What does plucky Pluto do when he receives a call from scientists on Earth informing him that he isn’t a planet anymore? In author Adam Rex and illustrator Laurie Keller’s Pluto Gets the Call, a November release from S&S/Beach Lane, he embarks on a fact-filled romp through the solar system to find out why he’s been downgraded. The shunned planet introduces readers to “real” planets, asteroids, moons, and the sun, commiserating about his predicament and questioning where he fits in if he’s no longer a planet. Illustrations by Keller portray Pluto’s journey and his spry and informative exchanges with fellow celestial orbs.

Rex, whose extensive children’s book credits include author-illustrator of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and The True Meaning of Smekday and illustrator of Mac Barnett’s Brixton Brothers series and a trio of picture books by Barnett, noted that the genesis of Pluto was a creative anomaly for him. “My books usually start with a random, unpredictable thought that leads to an idea that happens to stick,” he said. “This book began when Allyn Johnston at Beach Lane contacted me and asked, ‘Do you have a book about planets in you?’ I pursued a couple of ideas, and I realized that what happened to Pluto was a very big solar system news event of my generation. So, the book grew from there.”

Rex found himself musing on the 2006 downgrading of Pluto to dwarf planet after a vote by International Astronomical Union members dictated it did not meet all the criteria of planethood. “It occurred to me that an anthropomorphized Pluto in that situation would think about many things that kids think about,” he said. “Things like feeling that they aren’t big enough, that they’re no longer part of the group, or that authoritative figures are diminishing them. And being stripped of planethood, Pluto would face an inner struggle, which all kids feel at various times.”

Pluto’s personality followed quite effortlessly for Rex, who already had an idea about how the former planet might think as a human. “My notion of what Pluto was like as a person really changed the day they decided to take his status as planet away,” he observed. “Before that, he was sunny, affable, and trying to please, but he didn’t have what it took to be everyone’s favorite planet. It became a matter of form following function, and I knew I wanted to write about Pluto getting the bad news. His reaction told me everything I needed to know about his personality!”

Keller Joins Team Pluto

Deciding on an illustrator for Pluto was also an easy task for Rex—in fact it was a foregone conclusion early on. The author has long admired Keller, whose author-illustrator career had an auspicious debut with 1998’s bestselling The Scrambled States of America. “When I finish writing a book, I either feel it’s necessary for me to illustrate it or not,” Rex said. “This book from the very start felt like a Laurie Keller book—it seemed to me that I was writing the way she would and felt that if I did illustrate the book myself, I’d just be ripping off Laurie! And as it turned out, she added a lot of great Laurie Kellerisms to the book, in sidebar material and dialogue arranged in the margins.”

A self-described “huge fan” of Rex’s work, Keller said she was “super honored” to be asked to illustrate Pluto and tackled the task eagerly—if a bit apprehensively—since this was her first time illustrating a picture book written by another author. “I was very nervous at the beginning, since I’d never messed with another person’s story before!” she recalled. “When I illustrate my own stories, I can do whatever I want, and I wasn’t sure how Adam and Allyn would react to my pictures. So, I was very happy when I showed them my sketches and they encouraged me to keep going—and basically let me have free reign. I loosened up quite a bit and worked little facts and jokes that popped into my head into the illustrations, as I usually do in my own books. Spontaneity is one of my very favorite things.”

Like Rex, Keller found Pluto’s personality easy to convey, in part, she explained, due to the author’s ability to “let readers connect with Pluto and his emotions right away. Adam makes you empathize so much with Pluto. He is so excited at the beginning of the story, but you know from the title of the book that an emotional fall is coming. Each of the planets has such a distinct voice, and it took me a while to figure out which colors and textures to use to portray them. But Pluto’s expressions popped into my head right away!”

Rex and Keller were both pleased to hear that Pluto’s real-life future may have a silver lining, given a press statement made this past August by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Weighing in on the controversy surrounding Pluto’s diminished status, Bridenstine announced, “Just so you know, in my view, Pluto is a planet, and you can write that the NASA administrator declared Pluto a planet once again. I’m sticking by that. It’s the way I learned it, and I’m committed to it.”

“It doesn’t surprise me, since so many generations have grown up learning there were nine planets,” Rex said of Bridenstine’s championing of Pluto. “I understand why there needs to be criteria for designating planets, but I would certainly be at peace with letting Pluto rejoin the club.” Keller is also in favor of restoring her new planet friend’s celestial celebrity. “I know there has been a continual backing-and-forthing between the two camps since Pluto was demoted, but I think it deserves to be a planet. If reinstating it is under consideration, I am rooting for Pluto for sure!”

Pluto Gets the Call by Adam Rex, illus. by Laurie Keller. S&S/Beach Lane, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5344-1453-2