It isn’t often that an adult writer like Jack Cheng can so perfectly capture the voice of an 11-year-old kid.
In this case, the (fictional) kid is Alex Petroski, who “loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog, Carl Sagan – named for his hero, the real-life astronomer”, according to the book’s blurb.
Alex may be just 11, but he believes he is “more responsible than even a lot of fourteen-year-olds”.
That’s probably true, as Alex seems to do most of the housework and cooking, as well as taking care of his dog, himself.
His elder brother Ronnie is an agent in Los Angeles who hasn’t been home in over a year, and he lost his father when he was three.
We find out early on that Alex discovered Carl Sagan (the dog) as a puppy in the local supermarket’s parking lot.
“Then I took him back to my house and my mom was lying on the sofa watching her shows like she usually does, and I told her I got the groceries but I got a pup also and I’ll take good care of him I promise, I’ll play with him and feed him and give him a bath and all the stuff you’re supposed to say.
“And she said, ‘You’re in the way!’ So I got out of the way.
“My best friend Benji’s mom would freak if he brought home a pup, but my mom, she doesn’t care as long as I make us dinner and don’t bother her when she’s watching her shows.
“She’s a pretty cool mom.”
What I love about this passage, and indeed, the entire book, is how Cheng manages to convey the reality of Alex’s situation with so few words, yet also portray his childish naivete and trusting innocence without making Alex seem stupid.
The book is written in the form of recordings that Alex is making to put into his rocket.
Each chapter is one recording, typically a narration from Alex on what has happened to him, although Cheng also includes ambient noise and conversations as would happen in a real recording.
Following in the example of his hero Sagan, Alex intends to send an iPod up in his rocket with sounds from Earth, including descriptions of his own life, as a record for alien life forms.
The story starts out with him preparing to travel to SHARF, the Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Of course, this is a bit of a problem as 11-year-olds are not allowed to travel by themselves on public transport – a problem, as Alex plans to take a train from his home in Colorado.
But luckily, he meets kind strangers who help him along the way, including Zed, who is also heading to SHARF and is under a vow of silence, and Steve, Zed’s friend who is a little reluctant to be saddled with a young kid and has a difficult girlfriend.
Along the way, Alex is notified by the website Ancestry.com that someone with his father’s exact name and birthdate was married in Las Vegas to someone called Donna (not his mother’s name).
Suddenly wondering whether his father might actually be alive, and possibly suffering from amnesia, Alex decides to go to Las Vegas and try to look for him, hitching a ride with Zed and Steve who are going home to Los Angeles along the way.
This is very much a character-driven book and I loved how Cheng managed to write so brilliantly about uncomfortable situations from an innocent child’s perspective.
Although the book is classified for those 10 years and up, I feel that adult readers will probably have a greater appreciation for Alex’s situation, which he himself is sometimes unaware of.
Younger readers will probably enjoy the adventure aspect of Alex’s journey more.
Definitely recommended for a slice of real life through a child’s eyes.
See You In The Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Author: Jack Cheng
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, contemporary fiction