The solar system in Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space consists of Cash, Fitch, Bird, and their parents. Who is the sun? Or rather, what is the sun? Isn’t it supposed to be love? But the siblings feel they are just drifting in the vast, dark, cold expanse of the universe, like rogue planets. The parents don’t stop fighting, and the siblings are mired in their individual battles. Cash has failed a grade, and because of which he can’t be on the school’s basketball team. Fitch struggles with a terrible temperament. And Bird, a very memorable character, who is the only one who tries to keep the family together, feels invisible. When they begin to believe that their lives can never intersect, a national tragedy — the Challenger disaster of 1986 — brings them together.
Erin Entrada Kelly is a empathetic storyteller. Even when she plants a couple of stereotypical characters in the story — like Fitch’s friend who can’t stop saying funny things about a girl who shows borderline interest for Fitch, like the girls in Bird’s activity group — she presents them all in a relatable light. There are mean children, but that doesn’t mean that they will always be mean. When Erin Entrada Kelly relates Fitch’s anger issues, the story seems extra real, as though it’s narrated from the place of lived experience. When she talks about Cash, the boy who ends up studying in his siblings’ class, she exhibits so much love for him. Everybody is special, including their parents, and especially their mother. She fights with her husband for gender equality, drops Gloria Steinem’s name in an argument, but always warns Bird to not eat junk because girls are supposed to look a certain way. The parents’ hypocrisy is criticised by the children, but Erin Entrada Kelly somewhere quietly asks, “Who is not hypocritical?”
Bird dreams of becoming the first female Shuttle commander. Her dreams are fuelled by her kind, passionate teacher Ms Salonga, who was not selected for Teacher in Space program. She might have been rejected, but she becomes a winner by spreading her love for space, by stirring curiosity in the young minds. She spends the entire month of January in 1986, 28 days before the launch of Challenger, by conducting activities after activities to make her students fall in love with space exploration. Her activities are profound. From questioning and understanding the need to learn about the universe, to drawing differences between humans and machines, Ms Salonga’s activities brim with her love for the universe, and only because of her enthusiasm, when the tragedy takes places, it hurts. It becomes easier to imagine why a 12-year-old Bird would be devastated by a national tragedy that she doesn’t experience first-hand, and how the catastrophe has the power to make and break dreams.
The imaginary exchanges which take place between Bird and her role model, astronaut Judith Resnik are the best parts of the book. A girl, who is made to believe that she is plain, who has big dreams, feels seen and heard, by an astronaut, whom she has never met, and whom she will never meet. Through those exchanges, Erin Entrada Kelly tells the young readers, and readers who feel young, that humans can be a mote of dust, and the universe can be incomprehensibly enormous, but that doesn’t mean we are insignificant, and that doesn’t mean our dreams don’t matter. And the author doesn’t offer a happily-ever-after. She shows that everything is not going to be rosy. The family doesn’t collapse into a group huddle at the end. But there will be helpers, and they will believe in our dreams, and in ourselves, as much as we do, and more so during the times when we struggle to believe in ourselves.
Sometimes I look up at the sky and I see all those stars and my mind works overtime. There is so much up there to explore. Who knows what’s happening in all that space? Maybe there’s someone on the other side of the Milky Way, looking up the sky just like I am. Maybe they see a dot in the sky and they make a wish on it, and the dot in the sky is Earth, and they’re actually wishing on me.