'We Dream of Space' Is Erin Entrada Kelly's Historical Fiction Debut

In her newest middle grade offering, Erin Entrada Kelly explores the 1986 Challenger launch and subsequent tragedy through the eyes of three siblings navigating their own difficult journeys. SLJ spoke with the author about her research process and keeping history alive for future generations.

The Nelson Thomas family is most comfortable in separate orbits. Twelve-year-old Bird is used to quelling her parents' arguments and feeling invisible, turning to machine tinkering and the promise of the stars for comfort. Her twin Fitch is dealing with uncontrollable anger mitigated only by video games, while older brother Cash has checked out from life after being held back a year at school. In her newest middle grade offering, We Dream of Space, Erin Entrada Kelly explores the excitement of space exploration in 1986 and the Challenger tragedy through the eyes of three siblings navigating their own difficult journeys. SLJ spoke with the author about her extensive research process and keeping history alive for future generations.

Photo by Laurence Kesterson

You mentioned in your keynote at SLJ's Cambridge Day of Dialog that the Challenger launch and subsequent tragedy had a huge impact on you as a young person. How did it affect you?

I was nine years old at the time, so I didn't appreciate the magnitude of the event in the moment. All I knew was that we were sending a teacher into space, the crew looked happy and excited as they boarded the shuttle, and they didn't survive. I was a sensitive kid, so it was incredibly sad to me, but I didn't give much thought to its emotional legacy. The news played disaster footage over and over and over. The image of the plumes is imprinted on so many childhood memories, including mine. It's tragic that the Challenger crew is largely forgotten among younger generations. As an adult, I knew I wanted to write about it someday.

As a seasoned author who's written a number of children's books, what made the creative process for We Dream of Space different from the others?

This was my first work of historical fiction, so that changed the process somewhat. I've done research for all of my books. For Hello, Universe, I enrolled in American sign language classes, read Filipino folklore, and researched snake bites. For You Go First, I attended several Scrabble competitions and interviewed Scrabble champions to get an idea of how their minds worked. Lalani of the Distant Sea required tons of research on Philippine mythology. But this book required very specific, detailed knowledge. For example: Fitch plays a lot of video games at the arcade. I had to know what games he and his friends would see and play, which meant I needed to know what year they were released. The movies and music the kids listened to had to be chronologically accurate, too. Cash, the eldest brother, loves the Philadelphia 76ers. I had a copy of their season schedule next to my desk. And, of course, there were things I needed to know about the Challenger launch. It was rather complicated because the launch was rescheduled several times. This is the only book in which I asked for outside help. I hired an assistant to do Challenger research then compared her notes with mine. I asked teachers if anyone had a seventh-grade science book from 1980-1985 that they would send me, in exchange for having a character named after them...which is where Coach Farnsworth gets his name.

Why was it important for you to include Bird's illustrations throughout the novel?

Bird loves to take things apart, draw schematics of their interiors, and put them together again. I really wanted readers to feel like they were inside Bird's mind, so I included her schematics throughout the novel. It provides even greater insight into how her mind works.

It feels like a disservice to call members of the Nelson Thomas family "difficult," but their actions and relationships are complicated. Was there a particular character or scene that was really tough for you to write?

Fitch, one of the brothers, has an explosive temper. There is a scene where he has an incredibly cruel outburst toward one of the girls in his class. That was tough to write. 
Many authors have talked publicly about the complex experience of having a book come out during the pandemic. How has this changed the way you generate book buzz and interact with your readers?

Honestly, the biggest change is that I'm not able to do school visits or go on tour, which is a bummer. Other than that, not much has changed. I'm active on social media, which makes a big difference. I love Twitter and Instagram, despite their faults. These platforms allow me to connect with readers, educators, and librarians—not just about my books, but all books. I consider myself a reader first and foremost. If people want to talk about my books, great! If people want to talk about other books, great! I just want to talk about books. That said, I have the benefit of having several books behind me. My answer would probably be very different if this were my debut.
In many ways, this is not a "happy ending" book, but it's a hopeful one. How did you decide where this story should end?

My editor tells me. Ha! That's a joke. Well, it's a half-joke. In all honesty, endings are very difficult for me. It'd be much easier if life was like The Brady Bunch, where problems are easily resolved at the end of the half-hour. 
One of the activities Ms. Salonga assigns her class is writing an astrogram—a message sent to space for extraterrestrial life. What would your astrogram say?

My astrogram would be similar to Bird's. A mix of practical information and tips. But she ends her astrogram with "You are safe here." I'm not sure I'd say that. I'm a little more cynical.

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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