Book Review: Hello, Universe
By Erin Entrada Kelly
The best way to read Hello, Universe is with no expectations. Forget that it was recently awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal by the American Library Association and joined the exalted realm of much loved and well-respected writers such as Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Katherine Paterson (Jacob Have I Loved), and Lois Lowry (The Giver).
Forget that it was written by Erin Entrada Kelly, a Filipino American with Cebuano roots. Forget that Hello, Universe was described by the American Library Association as a “modern quest tale” incorporating “Filipino folklore and real life” and “shimmers with humor and authentic emotion.” Hello, Universe is a fascinating and enjoyable story, but it also has the burden of unfair expectations.
Told from multiple perspectives, the adventure begins on the first day of summer vacation. The lives of four middle schoolers converge when shy and timid Virgilio Salinas, fondly called Turtleby his family, enlists the help of Kaori Tanaka, who sees herself as a mystical fortune teller who seeks signs from the universe for guidance. Kaori and Virgilio go to different schools but know each other through their moms who are both nurses in the same hospital. Virgilio needs help getting the courage to talk to Valencia Somerset, a girl he knows from his school’s afterschool program--he thinks they are “meant to be friends.”
Valencia Somerset is strong and spirited, very much like the female leads in Kelly’s previous books (Soledad in Land of Forgotten Girls, Apple in Blackbird Fly). Her deafness doesn’t bother her as much as losing her friends because of it. She befriends a stray dog that she treats like a pet. Few things scare her except for her recurring nightmare of becoming the last person on Earth. Valencia thinks that the best time to pray is right before going to bed, because of her bad dreams, and she imagines her prayers going up to a cloud and then “the cloud would get so heavy that all my prayers would come falling down and I’d have everything I wished for.” She thinks Kaori who can interpret dreams can help her.
Virgilio is the most ordinary and unlikely of heroes. He doesn’t quite seem to fit in with his happy boisterous family aside from his grandmother, a kindred spirit who is practical (we are introduced to her bemoaning the excess amount of mangoes Virgilio’s mom bought, “and they are not even from the Philippines!”), and mystical (she gives Virgilio the mysterious directive to avoid the color red as he is about to leave the house). He thinks his brothers were made from a “factory that made perfect, athletic, perpetually happy children” while he “was made from all the leftover parts.” He has trouble with multiplication and needs to go to his school’s afterschool program for help. Chet Bullens, who also goes to their school’s afterschool program, frequently calls him a “retard.” An unexpected encounter between Chet and Virgilio in the forest forces Virgilio to face his deepest fears.
When I first read the book, I was searching for Filipino references. There is Virgilio’s grandmother, referred to as his Lola in the book. Lola shares many fascinating stories. There are stories of people from her town (a girl born with six fingers, Ruby the girl with no fortune on her hand), and then there are magical stories (Stone Boy, the boy swallowed by stones, Frederico the Sorrowful, an unhappy prince who cried so much his tears created islands, Paulito, the one-inch-tall prince who saves a town one grain of sand at a time, and a girl who kills a giant crocodile with a burning log). These stories though interesting, are unfamiliar to me; they evoke fantastic creatures from Philippine mythology like the tikbalang, manananggal, and duwendes from stories from my own childhood. I also noticed how the Kelly meticulously planned Lola’s seemingly random stories to highlight a specific event later in the book, making the story richer and more meaningful.
I think the key to reading this book is to read it like any regular book without expectations. When I read it the second time, I enjoyed it a lot more, appreciating the humor and the grit of the characters. Valencia lives up to her name (which means brave in Latin) as she looks the school bully straight in the eye, and when he makes a face at her, she is not afraid to call him “doofus.” When Valencia asks Kaori why she doesn’t seem like she’s twelve years old, Kaori replies, “That’s because I’m the reincarnated spirit of a 65-year-old freedom fighter.”
Hello, Universe is meant for third to seventh graders. My two sons, Nicolas (14) and Rafael (9) are the ideal audience and they both liked Hello, Universe. The story, told from different perspectives, is a format that both boys like. They say it has a similar format as one of their favorite books, Wonder. Nicolas also says that it’s interesting to have a timid main character which was different from the usual heroic ones.
I was delighted to find out that Kelly wrote two earlier books, Land of Forgotten Girls and Blackbird Fly. My younger son Rafael, read these books unprompted and said he enjoyed reading the stories. Both books have engaging characters and plots with more references to the Philippines and characters who once “lived on a beautiful island surrounded by crystal water” (Land of Forgotten Girls) and remember the Philippines with “the most beautiful water you’ll ever see,” with “sparkling shades of green and blue” (Blackbird Fly).
The diversity of the characters is a highlight of Hello, Universe. In Kelly’s first book, Apple, the main character is ostracized and ridiculed in a mostly white community. Apple struggles with her identity – her appearance, the pancit and fried rice she eats at home, her nickname – until she makes a friend who thinks all the things that make her different make her special. In Blackbird Fly and Hello, Universe, the characters are more diverse. Soledad has a Chinese neighbor who becomes a fairy godmother of sorts. In Hello, Universe, Virgilio doesn’t stand out because he is Filipino; he is different because he is shy and quiet. Valencia talks about her dog, Sacred, whose fur is black. “For some reason people are more afraid of black dogs than dogs of any other color… Dogs and cats can’t exactly control the color of their fur, so why does it make a difference if they’re born with black fur or brown fur? It’s all hair.”
Erin Entrada Kelly’s books are meant to be read not just because of the Filipino characters in it, but also because they deal with the issues that worry kids. She writes with humor and grace about friendship (or the lack of it), being different, and overcoming your greatest fears. I am looking forward to reading her new book, You Go First.
Titchie Carandang Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in Northern Virginia Magazine, Working Mom, Asian Journal, Metro Home and Vault. She and her husband Erwin are the co-founders and co-creators of the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project where they document landmarks of Philippine history and culture in Washington, DC. She lives in Fairfax with Erwin and their children, Nicolas and Rafael.