This debut YA novel explores the changing relationship between an outer-space–obsessed boy and his moody older brother.
It’s April 1970, and in Mount Clayton, New Jersey, Billy McBride is about to turn 9. He shares his birthday this year with the launch of Apollo 13, an event that heightens his love of astronauts, Star Trek, and all things space-related. He even climbs inside the dryer, imagining himself to be Capt. Billy Apollo of the U.S.S. Constellation One. Sean, his 12-year-old brother, used to play along, but now he’s more interested in rock music and playing in a band of his own called Octopus’s Garden (named after a Beatles song released the previous year). At St. Anthony’s Grammar School, Billy is the target of Butch Anderson, a bully who lashes out in order to mask his own secret. Into this mix arrives tomboy Lucy Ross, whose family moved from Houston, Texas. She takes a liking to Billy and his best friend, Matt. As Billy’s real life grows more complex, so does Capt. Billy’s space opera, including the betrayal of Lt. Shondo (his right-hand Martian) and a blossoming romance with Empress Lucinda of Fraxis Six. When Sean falls in with the wrong crowd, however, reality hits the McBride family like an asteroid. Though author Gilmore’s debut features a middle-grade “Space Case” as its protagonist, it explores more mature YA themes, such as drugs and domestic abuse. Adults will also enjoy Billy’s nerdy, self-deprecating narration, as when he describes having been strangled by his umbilical cord: “My entire head had been one big bruise….Mom said I was the most colorful baby in the hospital nursery.” Gilmore’s pop-culture savvy, including mentions of the Beatles’ breakup and the imperiled Apollo 13 mission, illuminates for younger audiences the start of one of America’s most turbulent decades. Harsh language, as when Butch uses a homophobic slur and when another character uses a racist epithet, emphasizes the nation’s long-lasting struggle against social injustice. Gilmore’s care is impeccable as he tests every character’s fortitude and layers different points of view, building toward an emotionally gratifying finale.
Not just an engaging coming-of-age adventure, but also a lovingly rendered period piece.