Review: How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby

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.

  • Genre: YA contemporary
  • Release date: May 25, 2021
  • Publisher: Algonquin

Thank you to Algonquin and Netgalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. This review is part of a blog tour created by Algonquin.

Last year, I read Nicole Melleby’s first two books, In the Role of Brie Hutchens (review) and Hurricane Season, and she became one of my favorite middle grade writers, especially when it comes to queer contemporary middle grade! All of her books feature girls figuring out their sexuality, and Hurricane Season deals pretty heavily with the main character’s father’s bipolar disorder. Those themes continue in her newest, How to Become a Planet, but of course the characters and story are still their own. Personally…I think this is my favorite so far!

In Planet, our main character, Pluto–yes, that’s her real name, and she and her mom are astronomy and sci-fi obsessives–has just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and missed the end of seventh grade. A lot of middle grade books that discuss mental health do so with the main character dealing with diagnosis/treatment of a parent or sibling, rather than themselves. If the main tween character is struggling, it usually focuses on the before-diagnosis era, like in my personal favorites Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness (review) and Amy King’s The Year We Fell From Space (review). But, as Melleby has mentioned in interviews, we need to not think of diagnosis as the end point, but a starting point–and I am so grateful this story is being told.

So, Pluto’s world is changing–she has to take medicine, her mom has hired help running the family pizzeria on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, she has to do tutoring to move on to eighth grade, she needs to become comfortable with therapy, and she wants her birthday trip to the planetarium to be as special as it is every year. Pluto and her mom create this list in an attempt to show that Pluto will be fine living with her mom, because her dad in New York City has more money and more access to healthcare, and her parents are considering having her live there instead.

Meanwhile, Pluto and her best friend Meredith are not so close due to all the time Pluto missed in school and her fears about Meredith seeing her differently, so she also wants to attend Meredith’s waterpark birthday party at the end of the summer. She meets a new friend on the boardwalk, though–Fallon, who confides in Pluto that she has a list of her own to start exploring her gender identity and presentation (note: this is early stages; Fallon uses she/her pronouns throughout the book). These two parallel journeys have their similarities and differences, ups and downs, but ultimately Fallon provides something Pluto needs: someone who doesn’t see her as “different” since the diagnosis, because they didn’t know each other before. And…they also have a super cute budding romance, which savvy (probably older) readers will start to notice before Pluto herself does.

So many things about depression and anxiety were explored in an important, realistic representation. Pluto has her up and down days, and I felt so validated because a lot of people don’t realize that depression isn’t 100% the same every day. She has panic attacks and is too overwhelmed to do a lot of social things. Her feelings are simply communicated in the way she understands them at her age, with her own astronomy comparison. Nothing is perfect or linear in mental health, which is difficult when writing fiction, but Planet still manages to have a clear emotional arc of acceptance and improving relationships. Pluto struggles with therapy at first, and she mistakenly believes the therapist might be able to “fix” her…maybe I’m projecting, but I think it’s a common experience and misunderstanding. She’s also very insecure about her friendships and parents, fearing she could be a burden, and struggles to reconcile her “before” and “after” life before her ultimate breakdown and diagnosis–sometimes, it’s easier to just escape that old life. She even has trouble concentrating on reading, which I unfortunately relate to this year, and perhaps many of us can with how COVID affected our lives. Ultimately, Pluto realizes that like the former planet, she is the same, her classification has just changed. (Can’t believe there’s a whole new generation of kids who don’t remember their childhood love for Pluto being crushed in 2006 when it was demoted! Today’s middle schoolers weren’t born yet!)

Like Melleby’s other books and other good middle grade, How to Become a Planet features parents quite heavily–after all, they are such an important part of kids’ everyday lives! The situation with Pluto’s wealthier, NYC-living (and D&D-obsessed) father who has his own girlfriend and hopes Pluto will live with him seems like a familiar dynamic (minus the geekiness), but when she does reluctantly visit for a weekend, things are more complicated and unexpected. I loved how Pluto learned to see her parents as complicated humans still figuring out their own lives.

As the handy graphic above shows, Planet takes place in New Jersey like Melleby’s other books, and the boardwalk summer culture is lovingly well-realized. This Italian-American with a Brooklyn-native father loved the inclusion of the pizzeria and zeppoles that Fallon’s large Italian family makes.

I admit, I sometimes struggle reading upper middle grade that is written in third person. It gives it a storybook feel that makes me want to hug the book closely, and while the sentence structure and language is definitely accessible, it can read younger than the characters are themselves (trust me, I’ve taught and worked with plenty of 7th graders). I felt that issue more with Planet than I did with Melleby’s previous Brie Hutchens–a book that strikes an eighth grade maturity not often seen in MG–but as the story went on, Pluto (like Brie) got to be a moody, complicated teenager that wasn’t completely because of her anxiety and depression. The fights between her and those she cares about the most really ratcheted up the stakes. The third person is also important, I realized, to communicate the little signs of Pluto’s crush on Fallon that she seems to not be consciously aware of for a while.

I desperately want to send this book in a wormhole to my younger self. This was such a lovely end to a Mental Health Awareness month. I started May joking that I’d been too aware of my mental health lately and needed a break, but several authors and their writing ended up helping me–which I will be writing about soon!

Bonus: Nicole is currently on a virtual tour, and one of the good things the pandemic has done is made these events online and more accessible to nerds like me who love listening to creatives talk about their work. Here are the first three so far!

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