06 March, 2018

[Review] Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Series: N/A
Release Date: 14 March, 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins, Greenwillow Books (imprint)
Genre: Juvenile Fiction / Friendship / Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance / Special Needs
ISBN: 9780062414151
Edition: audiobook
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Review Written: 24 February, 2018
Warnings: Contains Spoilers
Summary: Winner of the Newbery Medal

“A charming, intriguingly plotted novel.”—Washington Post

Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe is a funny and poignant neighborhood story about unexpected friendships.

Told from four intertwining points of view—two boys and two girls—the novel celebrates bravery, being different, and finding your inner bayani (hero). “Readers will be instantly engrossed in this relatable neighborhood adventure and its eclectic cast of misfits.”—Booklist

In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his crazy-about-sports family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and she loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister, Gen, is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just stop being so different so he can concentrate on basketball.

They aren’t friends, at least not until Chet pulls a prank that traps Virgil and his pet guinea pig at the bottom of a well. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find missing Virgil. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms.

The acclaimed and award-winning author of Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls writes with an authentic, humorous, and irresistible tween voice that will appeal to fans of Thanhha Lai and Rita Williams-Garcia.

“Readers across the board will flock to this book that has something for nearly everyone—humor, bullying, self-acceptance, cross-generational relationships, and a smartly fateful ending.”—School Library Journal

See more about this book and Ms. Entrada at the HarperCollins’s Website.

I’ll admit I picked this book solely on the fact that it was the most recent Newbery Medalist and I wanted to be ahead of the game. Children’s librarians are supposed to know all the good books, and how can we know if we don’t at least attempt to read them. The story itself was cute, though  the bouncing between narrators Ramon De Ocampo and Amielynn Abellera made for a sometimes jarring experience.

The story of Hello, Universe follows the path of four children (though at some points I’d argue it’s five children), who are struggling in their own ways. Virgil suffers from shyness that makes it difficult to stand up for himself at home, or to talk to strangers that he’d love to be friends with. Valencia has been burned in the past by “friends” who abandoned her due to her disability. Kaori struggles with the fact her family isn’t quite as adventurous or mystical as she likes to claim. Chet struggles with the pressure from his father and himself to be the most manly man he can be, and to put down anyone who is different from him.  Throughout the course of the book, all four are drawn together by various forces in the universe (for as Kaori puts it, there are no coincidences) during the first official day of Summer vacation.

Virgil, a ‘client’ of Kaori, has been seeking advice on how to be friends with a girl in his class with the same initials. Kaori determines the pair are fated to be friends, though she can see why Virgil would be intimidated by the girl’s more bold personality. Thus, she orders Virgil to collect 5 rocks of various sizes before he returns to her house the next day for a ‘ritual’ to help him become friends. Thus, Virgil is in the woods, a place he normally wouldn’t be alone for long, looking for the rocks as he heads towards Kaori’s house. He’s carrying along his pet guinea pig, Gulliver, in his purple backpack making it a prime target for Chet. Chet, who came into the woods to hunt snakes, spots Virgil (who he constantly bullies at school) and decides to torment him once more. Snatching the backpack, he leads Virgil on a chase across the woods before stopping at an abandoned well. It’s here that the bully drops the backpack down the well, thinking that it contains Virgil’s school books and nothing more.

It was at this point I had to take a small break from the book because I was so frustrated with the idea that the pet guinea pig might be dead. Yes, I understand children are cruel creatures, and yes I know Chet had no idea that the guinea pig was in the bookbag instead of books. But it wasn’t any easier to swallow that idea with the knowledge. Still, after a bit I did take up the audiobook again, determined to see what else happens.

Virgil, horrified by the fact his backpack was just dropped down a well, as he should be, climbs into the well. Thankfully the bag was cushioned enough that his pet was alright, but the pair get stuck in the well. And in the well they remain for most of the book. Meanwhile, Kaori gets worried since Virgil isn’t someone who shows up late to anything. Early, possibly, but generally he is right on time. This worry builds until her new client, Valencia, appears and agrees to help look for Virgil after her own session goes awry due to Kaori’s worry. The pair, plus Gen, head off towards Virgil’s house, and after determining he’s not there, decide to hold a “finding ceremony”. During this, Kaori realizes that Valencia might be a good friend due to her knowledge of nature. The trio eventually finds Virgil, and rescue him from the well. Then they all split ways to go home, though they do continue to text during the end of the book.

The book itself is a good book for children struggling with differences. Each character’s struggle eventually leads to some growth for them during the course of the book. Virgil stands up for himself with Chet, asks his mother not to call him Turtle anymore, and eventually does text Valencia to say hello. Kaori finds herself a new “business partner” in Valencia, and even Chet learns that maybe bullying isn’t the best way to do things. Though I found my interest fluctuating with the book, I feel like the audience this is really intended for will find it a fantastic book. With the final overarching themes being standing up for yourself and friendship is important, children and their parents will find an all-around good read.

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