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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hello Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly. Harper, 2017. $21.00 ages 9 and up

"Virgil had drifted off. A few hours ago he wouldn't have thought it was possible to sleep when your life was in grave danger, but he'd actually fallen asleep, cradling Gulliver close to him. All the crying, fear, and loneliness had wrapped a big, heavy blanket around him and told him to rest, so he had. But now the darkness on the other side of his eyelids shifted and there was light ... "

I read this book a few weeks ago, and then received another by the same author a week later from Maeve at Harper Canada. I am so thankful to have the chance to share them with you now. To read both in a short period of time has me looking for more books by Ms. Kelly. Next on my list is Blackbird Fly. She creates worthy, memorable characters and quiet stories of relationships, family and hope.

In Hello, Universe we meet Virgil Salinas and learn that, although sixth grade is just finished, he is not looking forward to next year or the years after.

"He imagined all those years stretching ahead of him like a long line of hurdles, each of them getting taller, thicker, and heavier, and him standing in front of them on his weak and skinny legs. He was no good at hurdles. He'd found this out the hard way: in gym class, where he was the smallest, most forgettable, and always picked last."

Virgil is the quiet, shy child in his outgoing, noisy family ... and they let him know it. He has one wish - to talk to Valencia Somerset, one of his classmates. He just doesn't have the courage to approach her. His friend, Kaori Tanaka, is sure she is blessed with psychic powers, and offers to help him out. Then there is Chet Bullens, with a perfect last name. He bullies Virgil on a daily basis. At home, only Gulliver, his guinea pig, and his lola make it evident that they love him just as he is. Lola regales him with folk stories that make an impression, and Gulliver consistently listens to Virgil's thoughts and concerns.

It's the first day of summer. The chain of events that link these characters is told from varied perspectives and make for a fascinating read. Virgil is on his way to an appointment with Kaori when he meets Chet in the park. Chet is cruel, throwing Virgil's backpack down a well. He does not know that Gulliver is inside. Virgil is not about to let anything dire happen to his beloved pet, and ends up in an untenable position at the bottom of the abandoned well. Little does he know, as he faces the darkness and his fears, how much he matters to his friends and family. The chapters are short, the suspense palpable, and the characters worthy of knowing. Each of them has a story to tell, and each one is handled brilliantly in Ms. Kelly's deft hands.

Inspiring, and hopeful. Middle graders will love it!

And now to You Go First, also from Harper and published this year.

"Ben didn't want either of his parents to disrupt the stasis - his appropriately fluffed bed pillows, his smooth Ravenclaw comforter, the Star Wars Lego world he'd built three years ago and still kept in the corner. He didn't want devolving people in his land of sense and logic. But what you say when your father asks to come into your room and his eyes are wide and sad looking? You say yes ... "

Charlotte and Ben don't have physical contact with each other; rather, they are competitors in ongoing, formidable games of Scrabble online and eventually count on each other as they deal with their own grief. Charlotte's father is in hospital following a heart attack. Things at school aren't great - her best friend is more interested in others than she is in maintaining her friendship with Charlotte. Ben is new to his school, and his parents have just told him that they are divorcing. The two begin talking to each other on the phone, offering support as they try to understand the heartbreak that is part of both lives.

Once again, Ms. Kelly alternates her story between the two, allowing readers to get to know them better and to appreciate the honesty expressed in their stories. We learn that they are both very bright, thoughtful, and quite remarkable in their own right. Their story takes place over a period of six days. Each of Ben's chapters is titled Life According to Ben, while Charlotte's begin with a title and a short paragraph about something she finds intriguing and that foreshadows her story's action:

"Rabbit Hole: In 2017, Haitian immigrant Denis Estimon started a club at his Boca Raton high school called We Dine Together. Its purpose is to make sure no one eats lunch alone."  

This is serious stuff, handled beautifully in Ms. Kelly's powerful prose. She knows what matters to middle graders. It is also reassuring, allowing her readers to see hope in their ability to be patient and strong when life throws a curveball. Being yourself is a tough thing to do in adolescence. Charlotte and Ben show readers that it's possible. You are going to love them and their finely wrought world.

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