Hello, Universe

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2018

Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Age: 9+

Interests: friendship, diverse characters, Filipino folktales, guinea pigs, bullying, deafness/hearing impairment, first crush, shyness

An extremely shy boy (Virgilio) can’t seem to summon the courage to speak to the girl he has a crush on, hearing-impaired Valencia Somerset. He seeks the assistance of his friend Kaori Tanaka, who claims to have psychic powers. Virgil is also having trouble with a bully named Chet. Meanwhile Valencia is trying to tell herself she doesn’t mind that her former friends have deserted her since her hearing went downhill, but she’s suffering from nightmares. One afternoon Chet plays a prank on Virgil in the woods that results in him climbing down into a well to save his pet guinea pig Gulliver. And then he can’t get out again. Kaori and her little sister Gen join forces with Valencia to find the missing boy.

On the face of things, this book has much to recommend it: a diverse cast of characters, some lovely Filipino folktales courtesy of Virgil’s grandma Lola, and themes of friendship and personal courage. I particularly liked the character of Valencia,  who lost all her old friends as her hearing deteriorated. It was interesting to hear all the ways in which the change has affected her, including how she’s now always a step behind in games, and how many kids think it’s just “too hard” to make accommodations for her.

It’s also nice to read a book in which the kids’ cell phones play a role in the unravelling plot. Books for this age don’t always keep up with the technology of the moment!

This is not really a novel about high stakes, or highly dramatic situations. The dilemmas are small, personal ones, other than getting trapped in a well for a few hours. Readers who don’t mind smaller, quieter stories will be fine with this, however the book was disappointing on a number of other fronts.

The bully Chet Bullens was too stereotypical and two-dimensional, especially when compared to the other nicely-rounded characters. Near the end there is a belated attempt to understand him. We learn that he is worried about not making it onto the basketball team, and his dad is pretty demanding, but it’s too little too late.

When Chet is bitten by the snake and actually thinks he’s been poisoned, it would have been nice to see his bravado disappear entirely, but he still summons the energy to insult the kids as they try to help him. I think having him dissolve entirely would have been far more interesting. Another interesting possibility would have been if Chet actually pitched in to help get Virgil and Gulliver out. After all, he had no idea the guinea pig was in the bag when he dropped it in the well. Am I naïve in thinking that even a bully would have been a little concerned if he found out he’d just dropped a live guinea pig down a well?

Also, this meandering storyline really meanders. It takes far too long to really get to what is going on. There’s a lot of waiting and wandering back and forth. There are too many repetitive chapters about Virgil scared in the dark. And the girls wait too long before going to look for him. They stop and make sandwiches, for heaven’s sake, and we have to read all about them eating. Every chapter should contain one nugget moving the plot forward, and there are a few here which could have been cut without any effect on the whole.

The magical realism aspects of the story are sporadic and confusing. Virgil hears a voice in the well that apparently belongs to a girl in one of his grandmother’s stories. She’s telling him to be brave, encouraging him to call for help, which he weirdly refuses to do. (I did not buy that either.) In the end even the magical voice isn’t all that helpful, as Virgil doesn’t make any real breakthrough as he sits down there in the darkness. And when he’s rescued, after all he’s been through, he’s still too shy to talk to Valencia! Argh.

And after being gone for hours, during which his grandmother is texting around trying to find him, Virgil walks in his front door, filthy and exhausted, and his parents and brothers don’t even seem to know he’s been gone?

Finally, for me the avalanche of coincidences that fuel this plot just felt convenient by story’s end. The disparate characters keep meeting up by chance – in the grocery store, in the woods. It really feels like there are no other people in this town other than the five kids and their parents.

So despite the intriguing, diverse characters, I was disappointed by this book. It’s a surprising choice to win the Newbery, as it feels competent rather than outstanding.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.