~posted by Ruth
Chasing Orion by Kathryn Lasky
What a banner year for great new books for adolescents (and adults who love YA fiction)! Spending time each week in Katie Doherty’s sixth-grade classroom gives me a chance to learn from an amazing community of readers and writers, and learn about the contemporary books that are grabbing their interest. Chasing Orion is another brand-new novel that caught my attention and held me through the whole gripping tale. Set in the 1950’s, the novel and its characters are caught in the terror of the polio epidemic. Many public spaces are closed for fear of spreading this terrifying disease. The main character, Georgie, meets and becomes friends with her teen-aged neighbor who is encased in an iron lung. Phyllis, who is a kind of modern Lady of Shallot trapped in an iron vault, uses her will and mental strength to manipulate her family–and new love, Georgie’s brother Emmett. I was fascinated by the medical ethics of the time, including questions about whether life was worth living in an iron lung.
Georgie is a unique and quirky character whose passion for mythology and how it is played out in astronomy are used effectively to reflect the drama in Georgie’s life. Astronomy becomes a key thread woven throughout the novel. As a talented amateur astronomer, Emmett shares his own interest in the stars with his younger sister. This book would be a wonderful companion to Every Soul a Star for teens interested in novels with a star-gazing theme. (And for families who want to use books as a stepping stone to examining the night sky, check out our Book Flight: The Night Sky.)
In telling the story of Phyllis, Georgie, and Emmett, Lasky touches on many deeper themes–what does it really mean to live? Why do bad things happen to good people? The book is also likely to spark conversation about polio and other highly contagious diseases–those that are still a threat, and those that have been eradicated. The middle schoolers who put this book in my hands me join me in highly recommending it.