This book is not a typical middle grade novel, in that if you decide to teach it (and it's quite long for a classroom read -- almost 400 pages), you need to know it's not specifically about the Challenger explosion in 1986, although that is the climax of the book. It's more about the changing relationships between three siblings in a dysfunctional family leading up to this event.
This is also not a feel-good book, as it has no hopeful ending and many plot points go unresolved. But in many ways, the text reflects the uncertainty we all felt after Challenger exploded -- about the future of space travel, about our country's international role in space travel, and how that was going to impact our hopes and dreams, as kids.
The story is told in three characters' perspectives, twins Bird and Fitch and older brother Cash, who failed 7th grade and is now in the same grade as the twins.
Like a lot of classes in1986, they all have a teacher, Ms. Salonga, who structures her lessons around the Challenger mission. She introduces them to each of the members of the crew and has them take on the "roles" of the crew. Bird takes on Mission Specialist Judith Resnik's role.
Like a lot of teachers, Ms. Salonga only briefly touches on the dangers of space travel and focuses more on the wonders, the possibilities, the amazing things it has to teach us, and Bird soars with her teacher's lessons.
(Important Teacher's Note: In the book, p. 90, the author portrays Ms. Salonga asking her students to imagine Challenger taking off from Houston, TX. Know that Johnson Space Center is Mission Control and did not launch space shuttles. Most NASA launches, like Challenger's, were from Cape Canaveral, Fl.)
But as a result, neither the teacher nor her students are prepared for the moment when Challenger disintegrates over the Atlantic, 73 seconds into its flight -- and it sends all the characters spinning.
The publisher, Harper Collins, offers a free teaching guide for this book that touches on point of view, specifically how the illustrations signal changes in point of view of character, how the author creates a distinct "voice" for each character, and asks students to cite textual evidence to support their claims. There are several comprehension questions. Four after reading writing activities include a creative writing prompt and several synthesis and analysis writing prompts.