The Year We Fell From Space: Mental Health and Surrealism in Middle Grade
Liberty Johansen is going to change the way we look at the night sky. Most people see the old constellations, the things they’ve been told to see. But Liberty sees new patterns, pictures, and possibilities. She’s an exception.
Some other exceptions:
Her dad, who gave her the stars. Who moved out months ago and hasn’t talked to her since.
Her mom, who’s happier since he left, even though everyone thinks she should be sad and lonely.
And her sister, who won’t go outside their house.
Liberty feels like her whole world is falling from space. Can she map a new life for herself and her family before they spin too far out of reach?
So, first of all, thanks to my good friend (and podcast co-host) Tay for snagging an ARC of this book when she was at Book Expo America. I wasn’t sent this on like an official review though, so I’m going a little deeper with this write-up, and it’s impossible for me to be unabiased anyway when it comes to an Amy Sarig/A.S. King book. We’ve both been huge personal fans of Amy’s work since we were teens and have been lucky enough to meet her and/or chat with her on Twitter. This book was on my most anticipated fall middle grade releases. And while I generally enjoyed her first middle grade, Me and Marvin Gardens, The Year We Fell From Space seemed more up my alley.
I also think her books are rather underrated in the educator world, so I’m gonna continue to shout about them because I really loved her YA as a teen and her newest, Dig (which literally motivated Tay and I to start our podcast except we were bad at it then and never released that…yet), is a masterpiece about generational differences in outlooks of white supremacy and the patriarchy.
This book made me emotional, because like when I read other middle grade books, there are moments where I know more than the characters do because I’ve lived more life than they have and I know what they’re going through is even more painful because it’s the first time they’ve gone through it. Yes, I’m being a bit vague on purpose to avoid spoilers. But what’s pretty clear from the beginning is that this book deals with mental health, a topic we need to talk about everywhere more often and in more complex ways. A lot of middle grade books focus only on parents who are struggling, which is certainly important and needed, but a lot of times these things are genetic, and we often fail to realize that symptoms crop up at these younger ages. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Let’s just say a younger character coming to terms with how she’s feeling inside strikes a chord with me.
Liberty is really into space and star maps, which coincides with her emotions. She couldn’t find anything in the stars from the time her father disappeared. At the beginning, there’s a meteor shower and an asteroid lands in her yard, so she keeps it, of course. And then…the asteroid starts talking to her.
This is a typical A.S. King bit of surrealism and absurdism. It’s easy to wonder if kids will “understand,” but not only are kids usually more imaginative, but I’ve been speculating that absurdism, surrealism, and existentialism is going to be a hallmark of today’s kids (Gen Z) because…**gestures at the world** Nonsense seems to make sense now. I think regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the world is pretty strange. The headlines and the little things that get focused on in cable news can feel ridiculous. I remember waking up from a nap one day to news alerts about a recently-announced Space Force, and I felt like I’d jumped to another, slightly more sci-fi reality. Kids these days are growing up with the usual kid traumas of divorced parents and depression, and then there’s also that.
I loved that Liberty was flawed and got to be unlikable sometimes, which is always welcome in young female characters because they’re human. She’s very adamant about not getting into a relationship, which I honestly relate to at that age (although I wasn’t dealing with divorced parents). There’s a bit of subtle commentary about Liberty’s neighbors, two boys about the same age as her and her little sister who are starting to internalize a certain kind of masculinity.
It’s hard to wrap up a not-review of a book, and I struggled with this loose format because I felt compelled to cover everything in depth, but honestly, I read this book a month ago. So we’re concluding here, after thoughts about placing this book in the context of middle-grade aged students and the world we live in. Some other middle grade books I like that deal with mental health are Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand, Guts by Raina Telgemeier, and Finding Perfect by Ellie Swartz.