Like any child with a passion, 11-year-old Arno Creelman is eager to share everything he knows about outer space with anyone who will listen. And Arno knows an awful lot. The setting of Jessica Scott Kerrin’s latest is in the summer of 1961, and the space race is breaking news. Arno keeps up on all the developments through magazine coverage and the weekly “Clear Skies” astronomy column in his local paper. Unlike a lot of kids his age, including his best friend, Buddy, Arno doesn’t want to be an astronaut; he wants to be an astronomer.
Part of this decision is due to the fact that Arno suffers from claustrophobia; while he wouldn’t be able to stand life in a small capsule with other astronauts, working with telescopes seems perfectly suited for him. Until he realizes that the enclosed spaces of observatories – like the one opening in his town that summer – might prevent him from pursuing that dream, too.
Clear Skies is a winning middle-grade novel which deals with both mental-health issues and the wonders of space exploration (along with a bit of 20th-century history) in an accessible, non-threatening manner. Some of the background seems out of place or overly perfunctory, with explanatory passages breaking the narrative flow: “It was 1961. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was in full swing. Over the past few years, artificial satellites had been launched. The Saturn I rocket, meant to carry human beings into deep space, was well under construction. Soviet pilots had even flown into low Earth orbits as test trials.” Nonetheless, the expository passages are somewhat necessary for a generation whose parents are too young to remember the space race first-hand. Readers familiar with the details of this period will smile at the recurrent references to space-age relics like Tang.
Best known for the Lobster Chronicles series, Kerrin has a knack for capturing the lives and voices of her young characters, drawing personalities, conflicts, and underlying secrets with realistic dialogue and strong narrative blocking. This is especially significant when Buddy and Arno reveal their struggles to one another late in the book, and – using the example of the brave interstellar adventurers to guide them – help each other work through their fears.