"WILD RIDE: MY JOURNEY FROM CANCER KID TO ASTRONAUT" (adapted for young readers) by Hayley Arceneaux (Convergent Books, 208 pages, $18).
"When you read a story, it becomes a part of you," writes Hayley Arceneaux in "Wild Ride: My Journey From Cancer Kid to Astronaut." "When you read this book, I hope that you get the feeling that anything is possible. That if you are sick, you can get well again. That if you are scared, you can find your inner bravery and your own strength."
Adapted for middle-grade readers from Arceneaux's 2022 memoir of the same name, "Wild Ride" tells the story of her recovery from childhood cancer and her unexpected opportunity, at age 29, to join the first all-civilian mission to space.
The story begins with an earlier daunting journey. Immediately after Arceneaux is diagnosed with bone cancer as a fourth-grader, she and her mother relocate to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, leaving her dad and brother at home in Louisiana. At the hospital, she undergoes months of chemo, loses her hair, has multiple surgeries — including the crucial insertion of an internal prosthesis into her leg — and withstands grueling physical therapy. Arceneaux grows to love St. Jude and the compassionate doctors and nurses who take such good care of her and her family throughout her cancer ordeal.
Despite some setbacks and additional surgeries, Arceneaux is finally declared cancer-free. Still, she struggles with the experience: "I didn't want to be labeled as the cancer girl anymore. ... I had a complicated relationship with my leg. I would always call it 'my bad leg.' It took time to get to that place where I could say, 'I love my scars.' I had to heal, and I had to see things in a new light." After finding that she enjoys traveling all over the country to give fundraising speeches for St. Jude, she decides to study medicine and do her best to return there as a staff member someday.
By January 2021, Arceneaux has achieved her goal and is working as a physician's assistant at St. Jude when she receives the call that will set her on course for the stars. A billionaire businessman named Jared Isaacman is sponsoring a SpaceX mission called Inspiration4 to raise $200 million for St. Jude. She is shocked — but immediately thrilled — to be invited along on the trip: "Going to space wasn't something I could have even imagined wanting. But the moment they asked me, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to go."
Once Arceneaux agrees and the other crew members are selected, they begin an ambitious monthslong training program: from G-force tolerance at a centrifuge in Pennsylvania to space-capsule simulation in California, altitude chamber conditioning in North Carolina to zero-gravity flight in Nevada, fighter-jet training in Montana to water survival skills in Florida. On an especially difficult endurance climb up Mount Rainier in Washington, Arceneaux finds the going tough and fears for the stability of her prosthetic leg. She writes, "Thinking about my patients helped me through. We ask a lot of them, these kids going through cancer treatment, and they don't complain. What they're doing is a lot harder than just climbing up a mountain."
On Sept. 16 of that year, Arceneaux and her teammates blast off successfully, ultimately spending three days orbiting the Earth. A high point for her — aside from floating in zero gravity, which she loves — is a space-to-Earth video call with the staff, patients and families of St. Jude. She answers questions, demonstrates zero gravity and issues her favorite message of hope: "If I can do this, you can do this." She later learns that their fundraising goal has been surpassed and her call reached 1,500 families.
The Inspiration4 space flight made her, at that time, the youngest American, first pediatric cancer survivor and first astronaut with a prosthetic body part to accomplish such a mission. It's a fascinating story, one that young readers will likely find exciting and inspiring. Arceneaux is honest yet relatable.
She writes, "Not everyone has childhood cancer to overcome, but everyone has something. Everyone has something that hurts your heart, makes you nervous about what the future will hold and even makes you lose hope. What I've learned in my life is not to give in to that sadness and fear, not to lose hope, no matter what. Happiness and hope are, at the end of the day, choices. And they are worth choosing."
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.