I have been somewhat lacking in middle-grade reviews this year. As in, it's actually been more than a year since I reviewed a middle-grade book! (This is what you get from a blogger with no plan, no mandate, no way of organizing her reading except purest serendipity.) But I went to the children's section of my library yesterday, just to see what caught my eye, and I came home with a large stack of middle-grade reads, so maybe I can start rectifying that imbalance!
I opened Hello, Universe first, and it pulled me in right away. I loved Virgil, who thinks he's not just a failure but a Grand Failure, and I loved his relationship with his grandmother. Then I loved Valencia as soon as I met her, with her prayers to Saint Rene and her determination that she doesn't need friends. And Kaori the psychic and her little sister Gen were hilarious!
I've been hearing lots of good things about Erin Entrada Kelly for a while now, but her books are realistic fiction and I always think I don't enjoy realism as much, which is ridiculous, because there are books like this out there! The voices of the four characters (the fourth one isn't Gen, actually, but more on that in a minute) are spot on: each insecure in their own way, each with their own stories they tell themselves to explain the world and justify their own actions. Each lovable for the way they are trying to be their best selves, given what they've been taught that should look like.
There's so much going on in this book! Stories within stories: folk-tales Virgil's grandmother tells him, facts Valencia reads about the natural world, tidbits of spiritualism Kaori has gathered from various sources. It's delightful to see how each of them weaves a belief system out of the stories and knowledge they gather plus the values they absorb from their family plus their own interests and weaknesses, and how this belief system both helps and hinders them. All kinds of interesting psychology here!
The fourth POV character is perhaps the most interesting in terms of psychology: Chet is a bully, and his narrative explores some of the reasons why he treats others the way he does, a lot of which come from his father's attitudes and opinions. (In case you were worried, his father isn't abusive.) These chapters will be harder to read, particularly for kids who are bullied, because Chet belittles others in his mind before belittling them with his words. I didn't love Chet, but I came to understand him better: he, too, has stories he believes and insecurities he is trying to get around.
What's wonderful about this book is the way all four narratives interweave with each other, both physically, as the characters cross paths or interact or just miss each other, and thematically, as stories or facts from one narrative become relevant to another narrative. One of the pleasures of reading is making connections, and Kelly does a great job of laying out pieces and letting us put them together. I loved the theme that there are no coincidences: believing something is intended or fated gave these characters the courage to grab the moment, reach out and connect with each other.
I also loved the multiple, realistic diversities—ethnicity, culture, religion, physical ability—and the matter-of-fact way differences are introduced. And diverse parent-child relationships: sometimes loving parents aren't actually supportive, and each character here has a different sort of complicated relationship with their parent figures.
Turns out I really do like realistic books! I will be looking for Kelly's two other books that I've also heard good things about, Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls.
Hello, Universe is raspberry rhubarb pie: sweet and tangy and complex, and very summery.
Always In The Middle. Head over there every Monday to get loads of middle-grade recommendations.