“Christmas is the season for miracles, you know. Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess – but I’ve never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them. I didn’t miss this one. When my father put his hand on Joseph’s back, Joseph didn’t even flinch” (Schmidt 2015, pp. 114-115).
This book was short, but tragic and absolutely heart-breaking. I never cease to be amazed by the ability of young adult and children’s literature to profoundly move me, even though it’s meant for an audience much younger than I am. While I’m not usually a fan of books that make me cry (John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a major exception to this rule), I found this story to be a touching look at the bonds that are formed between human beings, whether these bonds are platonic or something much deeper.
The story focuses on two boys named Jack and Joseph. Jack is a twelve year old boy living a comfortable life on a farm with his parents. Joseph is a troubled teen who was sent to a facility known as Stone Mountain for attempting to murder a teacher. At the beginning of the story, Jack’s parents decide to take Joseph in as a foster child, making him Jack’s new foster brother. While many of Jack’s teachers and classmates are afraid of Joseph because of his troubled past, Jack immediately sees beyond the things that make him scary to other people. Jack soon learns that Joseph fell in love with a girl named Maddie, and now has a daughter (named Jupiter) that he has never been allowed to see. His inability to see his own daughter torments Joseph, as does the fact that Maddie died due to complications during the birth. As the two boys grow closer, Jack learns that there is inherent value in every person, no matter the struggles or troubles that defined them in the past.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this novel. From the very beginning, I felt a profound sympathy for Joseph, and all real teens like him who are misunderstood due to their past mistakes. Even Joseph’s teachers tend to judge him without ever making an effort to know him first, as can be seen in the scene where one of the teachers warns Jack about his new foster brother:
“‘I respect your parents. I really do. They’re trying to make a difference in the world, bringing kids like Joseph Brook into a normal family. But kids like Joseph Brook aren’t always normal, see? They act the way they do because their brains work differently. They don’t think like you and I think. So they can do things…'” (Schmidt 2015, p. 21).
Once again, this is only a fictional story, but the mere thought that a teacher could dehumanize a minor in such a way struck me to the core. The saddest part about this is knowing that there are actual adults out there (many of them responsible for children in some way) that think like this, devaluing human life simply because the child or teen doesn’t “think the same way” as everyone else. The more you learn about Joseph’s struggles throughout the novel, the more your heart breaks for him. He never intentionally did a bad thing. His only real mistake was falling in love with a girl from a higher socio-economic status, one with incredibly over-protective parents who treated him like dirt from the very beginning. As the story progresses, we also learn that his mother is gone and his father is highly abusive , giving him no real family to lean on when his life later falls apart.
Books like Orbiting Jupiter, in my opinion, help to show young teens a different perspective. There are likely many young people out there who think like some of the teachers in the book: that some kids are just “bad eggs,” and aren’t worth trying to rehabilitate or educate. Fortunately for Joseph, there are teachers (and a foster family) in his life who truly believe he can succeed, working with him to help him advance in school. As a young person who likely would have thought the same way before college opened my mind, I can see a great deal of benefit in sharing this book with a variety of audiences. Those in similar situations can relate to Joseph, while those in families like Jack’s can catch a glimpse of the struggles that many under-privileged kids and teens go through. Even as an adult, reading this book proved to be an eye-opening experience.
I’d rather not spoil the ending for those who haven’t read this book yet, but I highly recommend it. The best stories, in my opinion, are the stories that help us to empathize with others, and to see life from the eyes of someone whose struggles are completely different from our own. I think doing this really helps to put our own struggles in perspective, and allows us to develop compassion for others. Joseph’s life is heart-breaking, and it’s even more heart-breaking to realize that there are actual teens out there going through similar struggles. I consider myself humbled and grateful after reading this book, and if it doesn’t already have an award, it most definitely deserves one.
Schmidt, G. D. (2015). Orbiting Jupiter. Boston: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.