Annie is a senior in high school in a suburban Texas town facing large, looming questions. Like where is she going to college and what will she do with the rest of her life. Surrounded by engineers who work with NASA, and fellow students who know that college is the next step, Annie isn't even sure she wants to go to college. She loves poetry, and has tried her hand at writing a few times, but is pretty sure she's actually terrible and knows there's no money in the endeavor. She hides her passion from everyone - her divorced parents, her best friend Lea, and even Mark, her boyfriend of two years.
When Lea, the daughter of NASA engineers, invites Annie to yet another dinner party featuring NASA personnel and astronauts, Annie drags her feet until she learns the Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe, will be there. She maneuvers her way to sit next to Christa at dinner, and even though the conversation is rather routine, Annie finds herself inspired by Christa's passion for life and following her dreams. While Annie doesn't know the answers to her big life questions yet, she knows she wants to see Christa's launch into space.
Meeting Christa, and roadtripping with her dad and his handsome young friend Tommy to see the Challenger launch, and ultimately the disaster after takeoff, inspires Annie to start taking risks. Small ones first, but bit by bit Annie draws strength and inspiration from Christa's memory, and is finally able to take off for herself.
First of all, I have to give massive props to Jenny Moss for how she carries off the climactic scene of the Challenger's explosion. I knew going in that it was going to happen, and yet when the shuttle finally launched, and then broke apart, my heart was in my throat. I felt like I was right there with Annie, even though Challenger happened when I was barely a year old.
The romantic subplot in Taking Off is absolutely superb - because it reflects a lot of the indecision that can happen in relationships, especially young ones. I've gotten burned out on the number of YA books that end with the teens finding their soul mates. Annie is content with Mark, but knows they're not soul mates. So refreshing to see a girl exploring her options!
This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, meaning this book is set at a very specific time that is close enough to feel contemporary but long enough ago that the book's intended audience wasn't even born yet. This is historical fiction that will still appeal to people who think they hate the genre, because aside from the Challenger and a few mentions of cassette tapes, Annie's personal struggles are truly timeless.