 with food. Take ½ in the morning. Take 1 as needed.
Depression and anxiety. Two words. One brand-new diagnosis.
Author photo courtesy of Elizabeth Welch.