I have read many books. Most of them are forgettable—fun at the time, but not very meaningful to me. Others stay with me. Orbiting Jupiter is in the second category. Its beauty is in its simplicity. I have never forgotten its story.

The premise is simple. Joseph is a fourteen-year-old boy in foster care. He has been incarcerated for trying to kill a teacher. He is also a father to a young girl named Jupiter. Twelve-year-old Jack is Joseph’s new foster brother and the narrator. Joseph is distant at first and shows clear evidence of severe trauma. He at first has trouble fitting into his new life, but slowly, he starts to adjust. He becomes closer to Jack, though their friendship is like most of the book understated, shown in matter-of-fact details. Slowly, Jack learns that Joseph loves his young daughter, Jupiter. He also loves Jupiter’s mother, Madeline, who died in childbirth. Joseph wants to be a father to Jupiter. 

At the hands of a lesser author, this story might seem predictable, even cheesy: Troubled kid on the road to recovery with a loving family. There would be a few pro forma pieces of acting out, then a climatic scene where they get through to the kid and then a happy-ever-after. But in Gary D. Schmidt’s hands, it is a moving, powerful story. 

The most obvious thing that sets the novel apart is the writing. Jack’s voice has a stark grace while simultaneously inhabiting the world of a sixth-grade boy. The book is an in-depth portrayal of masculinity. Neither boy often shows emotion or talks. Instead, the book is a masterpiece of showing, not telling. It focuses on the little details that show the boys’ emotions. Their friendship runs deep, though they do not acknowledge it at first. Eventually, Jack learns to recognize and be proud of his friendship with Joseph.

This book was not the beautifully written comeback story I expected after reading the first couple of chapters; it avoided such obvious, straightforward answers. One big question the book poses is whether Joseph should accept that, at 14, he cannot be a good father, and give up.  It also begs the question that whether we as readers should root for him to be a part of her life, even though legally, he is not supposed to.

This is a beautiful story that will stay with you forever. It will also cure you of any desire to write long sentences.