Discovering a New Universe in The Planet of Junior Brown

For my African American Childhoods class, we’ve been reading classics that have some sort of juvenilia reference. Whether that be books written by children, for children, or about children we’ve covered a wide mix. I according to the syllabus picked up my next weekly novel, a two hundred or so page book called The Planet of Junior Brown, written by Virginia Hamilton and published in 1971. Importantly it also has received the Newberry Honor Award. Before I knew it though I was quickly absorbed into this world that felt eerily congruous with other fiction I’ve read before yet almost alien at the same time. In fact, that idea of otherworldliness, of something outside of the universe that I’ve already processed coincides with a huge theme of the book anyway: the solar system and its spatial impact. Before I knew it I had adapted a different position as a witness to this story and after one sitting I had finished the harrowing novel. 

As soon as I finish The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton, I went onto Google to try to figure out if what I read was real. I checked multiple summaries, reviews, and articles, and was astounded to find so many negative remarks about it. Not to mention a lack of academic articles that didn’t just include this novel in the wider conversation of African American childhood literature, but as its own entity. I specifically looked at Goodreads and all the people were talking about how “slow” it was. I was astounded by that idea… in my head, I was like you’re not getting the point at all! The reviewers didn’t even talk about this insane twist at the end with the mental illness aspect that I personally didn’t grasp until the end of the book (but now looking back at it in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense). The reviewers didn’t even understand the metaphor of the planets or the solar system or the delimited space concepts: in which this novel existed throughout. The reviewers said that this book was slow and that it was hard to follow the characters and their purposes. I suppose they thought it didn’t make sense that the novel is titled or rather named after Junior, because it mostly follows Buddy and his very real struggles of homelessness? But this book is about Buddy and this book is about Junior equally. I think that’s the point; they exist together mutually in a system of planets and individuals who in the end realize the point is not individually surviving, but helping each other live in this capitalist society in which their attendance is prioritized over-literal survival. I was astounded reading those reviews and finding that people didn’t relate to these characters didn’t find beauty in the small details, didn’t find a relationship to the sickness physically; in Junior’s mom’s asthma or psychologically in Junior’s mental condition (whether it be schizophrenia, psychosis… I am not sure but I do think that is beyond the point). All of a sudden his music prodigy skills along with his pain, his figure painting of the red man with those planets those beings/humans inside it. All of a sudden it now made sense. And for those reviewers to not understand it to me it’s like what book are you reading? Were you just reading the words as they were written and not on this deeper level? Because I think that’s why it has the Newbery honor book award because this book Hamilton, goes way beyond that surface-level direction of words. Hamilton by creating the specialized solar system, creates the separate entities, the separate individuals, in a system that is so expansive, so infinite, that the Universe in comparison seems minuscule. 

In the end, Buddy says

“because we have to learn to live for each other”

And that’s the point! This is a story about planets, and solar systems: this is a story about mutual coexisting through the trauma of physical and psychological disabilities. A story that refers not only to Junior’s physical disability, his fatness; not only his psychological disability (which is most clearly revealed that the end) but what his racialized identity is. It was often stated especially by Buddy that his dark blackness was one of his most damning elements. What does this book say for his blackness to be included and his planet, his brown planet, his brown and big planet? A planet that includes individuals that don’t smell good and that’s don’t really exist? What does that say about people like Junior, about planets where Juniors exist? And perhaps most importantly, that if they exist why do we abandon them?

And even more frustrating than the reviews was the fact that I could not find a single good academic article on this book (I only found ones where this book was mentioned among other significant black juvenilia literature). Not to mention I could not find a single summary that seemed to cover the true complexities of Hamilton’s tale. But then, as I was walking to my practice and attempting to summarize the plot to my teammate, I realized that a summary or analysis for this book is almost counterintuitive: perhaps that is why barely any exist? You see this book is so much about the physical, spatial realm, a realm in which abstractness and fluidity take precedence over concrete, academic lessons. To bind this novel to only words on a page doesn’t do it justice. The world in which Hamilton created, the planet, exists in her writing and in her beautiful images. So the last thing I want to say is about the fact that this is a novel written for a young audience. At first, when I was reading it I was like no way, this book is insanely complex, how could anyone expect children to get it? But then I realized maybe the reason it has these negative Goodread comments is that adults reviewed it.

I think this novel is so specific to African American childhood survival that while we can observe these astonishing themes we as adults will inevitably struggle in perceiving their true gravity. This book is one of the deepest most pedagogically challenging texts I’ve ever experienced, but to Buddy, his life is just his way to survive. This book is about the trauma of forcing children to be adults in systems that force their own demise. And I think to a lot of black children like Buddy and Junior, this novel might seem way more familiar and realistic than it is to us adults.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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