Mental Health Awareness Month: How to Become a Planet
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which the National Alliance on Mental Illness describes as an opportunity to "fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families." Millions of people around the country struggle with health challenges as part of daily life, and the mental health crisis has increased in severity as the pandemic adds to the already staggering difficulties that many people face. This crisis has been particularly severe among adolescents, as highlighted in recent data from the CDC that reveals that 44% of high school students surveyed in 2021 "persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year." COVID may seem to offer a tangible explanation, but the reality is that mental illness doesn't always have a quality of tangibility about it. If you're young and facing mental health challenges, it can be confusing and isolating (as it can for those of any age).
The idea of books as mirrors and windows is a huge focus in children's literature, and Nicole Melleby's 2021 middle grade novel How to Become a Planet is an example of just how beautifully a book can become such an offering—a glimpse into the experience of another or a reflection of many of the feelings we ourselves experience. Many adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues may not realize that others experience similar challenges or may feel that no one understands or even wants to. Melleby uses her book as a way to give voice to a thirteen-year-old who finds herself with a depression and anxiety diagnosis that she doesn't quite understand, while also suddenly navigating questions of sexual identity—both of which are experiences through which many people of this age go.
Pluto Jean Timoney's namesake is exactly what it sounds like; her mother once dreamed of working for NASA and raised her daughter both in an orbit of her own intense motherly love and a love of space. But the novel begins with Pluto pulling all of the glow-in-the-dark stars off the walls in her bedroom and her mother having to break down the door, terrified of the state in which she might find her daughter. From this opening, How to Become a Planet follows a bumpy trajectory that beautifully but painfully reflects the common reality of mental health crises; Pluto is diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and while she has good days and thinks she can return to her old self, she also has really, really bad days. Days when she can't get out of bed and just wants to stop but also days when she lashes out instead of hiding in bed, hurting both herself and those she loves.
Pluto crafts a list of things she has to do this summer in order to return to the old Pluto and avoid having to move to New York with her somewhat-estranged father (and a decided lack of visible stars). Things that once seemed simple and even wonderful, like going to the planetarium with her mom and hanging out with her friends, are now causes of intense anxiety. When she can't face the people who knew the pre-diagnosis Pluto, though, she finds herself both more comfortable with and mesmerized by a new friend, Fallon, who crafts her own to-do list that reflects her wish to make her body match her perception of her identity. Together, they set out to help each other check off the items on their lists. But what might we expect? Easier said than done.
In How to Become a Planet, Melleby conveys the experience (or at least one experience) of anxiety and depression that makes it almost impossible to believe it's not written straight from her own life. She also manages to subtly confront the challenges of healthcare by showing how Pluto may be forced to rely on her wealthier father, rather than her single mom running a small business, to get the kind of help she needs. The novel's key strength is that it never shies away from the stark realities of mental illness or makes Pluto's journey seem easy. There are moments when the book is suffocating or feels that Pluto is dipping into the same cycles over and over, but if you're thirteen and dealing with these feelings... it is suffocating. There are cycles. There are moments when you just feel really, really bad and you don't know how to get out and maybe you just want it to stop. At the same, though, Melleby offers moments of happiness and hope—not that things will totally resolve or that Pluto will just go back to being pre-diagnosis Pluto, but rather that things can get better, just in a realistic way. In small doses and at a slow pace. There is still a possibility to look to the stars.