Book Notes: Kepler's Dream by Juliet Bell

By Shannon Rigney Keane on Mon, 10/15/2012 - 14:57

Juliet Bell's first children's book Kepler's Dream is, in part, about stars. Stars that inspire and comfort. Stars that helps us express our love, or talk about death.

Despite the stars, this story has a bleak beginning. Eleven-year-old Ella needs a place to go for the summer. Her mother – the only real family she has – is seriously ill and about to undergo a last-chance treatment that requires long hospitalization. Ella's perennially absent dad declines to take care of her, so her grandmother whom she doesn't know begrudgingly invites her. When Ella arrives at her grandmother's house, she finds an imposing, unsmiling, critical woman; a flock of peacocks; and a library full of valuable books. The only kid her age is Rosie, who is going through her own troubles and seems to despise Ella without reason. Weeks of loneliness loom ahead.

Ella herself is the one bright spot. An endearing and sympathetic character, she keeps her sense of humor even while she suffers through her first days at the “Good Grammar Correctional Facility.” Slowly, though, other bright spots emerge. She takes horseback riding lessons at Rosie's family ranch. She begins to learn about her late grandfather, and his fascination with astronomy. Then, when Ella's grandmother discovers that her most prized possession – a rare copy of Kepler's Dream that she bought to honor her husband – has been stolen, Rosie and Ella team up to solve the mystery.

The mystery of the stolen book is secondary to what happens to Ella. What had seemed to be one star is actually one among many, and Juliet Bell has a talent for unspooling this magic so slowly that Ella – and the reader – hardly sees what is happening, until she is surrounded by wonders. All the characters in this story are flawed and real, especially the grandmother, whose loneliness and longing give her exterior its sharp edge. Bell writes characters that surprise the reader with their capacity to grow and change, and whose bonds are formed through forgiveness, understanding, and, of course, love. They remind us that, though we can't choose our relations, we do choose our family.

Just as Rosie points out Orion's belt in the sky to Ella, Bell illuminates this constellation of wonderful characters. She creates a touching picture of a loving, imperfect family, at the center of which is Ella, who most fears that she will be left alone, and who discovers how surrounded by love she is.

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