The Stars Below Me

Mara is miserable in the city—until a friend helps her discover a whole new universe.

By Wendy Mass
From the March / April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify how Mara changes when she realizes that her new city surroundings, and a new friend, offer unexpected joys

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
UP CLOSE: How a Character Changes

As you read, look for how the main character, Mara, grows in an important way.

Some people might think country living is boring, what with the wide-open spaces and the big piles of hay. But except for the roosters waking me at the first sign of the sun on the horizon, I love it here. In the fields with my telescope, I can see the craters on the moon and the rings of Saturn. The stars are so far away, it can take millions of years for their light to reach us. Whenever I look up, I’m looking into the past. I travel through time without leaving my backyard!

How cool is that?

The problem is, Dad just got some big job on a newspaper, and now we’re moving to New York City. Mom grew up in the city and is so excited about the move she’s practically glowing.

I am not glowing.

I’ve lived in this house every day of my life. I’ve gone to school with the same kids since kindergarten. The fact that I’ll still have the stars in New York is the only thing keeping me from freaking out. Dad promised that our apartment will have a balcony for my telescope. He also promised I wouldn’t have any trouble making friends.

I doubt that one. Kids in the city are cool. They grow up next to famous people, and they know what to wear for every occasion. I like looking at the stars and growing big pumpkins. I’m in the 4-H club. I even like math. I don’t think I’m going to be very popular.

On our last night at home, I step outside to say goodnight to my best friend, Eta. We’ve known each other since we were 7 years old, and we say goodnight every night before bed. I met her when my grandfather gave me my first telescope on my birthday. He pointed it at the constellation Cassiopeia [kass-ee-uh-PEE-uh]. He showed me how the bright stars spell out M for Mara, and that a star close to the middle is named Eta. He said Eta is a star just like our sun and might have a planet around it just like Earth. And on that planet, there may be a girl looking up at the stars, wondering if anyone’s looking back. I decided to call that girl Eta. We’ve been friends ever since.

“Goodnight, Eta,” I whisper. “Next time I see you, it will be from the city.”

“ ’Night, Mara,” I pretend she says. “Have a wonderful trip.”

We leave at dawn, and after a 10-hour drive, Dad parks the moving van in front of a building that’s so tall I have to crane my neck to see the top. I’m used to seeing miles of sky when I’m outside. Already I want to go home.

Our apartment is on the second floor, and the building is surrounded by other tall buildings. This means I can’t even see the sky from my window without sticking my head far out. I have a feeling I’ll be spending most of my time on the balcony.

When it’s finally dark, I take my telescope onto the balcony and look up. The sky is a rosy pink. I can see some faint points of light, but no patterns. No constellations. My heart starts pounding. “Dad!” I call. “Come quick!”

When he runs outside, I gesture frantically at the sky. “All the lights! It’s too bright!” I cry. “I can’t see Eta! What if she’s waiting for me to say goodnight, and I’m not there?”

Dad puts his arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey. Would you like to come inside? We can take a break from unpacking and watch a movie. It might take your mind off it.” I shake my head glumly. “Well,” he says, squeezing my shoulder, “maybe it will get dark enough in a few hours.”

But it doesn’t. I sit out there for two more hours, and the sky doesn’t darken one bit. Mom eventually comes out with hot chocolate, but I don’t drink it. I bet it wouldn’t taste as good in the city.

When I finally decide to go to bed, it’s late. I drift in and out of sleep all night, the strange sounds startling me. At my old home, I’d hear the occasional animal baying at the moon, but here there are rattling pipes, neighbors shutting doors, the wail of sirens. It takes a long time for morning to come. When it finally does, I lie there waiting for the roosters that never crow. Instead, Mom sticks her head in.

“You have a guest,” she says, beaming.

I sit up so quickly I get a head rush. “Eta?”

“Who? Oh, right. No, of course not, honey. Her name is Chloe.” Of course it wasn’t Eta. Rubbing my eyes, I ask, “Who’s Chloe?”

“Chloe’s the daughter of an old friend of mine. They live in the building. Hurry and get dressed.”

Standing in the living room next to my telescope, I find a short, thin girl with brown curly hair. She’s wearing a sundress with yellow daisies. I feel a pang of homesickness for the daisies that used to grow on the edge of our field.

“Welcome to the city,” Chloe says, smiling. “Your mom was telling me you like astronomy. That’s, um, neat. I never knew anyone who had a telescope before.”

I feel my cheeks burn. Why did Mom have to tell her that? Now she knows I’m a geek, and I haven’t even opened my mouth yet.

“I have to go,” she says before I can even get a word in. “But maybe I’ll see you later?”

“Um, sure,” I reply.

“She seemed very nice, didn’t she?” Mom asks, closing the door “Mom, I know you want us to be friends, but she left the second she met me.”

“I’m sure it had nothing to do with you,” Mom replies. I’m not convinced.

I'm already getting squirrelly from being cooped up inside, so I decide to go exploring. My parents make me promise not to leave the building. As though I’d have anywhere to go. I head downstairs to the one place I’ve seen so far that reminds me a little bit of home. 

The walls of the lobby are paneled in wood, and there are plants in every corner. There’s a fountain in the middle that actually has two small ducks in it. I plan to sit by it, close my eyes, and pretend to be on my favorite rock next to the brook that ran behind my old house. To my surprise, Chloe is already sitting there, a textbook open in her lap. She looks up as I pass by. Her eyes are red, and her cheeks are blotchy.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. “Are you OK?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I have a math test tomorrow. I’ve been studying all day, but I’m still going to fail.”

“I can help you,” I say softly.

Her face brightens. “Really?”

I nod and feel my cheeks burn again. “I’m pretty good at math.”

“Can you come up to my apartment after dinner?” she asks.


After dinner, I take the elevator up to Chloe’s apartment. I show her easy ways to remember the formulas. She catches on fast. We take a break for hot chocolate, which, I admit, does taste as good in the city. We even laugh a few times. I’m glad I found her by the fountain.

I keep catching Chloe glancing at the clock, though. “I should probably go,” I say.

“No, no,” she says. “In fact, I have a surprise for you. C’mon.” She leads me into the living room. “Your mom told me how sad you were that you can’t see the stars here, so I wanted to show you different kinds of stars. I was waiting till it got really dark.” She steps onto the balcony and I follow.

My breath catches in my throat. I knew the elevator was going up really high, but I didn’t realize what a difference it would make. Tiny lights glitter beneath us in every direction, in every color of the rainbow. They’re like a million stars, but I’m seeing them from above instead of below. “It’s . . . it’s amazing!” I say, exhaling.

“Over there,” she says, pointing to the left, “is Central Park and the natural history museum. It has an amazing planetarium. And over there is the Statue of Liberty. And there’s the Empire State Building. I know it’s not the same as exploring the stars, but we could have so much fun exploring the city together. I can teach you everything I know.”

Before I can tell her how wonderful that sounds, Chloe adds, “Plus, my uncle lives outside the city. You can come with us next month, if you want, and show me everything YOU know. About the real stars.”

I swallow hard. “I’d love to.”

She walks me out to the elevator and says, “Thanks again. I never looked at math that way before.”

“Thank you!” The elevator arrives and I step in. “Goodnight, Chloe.”

“’Night, Mara,” she says with a smile and a wave.

Hearing Chloe say goodnight is almost like hearing it from Eta. Except more real. I know Eta is still out there. But until I see her again, I get to explore the stars below me with a new friend.

How cool is that?

Write to Win

Imagine you are Mara at the end of the story. Write a letter to Eta, telling her why you might not see her for a while and how you feel about that. Send it to “Stars Contest” by May 1, 2019. Ten winners will each receive a copy of Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

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Answer Key (1)
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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
The Stars Above Us

Mara’s interest in astronomy might have inspired your students to do their own star-gazing. Send them over to NASA’s Space Place, where they can learn about constellations, watch a video about exoplanets (like the one where Mara’s friend Eta might live), and more. For a deep-dive project-based learning adventure, be sure to check out the Research Kit with this issue! 

Advice for Kids on Moving

Mara faces a hurdle in adjusting to her move to the city—not unlike what many children go through when they move. For kids in a similar situation, check out this KidsHealth article, “What Kids Who Are Moving Should Do.”

What Mara Sees

At the end of the story, Mara looks out on the dazzling New York skyline. What makes up this spectacular view? Your students can discover fun facts about the city’s most famous—and tallest—buildings at the site Skyscrapers of New York City.

More About the Story


How a character changes, inference about character, sensory details, perspective, plot, author’s craft, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning/Purpose

In "The Stars Below Me," a girl is unhappy with her family’s move to New York City—until a new friend helps her to change her point of view. The story’s overall message is that a fresh perspective can make an experience that seemed daunting seem exhilarating instead. Readers will need to make inferences to fully understand the story.


The story is chronological and takes place mainly over the course of two days.


The story includes a few challenging words, such as horizon, glumly, and pang. It also has rhetorical questions and other figures of speech.

Knowledge Demands 

The story refers to constellations, the rings of Saturn, craters on the moon, and some New York City landmarks. 

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)  

  • Prepare students for reading by having a brief discussion about how they think living in a city differs from living in the country or in a suburb. Ask: What would it be like to move from your area to a new setting?
  • Preview the questions in the margins. Point out the blank “Write your own question” bubble on page 13.
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box for the class.

Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary activity to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include constellation, baying, astronomy, squirrelly, and planetarium.

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio version as they follow along in their magazines. You might assign it as homework.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Read the story again as a class, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Answers follow.
  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Knowledge Builder (p. 11) Looking at the stars is like looking into the past because we’re seeing the light they gave off millions of years ago. The night sky is a picture of where stars were long, long ago.
  • Character (p. 11) Mara doesn’t want to move because she has lived in the same place and known the same kids her whole life. She thinks New York City kids will be too cool and grown-up to be friends with a girl from the country. Answers will vary.
  • Inference About Character (p. 11) Mara seems like a smart girl who loves the outdoors and everything about space. But she considers herself “uncool” and isn’t confident that other kids will like her. Having an imaginary friend on a faraway star suggests that she is a dreamer and maybe doesn’t open up to people in real life.
  • Inference About Character (p. 12) Eta might be important to Mara because she’s always there—or at least the star where Mara imagines Eta to be is there. Eta might also be important because Mara can always picture her as a good friend and listener. Mara doesn’t have to negotiate a real friendship or worry whether Eta likes her.
  • Sensory Details (p. 12) The author contrasts the sounds of the city with the sounds of the country. She describes Mara’s hearing “animals baying at the moon” and roosters crowing in the country. In the city, Mara hears “rattling pipes, neighbors shutting doors, the wail of sirens.”
  • Perspective (p. 13) Chloe might be impressed that Mara is interested in astronomy; it’s new and different to her. Perhaps Chloe would like to look through Mara’s telescope. To Mara, Chloe’s words suggest she thinks Mara is a nerd, and no one else in the city likes astronomy.
  • Plot (p. 13) At this point, Mara and Chloe have a conversation that will eventually lead to a friendship. Mara’s skill at math becomes an advantage for her, and Chloe invites her over.
  • Perspective (p. 14) From the height of Chloe’s apartment, the city looks beautiful to Mara. She compares it to seeing the stars in the country, but from above. She is surprised and thrilled.
  • How a Character Changes (p. 14) Mara realizes that she can manage without saying goodnight to Eta every evening. Having a real friend she can get to know is better than having a far-off friend that she shapes in her imagination.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • At the beginning of the story, Mara says, “I don’t think I’m going to be very popular.” Do you think she would say the same at the end? Why or why not? (how a character changes) She probably would not say this. At the beginning, Mara assumes that city kids will look down on her for liking astronomy, math, and outdoor activities. But when she meets Chloe, she realizes that she can connect with a city kid. Chloe is not so different after all, and each girl has something to offer the other.
  • Compare the first paragraph of the story with the fifth paragraph on p. 14, starting “ ‘Over there . . .” In what ways are these paragraphs alike? Why do you think the author made them similar? (author’s craft) Both paragraphs include many details describing a special place. The author probably made them similar to show that both the country and the city can be magical, as Mara learns.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: How a Character Changes

  • Distribute our character activity and have students complete it in small groups. Then ask students to respond to the writing prompt on page 14.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Students might be confused by Mara’s friendship with Eta, an imaginary girl named after a star. To help them, read together the seventh paragraph on page 11 (starting with “On our last night at home . . .”). Point out the image of Cassiopeia in the corner, explaining that a star close to the middle is Eta. Review what Mara’s grandfather told her about it.

For Advanced Readers

Have students read Wendy Mass’s novel Every Soul a Star, which has topics and themes similar to “The Stars Below Me.” Find a book review template in our Activity Library and ask students to review the novel.

For ELL Students

Mara’s experience may reflect one that many English language learners have had: moving to a place that’s completely different and feeling unsure about fitting in. Invite students to share how they felt when they first came to the U.S., if they were old enough to remember it.

For Science

With its discussion of stars, planets, and constellations, this story provides a perfect connection with a science unit on space. Or let it inspire students to do their own research project on an astronomy topic.