Today we’re chatting with Nicole Melleby, whose book How to Become a Planet publishes today! This contemporary middle grade tells the story of Pluto, a young girl who is dealing with a summer unlike any she’s experienced before. Instead of trips to the planetarium, playing at the boardwalk arcade, and working in her mom’s pizzeria, she’s faced with a diagnosis of depression. When her father threatens to move her to the city, where he believes money will fix Pluto’s problems, Pluto determines to complete a checklist which she feels will get her back to her old self. But a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new friend with a checklist of her own help Pluto learn that there is no old and new Pluto- there’s just her.
Of the few middle grade books which feature characters dealing with depression, the focus is often on the initial cause or even when the character feels they’ve ‘overcome’ their depression. What made you decide to explore a character dealing with a recent diagnosis?
I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.
How to Become a Planet is your third middle grade novel. Are there any themes you’ve noticed pop up across all your books?
Mental illness and queer characters always have a place in my books, in a number of different capacities, but I have noticed now that I’m on my third book that a big theme that often comes up for me is the dynamic between parents and my middle grade aged characters. In Hurricane Season, Fig struggles with this intense sense of responsibility to take care of her dad and herself in the face of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, Brie is desperately eager for her mom to just see her and love her for who she is. And here, in How to Become a Planet, Pluto is constantly caught up in her single mom’s expectations and concerns for Pluto’s well-being, and how that effects Pluto’s own journey. I once read that the difference between Young Adult and Middle Grade is that Young Adult characters look to find their place in the world outside of their friends and family, while middle grade characters try and find their place within their friends and family. Middle grade characters are surrounded by adults who make the calls about their lives, and I think it’s important for them to find agency and understanding within that.
Your novels feature strong secondary characters that help guide and mentor the main character. Do you have a favorite secondary character that you’ve written?
Oh, this is such a tough question to answer! I have a particular soft spot for Fallon, Pluto’s new best friend (and crush!) in How to Become a Planet. Fallon is my first nonbinary character; she’s a bit of a nerd (a book nerd, to be specific) and she can be prickly and defensive if she gets her feelings hurt. But she listens to Pluto and tries her hardest to understand what Pluto is going through. Like attracts like, and Fallon sees something familiar in Pluto’s struggle to understand herself, since Fallon’s going through some pretty similar feelings herself. She’s gallant and sweet and exactly the type of friend Pluto needs when she finds her.
But I also have to give a shoutout to Parker in In the Role of Brie Hutchens. She’s Brie’s best friend, and she has my favorite moment in all of my books: When Brie comes out to her, Parker (who can’t respond verbally, since they’re in the middle of class) responds by sending Brie a thumbs up and rainbow emoji. She’s the kind of best friend I think any queer kid could love.
I’m going to cheat and keep going, because while we’re on the subject of all of these wonderful best friends, I have to mention Danny. In Hurricane Season, Fig is going through a lot, and she’s going through most of it alone, until Danny comes along. While he ends up with a bit of a misguided crush on Fig, at the end of the day, Danny completely and fully has Fig’s back and is there for her when she needs him.
What do you hope young readers take away from How to Become a Planet?
Mental illness is often seen as an “adult issue” and that’s just not true. There are many, many kids who struggle with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses. You’re not alone if that includes you.
In your astronomy research for How to Become a Planet, what was one interesting thing you learned that didn’t make it into the book?
I actually found out after I turned my book in that due to the increasing number of debris in space, the space station has guidelines for avoiding a collision, that includes keeping empty space in an invisible rectangular shape clear around the space station called the “pizza box”. This was particularly amusing to me, because Pluto and her mom own a pizzeria on the boardwalk and are obsessed with all things astronomy. While I didn’t know this fun fact, I can almost guarantee Pluto and her mom are well aware of it!
As a Pitch Wars mentor, you have experience guiding aspiring writers. What advice would you give to young writers?
You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.
Find a group of writers who are in the same boat as you. If you’re looking for an agent? Find writers to commiserate with. If you’re on sub? Ditto. Find a debut group if you’re having a very first book coming out—because all of these stages are daunting and new and no one knows how to navigate them, but it helps not navigating them alone.
Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!
Get your copy of How to Become a Planet from Indiebound!
Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bred Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her partner and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.