Based on the cover and title, I came into Sal and Gabi Break the Universe expecting a fun middle-grade romp with a science-fictiony feel. What I got exceeded my expectations by quantum orders of magnitude. (Actually, I don't know enough about the definition of quantum to know if it's actually expressing my meaning in that sentence, but it sounds good, doesn't it?)
There isn't any way to describe the book without spoiling a lot of the fun surprises, but I'll try to tell you what I loved while still being mysterious.
I loved Sal. I loved his voice, his self-depreciating wit (that's the best kind, in my opinion), his bold approach to life and problem-solving, his hilarious sense of humour. I loved that he's a magician (the sleight-of-hand kind). I loved that his dad is a calamity physicist. (A quick google search indicates that there's actually no such thing as calamity physics (google would know about it if there were, right??), but it's such a cool idea: it ought to exist!)
I loved Gabi even more, if that's possible. She's a force of nature, a warrior, the leader everyone didn't know they needed. I loved her quick, incisive mind, her witty come-backs, her insistence on respect. She and Sal make a brilliant, hugely entertaining pair and I wish they had been my best friends in middle-school. (But I would never have dared!)
I loved their school! I know there are arts-focused schools out there that are probably pretty amazing, but wow, what a wondrously ideal education to imagine! I loved all the teachers and the principal, loved the projects we found out about, loved detention!
I loved, loved, loved Sal and Gabi's families. I cannot say enough about how this book models diverse, loving family relationships—what it looks like when families are there to support one another—gah, I just, I have no words. Brandy pointed out in her review how refreshing it is to have a middle-grade book with present, functioning, loving parents, and I agree. Loved that.
Loved the Cuban food, the language, the culture that came through so strongly. This is a deep, rich book and the specifics of Sal and Gabi's Cuban community were a big part of the depth and texture.
I loved the writing. I had a little scrap of paper with quotations written on it, but I can't find it, alas. You'll just have to read it yourself, I guess! Assured, solid, textured, hilarious.
The themes! I don't even know where to begin. Family, friendship, grief, identity, self-esteem, how to be a decent human being. Dense and meaty stuff, all woven through with humour and insight. Hernandez reminds me very much of William Alexander, another favourite middle-grade writer who doesn't underestimate his audience's capacity for wisdom.
I laughed, I cried, I bought the sequel! I don't know what else to tell you: just read this book!
The book describes a Cuban roast pork dish (the name of which I wrote on that scrap of paper I can't find) that seems like the perfect analogy: flavourful, savoury, hearty, spicy.
And because you are an audience that might appreciate my accomplishment, here are a couple of solitaire Bananagrams I'm particularly proud of! (I find this a soothing, meditative kind of thing to do.)