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hello, universe

19 february 2018

Descriptions of Hello, Universe, the 2018 Newbery Medal winner by Erin Entrada Kelly, spoke of its being a gentle evocation of a circle of special friends. I feared I was in for something like the 2006 Medal book Criss Cross, which is so gentle it's stultifying. But Hello, Universe is a little more energetic, and will hold a child's, even an adult's, attention.

Spoilers await, so click away now if you hate them.

Centrally, the plot of Hello, Universe involves a boy getting stuck in a well. Nobody knows that Virgil Salinas is down there, so when friends and family realize he's missing and go looking for him, the novel recalls Betsy Byars' 1971 Medal winner The Summer of the Swans, another plot generated by the interweaving of a lost boy and his searchers. Hello, Universe is not as serious a book as The Summer of the Swans, but any time you have a kid lost in the woods you are concerned about the success of the search.

Virgil has climbed down into the well to save his pet guinea pig. Heck, you would too. A bully has thrown the guinea pig, and the backpack that contains him, into the pit, and Virgil follows without a second thought. The impromptu coalition of rescuers who set out in search of Virgil include sisters Kaori and Gen (Kaori is a young, entrepreneurial psychic), and Valencia Somerset, a hearing-impaired girl who happens to be Virgil's first crush.

Like Sara Godfrey in The Summer of the Swans, the searchers are kids, a little distracted, with personal agendas of their own. They don't even know Virgil that well, though they're clearly on his side against the bully, and their search is more role-playing adventure than agonized quest. For the reader, at any rate, the search does its job. It generates suspense – in what has, up to now, been a somewhat placid story.

Hello, Universe runs 311 pages with only scant illustration, but the font is large, the white space generous, and the core plot not much more than would fill the average chapter book. Much of the early part of the novel is taken up with establishing the characters and their initial relation to one another. I made fun of a passage in Criss Cross that describes a character preparing a cup of coffee, so I should do the same with a passage from Hello, Universe that talks about how to buy avocados:

I'm excellent at choosing the perfect ones. You have to pick an avocado that is darker in color, not too green. Then you place it in the palm of your hand and squeeze—gently, real gently. If you squeeze too hard, your avocado will get all bruised up. You want it to be soft but firm. If it squishes too much, it could be rotten. But if it squishes just a little, it's probably ripe and ready. (64-65)
Now, if on the principle of Chekhov's gun, an avocado were waiting to go off somewhere later in Kelly's novel, this might have some point, but it's really just a self-contained PSA on how to select avocados. Fortunately there isn't too much of this stuff before kid and guinea pig go down the well, and the action commences.

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow [HarperCollins], 2017.