2018 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.)
Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is the recipient of the ALA’s 2018 Newbery Award.1 Kelly’s award-winning novel is the newest of her four middle grade books, all published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, and all with a focus on friendship and family.
A successful novel—whether it is written for young readers or old—combines a compelling plot with interesting, believable characters. It doesn’t matter whether plot or character takes center stage, but both must be present for the story to be well rounded. Hello, Universe is a character-driven book for middle grade readers that seems a bit light on plot. Before we get to the plot, let’s meet the cast of characters.
- Virgil Salinas is the protagonist of the story. It is his problem that drives the plot, such as it is. Virgil is a small boy, a quiet and fearful boy, whose grandmother Lola tells him cautionary Filipino folktales that often end in tragedy. He is easily cowed by the neighborhood bully, and he wishes his family would not call him Turtle, a name that constantly reminds him to come out of his shell.
- Valencia Somerset is a deaf girl who attends the resource class at school—the same class Virgil attends. Between Valencia’s hearing aids and lip reading, she “hears” pretty well. She has questions about God and church; she prays to Saint Rene (once a French missionary), and she is haunted by a recurring nightmare. The girls who were her friends in years past have decided she’s too hard to communicate with, and now they shun her. In response, Valencia decides she doesn’t need those girls as friends or any friends for that matter; solo is the best way to go.
- Kaori Tanaka is of Japanese-American descent and prides herself on her power of second sight. She considers herself a young psychic who taps into astrological signs and star alignment to foretell the future. She goes to a different school and lives in a different neighborhood from the other three primary characters, but she connects immediately with both Virgil and Valencia, so the differences are not deal-breakers.
- Chet, the Bull, Bullens is the local bully who learns from his father to mock and malign those he views as different, stupid, or weaker than he is. He is a stereotypical character, and his meanness is worthy of a reader’s disdain. There is little to like about him in the beginning, and he shows no growth over the course of the book, so he’s no better at the story’s end.
These four come from a variety of cultures and have varying personal needs. They are unlikely companions whose paths intersect on a day when Virgil and Valencia each have an appointment with Kaori to learn about the future. Virgil’s appointment is first, but an encounter in the woods with Chet lands Virgil at the bottom of a well with no way out. By the time Valencia arrives for her appointment, Kaori is worried about Virgil, who is never late. As a result of Kaori’s concern for Virgil, Valencia’s appointment is derailed, and both girls, along with Kaori’s sister, begin to search for Virgil, a search that ends well.
Hello, Universe is a quiet story. The pace is slow, and the plot is nearly nonexistent. As a character-driven book with the primary focus on these four characters, one would expect some kind of emotional response from the reader—perhaps sympathy for one or more of the characters, perhaps frustration. But because not all of these characters are well rounded, the reader may find the book doesn’t elicit much response at all.
The plot of Hello, Universe is simple. Virgil wants to talk to Valencia, but he’s too shy at school, and he cannot, or will not, speak to her even after she helps with his rescue. The conclusion of the book hints at the plot resolution when Virgil begins to tap out a text message on his phone. The text reads “hello.”2
There is much about the text that is spiritual, albeit not Christian. Valencia is very curious about church, church people, and God, though she isn’t sure there is a God. And she prays to Saint Rene, but she is uncertain the saint really hears her. Kaori speaks to the spirits, and she speaks for the spirits, but whether she truly believes in the spirits is left to the reader to decide. Ruby is a girl from Lola’s village from long ago, and Virgil hears her voice while he’s trapped in the well. She tells him the universe will intervene and tell him what he needs to know, but he must listen.3 The overriding power of the universe shows up not only here, but also at other times in the story as well.
If there is a single theme, it is this: “What you believe today, you may not believe tomorrow. Things change when you’re not looking."4 While it is true that some people feel truth is a moving target, a biblical worldview does not see truth as relative, changing much as the seasons change. This may be a sticking point for some readers.
The conferring of a Newbery award is a subjective business to be certain, and online reviews of this year’s winner are quite polarized. Some readers give the book five stars, finding it emotionally evocative; other readers call the book merely cute and wonder what all the fuss is about. Time will tell whether Hello, Universe will become a memorable Newbery winner.
2 Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), 311.
3 Ibid., 205.
4 Ibid., 283.