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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Orbiting Jupiter

img1257995Then Pastor Ballou prayed again, and he said that Joseph had put himself in danger to save others, and then he said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.”

And that’s when I started crying.  Crying like a kindergarten kid in front of everyone.  Crying because Joseph wasn’t just my friend.

I had his back.

And he had mine.

That’s what greater love is.

This slender novel packs quite a punch–an emotional punch right to the gut.  I know that some people felt manipulated by the ending, but I am not one of them.  I also know that some people will object to the portrayal of such a young teenage father, but not only does that not bother me, I actually think Schmidt handles this as well as he possibly could for not just a middle school audience, but an elementary school audience as well.

I’m going to cut to the chase: this is a book about love, the unconditional love that a foster family has for a damaged young kid, the love that kid has for his daughter, and the love that he eventually reciprocates back to the foster family.  So while the book is strong in all the elements pertinent to it, I think the development of theme is ultimately what elevates this one above the pack of contenders.  All things considered, though, it’s just a hair below ECHO and HIRED GIRL for me, grouped with books like THE PENDERWICKS IN SPRING, THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, LOST IN THE SUN, and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA.  But a second reading of all of these books could cause me to reshuffle my order.  So, too, could your arguments.  How does this one stack up for you? 


Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    ORBITING JUPITER was named a Best Book by PW, but not SLJ. 🙁

    Books that made both lists–

    X: A NOVEL

  2. I love every Gary Schmidt book for the depth and heartbreak and humor he puts in each one but this one didn’t measure up as much for me. It’s still beautifully written, like his others, but I had a hard time with the story line of Joseph’s relationship and his devotion to his daughter what with him being in 8th grade. However, I think that’s me bringing my perspective as an adult to bear and I imagine that teens will more likely be moved by the love story. I found the ending twist unnecessary and almost too much so it didn’t make me anywhere near as emotional as I was when Joseph learned his foster parents were going to send him to college. I agree that love is the theme of this book – it’s just that I was more taken with the quiet love and support of the family than the more obvious love story.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Fans that only know him from his tragicomic pieces like WEDNESDAY WARS and OKAY FOR NOW may miss his trademark humor in this novel, but I think it’s strong nevertheless. Much better than his last offering, WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS.

  3. I agree that the theme of love in this novel is strong. I also was deeply moved the story. But, aside from the obvious content concerns, I felt that Jack’s characterization was weak. He seemed to be written as a blank slate, with few thoughts or feelings of his own. How did he feel when his parents first told him they’d be taking in a foster child? What was his life like before Joseph came? I have no idea because he reads as if he came into existence when Joseph arrived. Now, in terms of content, this book is cataloged as a YA title in our system and rightfully so. Are there any elementary school librarians here? Would you buy this book for you collection? It seems middle school and up to me, but I wanted to see if there was some sort of consensus here on the blog.

    • I certainly have it in my elementary school library. The students who’ve read it find it sad but haven’t commented on any other issues. Possibly 14 seems plenty old enough to them to be a father, since it is significantly older than themselves.

  4. Brenda Martin says:

    Among my children’s and teen literature circle there has been considerable consensus about what a wonderfully written book this is, and a masterclass on the concept of showing vs telling. However, there was a concern raised that the depiction of how quickly social services would be able to react could be a bit rosier than is likely. While it clearly varies from place to place, one member of the group is a former caseworker who found it particularly unbelievable, as much as she wishes it were otherwise.

    • sue corbett says:

      There is so much wrong with this book I don’t even know where to start but since Brenda brought up the caseworker friend and the unbelievability issue, I’ll start there. Why does everyone in this town, including the school bus driver, know this boy’s backstory? And use it, in some instances, to taunt him? How incredibly unprofessional. How is it he can accidentally run into the family with which his baby has been placed? How many teenage girls born to incredibly wealthy parents die in childbirth in the U.S.?

      I remember, years ago, hearing Linda Sue Park talk about details that stop a story, and there were at least a dozen times in reading this that I fell out of the snowy world Schmidt was trying to create, smh, saying, “No. Wrong. That does not ring true.” I could go on to complain about this slim novel’s excessive maudlin qualities, the incredible cheat of an ending, but the ending didn’t matter much because the story because rang false from almost the first note.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        This is one of my favorites and I’m long overdue for a reread but….

        I wonder if some readers of ORBITING JUPITER are reading this book as if it were realistic fiction. Genre perception can contribute to expectations on the part of the reader. For instance, if a reader of Charlotte’s Web thought they were reading realism (and in the first chapter there is nothing to signify otherwise) then they too might say “No. Wrong. That does not ring true.” when they arrive at the first instance of talking animals. But since most readers go into CW with the understanding that they are reading fantasy, no one takes issue.
        I’d ask why you have an expectation for realism in ORIBITING JUIPITER? Personally, when I pick up a Schmit novel my expectation is emotional realism and that is all. Schmidt’s novels do not occur in our world. They occur in a world where the yankees schedule was just a little different in 1969, where a 14 year old boy running a dairy farm on his own can be pulled into a presidential election, and yes, where an adolescent father can “run into” his child’s caregivers by “chance”.
        The emotions in all Schmidt’s novels are always dead on for me. I recognize that without coincidence and chance there is no story, instead there’s just real life. Schmidt doesn’t seem interested in writing real life, instead he writes stories in which his characters experience real emotion.
        If you haven’t, I recommend reading Schmidt’s book on Robert Lawson. In it he describes how Lawson pushes the borders of genre in his works. I’d say Schmidt is doing something similar with genre in his novels. They aren’t quite realistic fiction. When we hold them to the standard of realism they might fall short, but if we come at them from a different angle we might see that the emotional realism resonates profoundly well.

  5. SafranitMolly says:

    I wept as I read this book. It had me from the opening. The spare telling of the tale was simple and profound. I think it was Schmidt’s most masterful work in terms of language, character, that unforgettably cold setting and, as Jonathan so eloquently expressed, theme. I love the cows. Love them.
    However I feel the only area of weakness under the Newbery criteria was the development of plot. There were some far-fetched plot points like the coincidence of the librarian who also happened to be Jupiter’s foster family. The tragic ending was too theatrical and black hat/white hat for the understated nuance of the rest of the story.
    I love this book. It lives in my heart. I’m grateful to the sage Mr. Schmidt for writing it. I just don’t think it will win the Newbery.

  6. SafranitMolly says:

    Also, on the question of age range–I teach at a K-8 but one of my wise, “old soul” 5th graders has this on her short list.

  7. I’ve heard the concerns about the ending of ORBITING JUPITER as being too manipulative or an easy way out of a hard situation. And concerns about the flatness of Jack and his family as characters. I think I’d like to counter with what I felt Schmidt wanted to do with this book and what he didn’t.

    As Jonathan stated, I believe OJ (ouch, not such a good acronym) was intended as a thematic piece about redemption and love and sacrifice. No one does redemption like Gary Schmidt. I’m sure he knew the end of Joseph’s story before he began it. He was always going to give us a story about a broken person, finding repair to the point where he could put his own body between threat and those he loved. It wasn’t trying to be more. It was enough. And beautifully executed.

    Jack was Nick Carroway, not the protagonist. It wasn’t his story. Normally I dislike side characters without some attempt at depth and complexity. But I feel to have added more to Jack would have been distracting to Joseph’s story. We had enough of Jack to give us an adequate and empathetic lense to see all the sides of Joseph through.

    For fun: I haven’t seen anyone else mention it but – Lucas Swieteck!!!!!!!!!! Talk about your redemptive characters. A nice little present for Schmidt fans.

    I was a little confused as to the time frame of the setting. If felt contemporary in all respects with one exception. Jack stated that his mother protested the Vietnam war and nuclear plants. I feel much too old to be Jack’s mother and if I’d protested the war by it’s end I would have still been in elementary school. Also Lucas would have been a very old gym teacher indeed. In the end I decided it didn’t matter. It could have been set twenty years earlier and still be completely consistent.

    This is just a tidge behind GOODBYE STRANGER and MOST DANGEROUS for me.

    • Brooke Shirts says:

      I totally squeed over the Swieteck reference. Reminds me of the various Clarion County characters that meander through E.L. Konigsburg’s books.

    • Mary Lou White says:

      Just a clarification. The mom was protesting US involvement in Central America, not Vietnam.

  8. SafranitMolly says:

    Yes, DaNae! I loved the Swietek connection too! I caught it right away and smiled. Okay For Now will always be one of my very favorites.
    On the timeline, I’d have to go back and re-read. Does he clearly place this story in present day? It felt like it could have been the 70’s or the 80’s as easily as today. But I haven’t read it for months and am probably forgetting some key setting details. Worth a re-read for sure!

    • I’ve had an update via text from an inside source, or maybe just a source, that illuminated if you read closely there are hints that Jack is adopted, thus negating the need for viable eggs in his activist mother.

      • KCathcart says:

        I caught that part about Jack as I became a parent at 44 through adoption. I think what people are saying about this book being ’emotional realism’ is right. Yes – I did trip up on the unrealistic details – knowing what I know about adoption – and seriously, the girlfriend dies in childbirth?! But that didn’t take too much away from the story itself.

        As an elementary school librarian, I am not sure I’d have this in our collection. Not so much about the teen parenthood but the girlfriend’s death (equating childbirth with death, even for a young person) and implied sexual violence of the prison. Also, I’m not sure how many young readers would catch the deeper meaning in the book about redemption and love. I’d rather have a reader wait until middle or high school to enjoy this book because its so good.

        A good analogy is this…at a candy store – my parents used to give us kids salt-water taffy while they had chocolate covered cherries, saying ‘You’ll enjoy these when you are older.” Some books are like that – there are plenty of other incredible books out there for younger readers…this ‘chocolate covered cherry’ of a book can wait for them.

  9. Safranit Molly says:

    I did wonder if Jack was the last foster child the family had taken in and that they had adopted him. The book did say that the family hadn’t taken in a foster child for twelve years. It’s an oblique reference for sure, but something that adults might catch and ponder.

  10. I loved the fact he mentioned Lucas, but you gotta wonder does he live in Maine alone, you know I know it sounds weird but I wish the author mentioned about his family, (take a wife for example).

  11. Patricia says:

    Yes chloe, I also wonder if Lucas is married and has a family in Maine.

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