On a Maine organic farm, 12-year-old Jack must adjust to a new normal when Joseph—a young man with a violent past—comes to stay as a temporary foster brother in Orbiting Jupiter, the latest from two-time Newbery Award–winning writer Gary D. Schmidt. Joseph’s entry into Jack’s life raises new, potentially disturbing questions about many adults in Jack’s world and also pushes Jack to explore bending a few rules of his own.
Joseph’s memorable character is loosely based upon a real young man Schmidt met in a prison for boys, many of whom hadn’t seen their biological families in over a year. “It was an amazing visit for me,” Schmidt says. At the facility, he conducted a writing session and brought forth the young man’s experiences, watching the boy become more enthusiastic about writing.
One of the book’s more topical elements concerns teen parenthood. Joseph is a dad, a father to a newborn baby girl, the Jupiter of the book’s title. The mystery behind that teen pregnancy is dealt with carefully but directly. “I know the book will push some buttons in general, but it’s not a book about teen pregnancy or sexuality,” Schmidt says. “There’s teen pregnancy in it, and some will find that offensive, but it seems we’re naïve to be afraid to deal with that issue.” Schmidt asked a pediatrician whether he saw many young people having children. “He looked at me with incredulity and said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how many kids I see having kids,’ ” Schmidt says.
Jack’s family in Orbiting Jupiter is based on an actual foster child–welcoming organic farm. “Their philosophy was ‘if you give a kid a responsibility, the kid will respond,’ ” Schmidt says. “We all need something to take care of or be responsible for. If you’re responsible for milking a cow, it’s every day at 5 a.m. and at 5 p.m., and you can’t miss it. You have to be there.”
Although less-than honorable adults also fill the pages, Jack’s parents aren’t the bad guys here. “I wanted a sense of goodness behind Joseph,” Schmidt says. “I wanted him to encounter these people who are basically good.”
To kick off his writing process, Schmidt first listens for the narrator’s voice. “Sometimes it takes longest of all, but it’s everything,” he says about the process. “So I found this naïve 12-year-old who would grow throughout the book and has questions he’s beginning to ask for the first time. That voice, once it was there…then the book wasn’t too hard to write.”
Schmidt portrays a less-than-sophisticated young man, a somewhat naïve child who hadn’t faced the tougher realities of life. “He doesn’t always have the language to explain what’s going on,” he says.
The ending is fairly tragic, and Schmidt says he’s aware of early readers’ feedback; some described sobbing so hard they missed a train stop. However, Schmidt carefully painted a silver lining around the ending’s dark cloud. “I do think in a world that’s pretty broken, it’s not an unhappy ending,” he says.Lora Shinn is a former youth and teen services librarian and now writes full-time about literacy, health, and travel.