Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest novel is a work of historical fiction that pulses with contemporary relevance. We Dream of Space chronicles the lives of three siblings during the month leading up to the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.
Life in the Nelson-Thomas home is anything but easy. Mom and Dad fight constantly, and the family feels “like its own solar system,” with members who are “floating objects that sometimes bumped or slammed into each other before breaking apart.” Twins Bird and Fitch couldn’t be more different. Fitch loves arcade games but can’t control his temper (a cruel outburst gets him suspended from school), while Bird thrives in her classes (the budding engineer spends her spare time drawing schematic diagrams of everything from VCRs to cassette tapes). Big brother Cash feels he isn’t particularly good at anything, especially since he’s repeating seventh grade, putting him in the same class as the twins. Kelly develops the siblings’ personalities through short, focused chapters, allowing their stories to emerge naturally as the book progresses.
Much to Bird’s delight, science teacher Ms. Salonga, who hopes to become a teacher in space like Christa McAuliffe, organizes students into flight crews as part of Space Month. Lively classroom scenes add to the anticipation of the launch. Bird yearns to one day blast off to become NASA’s first female mission commander. In a series of touching inner monologues, she imagines conversations with Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik.
Kelly vividly resurrects the 1980s with references to President Reagan, Madonna and Atari and integrates astronomy metaphors throughout her prose as the Challenger’s fateful liftoff approaches. Her sensitive description of that terrible day captures the shocking impact of the tragedy, particularly for classroom viewers like Bird and Ms. Salonga, whose enthusiasm and empathy provide a stark contrast to the Nelson-Thomas parents.
We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal.