We Dream of Space

We Dream of Space book cover

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Book Review

13-year-old Cash and 12-year-old twins Fitch and Bird are struggling to pilot their way through the problems of middle school and life with a fairly dysfunctional family. But it’s January 1986 and everybody’s attention is on the soon-to-launch Challenger space shuttle mission. Astronaut-wannabe Bird hopes that exciting event will help them find a better family orbit.

Plot Summary

It’s January 1986. And the three Nelson Thomas siblings—13-year-old Cash and 12-year-old twins Fitch and Bird—are all having a little trouble finding a smooth-running fit in life.

Cash loves basketball, but he’s pretty lousy at it. That’s especially true since he fell and ended up with his right hand in a cast. And he’s equally lousy at school, in danger of failing seventh grade  for a second time. Fitch is pretty good at playing video games at a local arcade. But he wrestles to keep his temper from flaring up and burning himself and others. Then there’s Bird.

Bernadette—or “Bird” as she was dubbed by a sibling who couldn’t pronounce her full name when they were little—dreams of being the first female space shuttle commander. It’s a special aspiration spurred on by the upcoming Challenger space shuttle mission that they’ve been talking a lot about at school. But, in spite of her quick and curious mind, Bird still isn’t sure she could ever fulfill that kind of dream. Because she’s kinda afraid that she’s … disappearing.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a good thing for Bird to disappear. If nothing else, Bird is the one person in her family who instinctively tries to hold things together. The Nelson Thomas family doesn’t work well. It’s a complicated machine of squeaking, clunking gears that never quite mesh. Their home is a cluttered and disheveled mess. They never eat together. And conversations generally get quashed with silence, or end up in an argument. And that’s a problem that Bird then has to deal with.

When Mom and Dad lean in to the next inevitable argument, it’s Bird who senses the coming break down. The boys run for cover and their sis is generally the only one who knows the right bit of attention-refocusing oil to splash on and keep a major malfunction from happening.

Bird is starting to fear, however, that nobody inside or outside her family can really see her much at all. She has her role to play at home and at school, but she doesn’t really fit in either of those orbits. She longs for something better, but she’s invisible. In another galaxy.

Maybe the upcoming Challenger launch will change that somehow. It’s helped Bird dream a bit, at least. Maybe it will help others dream of good things, too—dreams of the future, of space, of belonging, of making friendships, of building better families.

Of course, even the hopeful Bird knows that it’s probably silly to pin all that on a space launch. But you never know. Space is special. You never really know exactly what’s coming next.

Christian Beliefs

None.

Other Belief Systems

After many discussions and school assignments connected to the upcoming Challenger space mission, Bird starts closely identifying with the flight’s female mission specialist Judith Resnick. She thinks the woman even looks a little like her and imagines being able to send her thoughts to Resnik on invisible waves of air and getting answers in return. Those ongoing conversations, while Bird lays in bed, help the young girl sort through thoughts and doubts she’s having about herself. And though imagined, they all take a positive, healthy turn.

That imagined connection with a crewmember, however, makes the inevitable Challenger disaster all the more wrenching for Bird.

Authority Roles

Bird’s parents, Mike and Tam, are, quite frankly, pretty poor parents. They’re not terrible people: They love their kids and take time with them. But they’re so focused on their own immediate needs and the tensions that have grown between them as a couple, that they seem oblivious to the impact their constant bickering causes. The Nelson Thomas kids walk on egg shells around their parents and run to their rooms to escape the flare ups. Bird, who tends to be very analytical about the things in her life (even to the point of drawing schematics of machines for fun) describes her family like this:

“The Thomas family was like its own solar system. Planets in orbit. No, not planets. More like meteors or space junk. Floating objects that sometimes bumped or slammed into each other before breaking apart.”

That family dysfunction is used, though, as an object lesson to help point young readers to things they should avoid or others they should seek. In fact, when Bird is invited over to her friend Dani’s house, she marvels at its cleanliness and warmth. And she openly longs for the girl’s family’s connection, good humor and displays of affection—ultimately trying to instill of bit of that positive change back at home.

Her friend’s family is so appealing to Bird, she even goes to their house and uses a spare key to break into the empty home when she reaches a particularly low and depressed point in her life. That choice isn’t praised, but it further illustrates the healing appeal of even the symbols of family love and comforting acceptance. Dani’s parents are positive, accepting and warm.

Another positive adult in Bird’s life is her teacher Ms. Salonga. She actually applied to be the teacher who joined the Challenger crew but didn’t make the cut. She is an open and caring teacher who motivates Bird and other students to think inquisitively and carefully about the things of importance in their lives. And she leads them to make better choices, too. Ms. Salonga’s sincere, warm actions make Bird sometimes wish her teacher was her mom.

It should also be noted that some kids tease, make fun of and lightly bully others, speaking rudely or calling them names at times. (One boy calls a tall curly haired girl Chewbacca, for instance.) And Fitch slips into that choice when his anger gets the best of him, too. He screams angrily at an innocent young girl in class, for example, embarrassing and lightly traumatizing her in public. He reaps the punishment for such behavior. And later he beats himself up for his own foolish, heated words, and he reaches out to apologize.

Cash is generally depressed about his failures, including basketball and school. But eventually, through the encouragement of others—such as Bird and a school coach—he’s inspired to work toward a new positive goal in his life.

Profanity & Violence

Bird makes it clear that her parents held the kids to a no-foul-language standard. But they don’t hold each other to that same standard. So, their arguments are regularly peppered with the word “expletive” to point out how distasteful Bird finds it. The anger prone Fitch notes that in his anger he sometimes growls out a cuss word, but he never spells out what those profanities are.

The Challenger shuttle disaster is very much a part of this story. The explosion of the rocket and the death of the rocket’s passengers is not recounted in detail, but we certainly see the impact it has on viewers—especially Ms. Salonga and Bird. And Bird’s emotional depression afterward causes her brothers to sit up and take notice. They reach out to comfort her and draw her into a familial embrace (even when her parents are seemingly unable to understand). In fact, the experience does change the Nelson Thomas family dynamic, just as Bird had hoped it might.

Sexual Content

Kids talk about having crushes on those of the opposite sex and guys mention moving on in grade and being exposed to “hot” girls on the next level. Cash realizes that he’s probably the only one in his group of friends not to have kissed a girl. Bird goes through some self-doubt when a classmate suggests that being pretty “isn’t her thing.” She wrestles with her self-worth and even talks in imaginary conversations with Judith Resnik about the value of being pretty over smart. “I think smart is pretty,” the imaginary Resnik notes.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Besides her dreams of being an astronaut someday, Bird longs for the security of a loving family. In what ways is your family like or unlike Bird’s? Are there ways that you can point out and appreciate the good things and make the less good better? If you have siblings, what’s your relationship like with them? Can you help encourage and make those relationships even better? Take a look again at Luke 15:11-32. Are there some good lessons in that passage that we all can apply to our relationship with siblings and other family members?

The Nelson Thomas family had never sat down and eaten dinner together at the same table. Do you think that makes a difference? What other activities can work to help a family bond and family communication?

After the Challenger disaster, Fitch saw Ms. Salonga sitting alone in her class room and he went in to talk to her. Was that an important moment for either or both of them? Why? What did it tell you about Fitch?

Do you ever wrestle with being angry? What kinds of things make you angry and how do you deal with that? In fact, how should we best deal with our anger?

Do you have goals your reach for or dreams you hope for? What do you think is the best way to go after those goals and dreams? How is God a part of that process?

Additional Comments

This award-winning book talks earnestly about our imperfect families and our imperfect lives. And uses an immersive story and well-rounded, likeable characters to raise very good questions that young readers can mull over.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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