See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng. Alex Petroski is an eleven year old boy who is inspired by his hero Dr. Carl Sagan to make daily recordings on his iPod to give aliens an idea of what life is like on Earth. He then plans to travel from Colorado to a rocket festival in New Mexico and launch his iPod into space. Alex is more mature than your average 11 year old (he posits he's more like thirteen in responsibility years) because he helps take care of his mother who is struggling with mental illness. He's also the man of the house as his father passed away when he was young and his older brother lives in California. On his journey to the rocket festival, Alex meets many interesting characters and discovers some surprising revelations about his family. Upon his return to Colorado, a crisis occurs that requires him and his family to make some tough decisions. In doing so, they become closer than they have been in years. The book is told almost entirely from Alex's perspective and it is impossible not to fall in love with him and root for him.
There are some tough subjects that are dealt with in this book - mental illness, Alex's lack of supervision, romantic tension between two characters, a reference to underage drinking - so Finn and I read this together and talked about these subjects as we went along.
Recommended for children age 10 and up.
Who was your favorite character and why?
Finn: My favorite character was Zed because he didn't talk for most of the book and communicated through a chalk pad. And he never takes part in arguments. Instead, Zed meditates and writes down his thoughts.
Melissa: Alex is my favorite character because he is such a genuinely good and hopeful person. You can't help but want the best for him. If I had to pick a second favorite character, it would be Terra because of how quickly she falls in love with Alex and works to protect him.
What are some of the major themes of the book?
Finn: I think one of the major themes of the book is to have a good relationship with your family. Alex's brother, Ronnie, needed to pay more attention to his little brother. Alex shouldn't have had to take care of their mom all on his own.
Melissa: I would agree. Family is the major theme. In times of crisis, your family will come through and be there for you. Also, family can include people that aren't related to you, like Steve and Zed, but are there for you nonetheless.
Are you satisfied with the ending? Why or why not?
Finn: No, I think it could be a lot longer. But I also think it came to a good closing. I think the family will do better going forward, but I think the mom will still be distant.
Melissa: I think the ending provided the necessary closure. There are some remaining questions (Alex's mother's health, how much of a part of Alex's life will Terra be going forward) but you are left feeling hopeful.
What scene do you remember best and why?
Finn: The scene I remember best is when the woman left a voicemail saying she had found Alex's dog, Carl Sagan. I remember it best because it was worrying me for awhile about whether they were going to find Alex's dog. I felt really relieved when they finally found him.
Melissa: I think the scene of Alex's accident really stuck with me. Probably because, as a mom, the idea of a child needing to be rushed off to the hospital without a parent being present frightens me.
Alex tells a lot of space facts and astronomy jokes throughout the book. What was your favorite fact or joke?
Melissa: I didn't know about the Golden Record going into this book, so I found the facts about that and Carl Sagan really interesting.
Finn: My favorite joke was about the spud, Nick. (I've excerpted most of the joke below. Enjoy!)
There were two astronomers, Henry and Nick, and they were bestest of friends. They both worked at an observatory at the end of a mountain road where there used to be a potato farm. One weekend Nick was coming back from a trip but his flight was delayed, so when he finally landed Monday night he had to go straight into work. He was so tired that he fell asleep at his desk, and he dreamed about the most beautiful meteor shower he had ever seen ... but then a loud BOOM woke him up ...
He headed for the observatory door, and when he got outside he heard the boom again, even louder this time - BOOM! - and he even saw a bright orange streak from the corner of his eye. But as soon as he turned to look, it was gone. Nick started running down the mountain path. There was another boom, and then more rocks, and he ran towards the sounds. Nick could see Henry now, him and some of the other astronomers were standing with flashlights at the end of a big empty field. He ran up to them and yelled, Henry! Henry! Where did the meteor land?
And when Nick got there, Henry was holding a long cannon made from white plumbing pipes. There was one more loud BOOOM, the loudest yet, and the cannon shot out a flaming potato that sailed across the sky.
And Henry said to him, That's not a meteor, it's a spud, Nick!