Eastern Alumna Publishes ‘Planet Earth is Blue’ with Penguin Random House

Thousands of children across the country gathered around the television on Jan. 28, 1986, to witness the Challenger Space Shuttle take the first schoolteacher into outer space. The joyous occasion quickly turned to tragedy as the shuttle exploded one minute into flight. Among the onlookers was Nova, the fictional main character in “Planet Earth is Blue,” the debut book by Eastern Connecticut State University alumna Nicole Panteleakos ’08.

Published by Penguin Random House and Wendy Lamb Books this past May, “Planet Earth is Blue” is the story of an often misunderstood character. Nova is a 12-year-old nonverbal autistic girl with a passion for astronomy. As the Challenger launch approaches, Nova finds herself living in a new foster home and worse, her big sister has gone missing — the one person who understands her.   

“Planet Earth is Blue” is a historical fiction for middle-grade readers. On that tragic day in 1986, classrooms across the country were tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe make history as the first teacher in space.

“It was traumatic,” said Panteleakos of the explosion. “Teachers didn’t know what to do. A lot of schools closed early. Kids didn’t know how to deal with it, which is something that Nova is dealing with in the book.”

Coping with life is especially hard for those who have difficulty communicating. Panteleakos has spent a good deal of time working and volunteering with people with autism and strives to bring a voice to this largely unheard community.

“There’s this pervasive belief that autistic people don’t have any imagination, which is just wrong,” she said. “But a lot of kids like Nova couldn’t express it—especially back in the ’80s when they didn’t have the assistive communication that we have today. So people didn’t know.”

Panteleakos’ first author talk talk occurred at Eastern this past April. Education Professor Susannah Richards welcomed her to speak with students enrolled in her course on middle-grade literature. The students read “Planet Earth is Blue” and devised creative ways to implement it in the middle school classroom setting.

Panteleakos also wants to show a different image of autism. “I wanted to show a more realistic autistic character than the characters, or caricatures, that are seen in the media. I wanted to get away from the trope where the autistic person is this academically brilliant, socially awkward, not very nice character who can’t relate to or love anybody. I wanted to show a more nuanced, realistic person.”

The title of the book recalls the famous David Bowie song “Space Oddity.” “It’s kind of like the Challenger,” said Panteleakos. Speaking of the song, she added: “There’s all this hype for this astronaut, then he goes up and gets jettisoned into space. There’s this line, ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.’

“That’s what I was thinking when I wrote the whole book. These bad things happen to Nova and there’s nothing she can do about it. All you can do is metaphorically pick up the pieces and move on. You can’t go back and make it not blow up. You can’t go back and save those people. You can only go forward.”

Tragedy aside, Panteleakos says the themes of the book are hope, resilience, family and friendship. Being able to broach such difficult subject matter is the reason Panteleakos likes writing for the middle-grade age group, as it’s the transitional period between elementary school and the teenage years.

Panteleakos with Eastern student Jakira Wilson.

“It’s an age where kids have the freedom to start striking out on their own and standing out, but also have the comfort of going back home where somebody makes their dinner and takes care of them.”

Stories for this age group are more complex than early childhood literature, but stay away from teenage romance and “saving the world,” topics Panteleakos says often characterize young adult (YA) books — “stuff I’m not too keen on writing.”

“Middle-grade books are about the characters finding themselves or finding their place… figuring out where they belong and how they’re going to be the best version of themselves — which is the challenge for Nova.”

A 2008 graduate of Eastern’s performing arts program, with minors in English and theatre, Panteleakos was first focused on playwriting —and has had many scripts produced and performed. Those formative courses with Communication Professor Edmond Chibeau, who teaches script writing, helped her to master the craft of writing dialogue.

Her trajectory as a writer changed course upon returning to Eastern as a graduate to take a course with English Professor Lisa Fraustino. “I really liked her as an author,” said Panteleakos, “so I was excited to take her class and meet her.”

Fraustino convinced her to pursue a graduate program in children’s literature at Hollins University, which resulted in her landing an agent who got her a two-book deal with Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Fittingly, the debut novelist’s first author talk occurred at Eastern this spring semester, speaking with Education Professor Susannah Richards’ class on middle-grade literature.

“It was very exciting,” she said. “A lot of the students had read the book and asked great questions. Questions about my characters I’d never considered. Insights that made me delve deeper into my own work. It showed that they’re really thinking deeply and connecting with the story, which is very exciting for me.”

“Planet Earth is Blue” was published in May 2019 and is available wherever books are sold.

Written by Michael Rouleau