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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Hello, Heavy Medal – Hello, Universe

hello universeHello, Heavy Medal readers.

I was born and raised in Taiwan. After college, I taught 7th and 8th grade English in a Taipei public school before pursuing a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature from The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. Those two brief but glorious years saw me reading 15-30 children’s books a week, discussing, thinking, and breathing the classics and the contemporary, books for the very young and also edgy YAs. We analyzed themes, examined authors’ crafts, and defended our tastes while ventured into new literary territories. After working as a children’s and school librarian for almost 25 years, this is still my favorite part of the job: discussing and writing about books for young readers. So, it’s with great pleasure that I accepted SLJ’s invitation to serve as one of the three bloggers.

Newbery experiences are not only professionally satisfying but personally affecting. The members of my 2002 Newbery Committee (A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Carver by Marilyn Nelson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath) have never ceased communicating, online and in person, celebrating milestones, discussing important issues, and supporting each other in difficult times. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we were reading the Newbery contenders when 9/11 happened and intuitively realized how life-affirming and healing literature could be, for ourselves and for our children. I served again on the 2013 Newbery Committee with Steven as my chair. And I will never forget his wise guiding words to our Committee: that as we discovered Newbery worthy books, we must examine and express “how” the author achieved such excellence. Our task was to truly understand the literary craft of each author. This is a constant question that I challenge my students, as young as fourth grade, to puzzle over and I hope to apply it diligently here on Heavy Medal.

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly has a perfectly fitting title as a first post.  This is one of those books that I felt reluctant to start: too many friends have praised and recommended it, a pressure that I don’t react well to, being a slight rebel at heart who likes going against the grain from time to time. Without the duty as a Heavy Medal blogger, I might have pushed it off for a long while.  This is also a book that did not immediately grab me, a lover of fantasy, science fiction, and darker motifs. A tale of a shy Filipino American boy, who’s bullied and has a crush on a girl does not promise to be that thrilling. But Erin Kelly builds momentum as she adds other characters and narrative perspectives into the story. Virgil’s Lola, (Filipino for Grandmother) who loves to tell dark Filipino folktales that are often unsettling, casts an enticingly dangerous sheen over story’s tone.  Kaori Tanaka, the twelve-year-old psychic and believer in Fate, is convincingly wise and witty beyond her years. And Valencia, the person of Virgil’s affection, is deaf but never disabled, full of confidence and self-awareness. By the time the major event (involving a backpack, a pet guinea pig, and a boy being trapped at the bottom of a well) occurs on page 116, readers have emotionally invested in most of the characters’ quirks and Virgil’s plight.  The philosophical exploration of Fate, coincidences, and friendship deepens as well.

I especially appreciate the clarity and effective descriptions in Kelly’s writing.

“The darkness had teeth that snapped and clenched, and there was Virgil, sitting a the bottom of its throat.” (p. 157)
“His head suddenly felt very heavy, like someone had placed a brick on his forehead and asked him to balance it there…. His lungs felt full of air and empty all at once.” (p. 160)

One stylistic choice puzzled me at first – why did Kelly choose to present Valencia’s chapters in first person while all other chapters are in third person? Upon re-reading, I realized that it is about how the author could effectively present Valencia’s inner life. In the first person narratives, readers get to “listen” to Valencia’s very clear thoughts, expressed with an absolute loud confidence. It makes me admire Valencia more and really appreciate the author’s choice.

Are there elements that do not work for me? Yes there are — especially when it comes to the portrayal of Chet (the bully). Is this a book that is my top choice as a Newbery winner? I am not certain and would love to ponder and discuss more.

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Roxanne I’m so happy to see you here. Looking forward to hearing your perspective over the next few months.
    I have only just started Hello Universe so I’m just going to toss out this observation. I appreciate very much that Ms. Kelly has portrayed Filipino-American culture in a way that includes the religious and spiritual life. It’s an aspect of culture and ethnicity that is often left out even when the other aspects are accurate, but I’m surprised by how much more real Lola and Virgil feel for having those elements of their life included. I’m hoping to finish this off over the weekend. I’m eager to hear what other folks have to say.

    And I have a request on the practical side of things. I’d love to see a list at the beginning of each month about books that we are going to be discussing, so that I can line up copies and read ahead of the conversation. It need not include every single title you plan to discuss but it would be nice to have a longer heads up about books about which you hope to spark conversation.

    • Rosanne – that’s a good idea. I’ll check in with Steven and Sharon. Will get back to you. I am anxious to hear from others who have read Hello, Universe, especially about how the author handles “Chet, the Bull” and scenes that are more supernatural (?) than just spiritual or religious. I’ll wait patiently here.

  2. I’m a great fan of this one. First I’m going to quote from my March blog review (https://medinger.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/erin-entrada-kellys-hello-universe/) because I feel I was able to articulate some aspects of the book that worked so well for me and don’t feel I can do it any better again. And then I want to address Roxanne’s question about Chet.

    “There is a certain kind of book that can be tricky for me, a quiet, but emotionally powerful book. I see such books as teetering on tightropes — balancing just right the heartstrings-tugging, the poignancy, the tenderness, the provoking-of-tears. Too much and I feel manipulated, too little and I just don’t care. It is for this reason I was wary when beginning Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, but I needn’t have been. It is to my mind an exemplar of this sort of book —- quiet, introspective, moving, witty, and emotional in all the right ways.”

    “There is suspense as we hold our breath wondering how Virgil will be saved, there is humor (especially from little Gen), there is the slow evolution of different personalities, and of what will be, we can be certain, a warm friendship between Virgil, Valencia, and Kaori beyond the book’s ending. It may be this is a book for introverts? I can’t say, but it provided all that I want in a book for children — an intriguing plot, beautifully articulated characters, tight and elegant sentences, wit, and opportunity for thought.”

    As to Chet, I think he is well-drawn and not the caricature that some have suggested. That said, he is presented folktale-like (in tandem with Lola’s storytelling) as a full-out baddy. There is the hint that he is abused and so that may account for his meanness, but I do think sociopath children exist (I’ve dealt with some) and they are just …the way they are. The book ends with Virgil gaining allies that will make all the difference in the world (universe:) for him in the future with Chet, his family (no more Turtle), and — most of all— genuine friends.

    • Yup. The book won me over because of the genuine friendship, support, and Virgil’s coming out of his shell (yes, pun intended.) I’m still uncertain about Chet — and I find the scenes with his father’s emotional abuse less organic than a really obvious device to “explain” why Chet is the way he is.

      I personally love the slight magical elements from the Filipino folklore and how such cosmic connection could be “real” — very much aligned with Eastern Asian folk beliefs. It feels like home to me.

  3. Ann Clare Le Zotte says:

    I was happy to stumble across this blog and discussion. I became a major Erin Entrada Kelly fan after reading BLACKBIRD FLY and THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS. I was so excited when I saw she had a new book. I became nervous when I saw HELLO, UNIVERSE had a deaf character.

    I am Deaf, and I’m usually disappointed or worse by representation in youth literature. I had just read Whitney Gardner’s YA novel WELCOME, UNIVERSE. (Strange that there are two new books with D/deaf characters and the word “universe” in the title!) The Gardner book was difficult for me. She obviously had a lot of goodwill approaching the story and characters—and I liked it much better than HURT GO HAPPY and FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB—but I felt it had major, central problems.

    I’m not joking when I say I felt a palpable sense of relief when I realized that Valencia was not presented as a member of Deaf culture, from a Deaf family, or a native ASL signer. As Cece Bell always points out, there are many different ways to be deaf. But hearing authors (like Gardner) seem to want to create sort of “pure” Deaf characters: who are ASL fluent, do not use assistive hearing devices or oral speech, and even write English grammar like someone whose first language is ASL. This is not a bad goal. But it’s just about impossible to get right unless, for example, you are a CODA.

    Kudos to Kelly for consulting experts at Gallaudet U, rather than just consulting a D/deaf friend or local sensitivity reader. I recognize Valencia. She is like one of the kids I work with/mentor through my work at the library.

    Chet says some terrible things about Valencia—and D/deaf people in general. I’m not sure how I would have handled that as a kid. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I was horribly bullied. But I’m glad she included straightforward audism, as painful it may be for some to read.

    Because you may not know, some Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled and some do. I describe myself as disabled. It’s not necessarily a pejorative term.

    I’m looking forward to reading more reviews and discussions on Heavy Medal!

    • I appreciate your insight, Ann. Thank you. I’m wondering If you’ve gotten to Shannon Hale’s Squirrel Girl? There is a friend sidekick who is deaf. I found her fully realized, but wouldn’t have the same insight on accuracy as you could share.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    One thing I liked about Chet’s portrayal: he’s the one of the four who doesn’t really change through the course of events. That felt right to me, and I’ve read too many books where a bully’s transformation isn’t quite convincing. The slightly magical elements worked for me. There was a feeling of “anything can happen” and “everything is connected” that for the most part made sense and enhanced the plot and themes. But for some reason the instant dog adoption bothered me. Just like that, the dog loves Virgil and he adopts it and his family is fine with it and now he has a handy protector from Chet. Maybe a bit too far into the realm of anything can happen for me. And to some degree it detracts from what I feel is Virgil’s more significant assets against bullies: his stronger sense of himself and his new friendships.

    • Thanks, Ann, for your comment. I’m so glad to learn that you found Valencia’s portrayal authentic. I absolutely adore her and her assertiveness. She also has a lot of humor! Steven, I also appreciate that Chet did not change — and that makes the scene of him with the snake bite super entertaining for me in some petty way: I want to see him not getting the upper hand!

      I totally see why you might find the dog adoption too convenient and yes Virgil should be independent. But just as you like that Chet does not change, Virgil’s new found friendship and strong self awareness might still not be enough to combat Chet. So, this part is all good to me.

  5. Meredith Burton says:

    Based on your review, I read Hello, Universe over the weekend, (well, devoured it is more accurate!) What a lovely and heartfelt portrayal of four very different children. I loved the relationship between Tanaka and Gen, how there different personalities complimented each other so well.

    Regarding the supernatural elements: I was particularly impressed how Ms. Kelly embodied Virgil’s fears and eventual triumph to coincide with the folk tales his grandmother told him. In particular, I felt confined as well when Chet felt Pah descending over the well, and I loved how he described being buried in the stone but how his friends dug him out.

    I am a blind individual and loved As Brave as You last year. Hello, Universe was even more powerful in my opinion. Valencia was an incredible character, and I loved that her chapters were first person. I felt connected to her and loved her spunk and the description of her feelings of isolation. The Nightmare was particularly palpable.

    And, regarding Chet: I loved the chapter with him and his father at the supermarket as it provided insight into how he might have become the type of person he is. It’s a good commentary of how children learn from the examples set by the adults in their lives.

    Thank you for recommending this book. I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t at least an honor title or a strong contender for the Schneider Family Book Award.

    • Meredith, you made such strong cases to support this title. If we’re on the actual Newbery Committee together, I might just have moved it no vote to a vote from me. And yes, I think Valencia is definitely the strongest character. But Virgil gets huge points by recognizing her strength and character.

  6. I was reluctant to read this book, too. The plot seemed slim, and I am sick to the back teeth of bullying-as-triumphant-call-to-arms books. Those books certainly speak to many children, but I’ve read too many middling efforts to be moved by them anymore.

    Although HELLO UNIVERSE didn’t blow me away, I found it sweet and satisfying and cushioned by enough strong character building to move it past being merely good. Valencia was beautifully nuanced, and her world was delineated thoughtfully – particularly in her interactions with the natural world. Virgil’s internal struggle was similarly nuanced, and I quite enjoyed his relationship with Lola – as well as the strain he faced with his siblings and parents. Chet was one-dimensional, and as another commenter pointed out, he doesn’t change for the better. This was a particular strength of the book: there was no rosy ending. Sometimes jerks are just jerks and nothing will shape them otherwise. Kelly nailed it.

    Really the only character who didn’t work for me was Kaori. I have a steadfast aversion to quirk, and I found her mysticism a little too precious. A minor quibble as this book held together pretty well for me. I don’t know that it will be a Newbery contender, but there’s not a whole lot that I’ve read this year that really wows me. There’s only one book I’ve read that feels Newberyish to me, and we’ll perhaps discuss that title later.

    I’d gladly give HELLO a Schneider. And maybe a Newbery honor. We’ll see.

    • I think my view on the book is very close to yours, Joe. And yes, even though I can find sympathy for Chet’s character, I’m glad that he didn’t suddenly become a nice person. That would take the realism away from the book. Speaking of Realism, the book is really playing with the line between totally real and slightly surreal, a space where many many young people live in: when the mystery of the world that’s quite new to them includes all possibilities, like the power of Fate and spiritual connectivities. I thought that Kaori’s mysticism matches quite nicely with Virgil’s experiencing the folklore elements in Real Life and does not feel tagged on. I also think Kaori and Gen’s team-sisterhood is lovely.

  7. Sara Coffman says:

    I’m only about halfway through this one, but I keep coming back to the plot device of the well – I’m hung up on how different (and, in my opinion, less successful) this version is than in last year’s THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME by Karen Rivers. I was almost sick reading that book – I felt the tension of it so fully. Here, I’m somehow less concerned for Virgil, less claustrophobic on his behalf. Both the physical reality of the well and the act of bullying that lead to it feel more true to me in the Rivers than here. Where Kelly excels for me is how Virgil feels out of sync with his family, the comfort he takes from being awake before the house is awake, his resistance to (and identification with) the Turtle name. There is good stuff here, but I’m not sure where I’d put it in the Newbery conversation at this point in my reading.

  8. This is my favorite title of the year so far, but probably more by process of elimination that anything else. I don’t love it the way I’ve loved Newbery contenders in years past. But as for now, and what I’ve read, it’s my favorite.

    What I thought Kelly did so well was distinguish the voices of the characters. I also thought the complexity of their social anxieties was very well done. For example:

    “That night, I cried on my mom’s lap. That’s how upset I was. And my mom said that if they were real friends, they would have figured out a game that all of us could play. I can’t stand when she says stuff like that. It makes me think she doesn’t get it. Bad friends were better than no friends. And besides, I thought they were my real friends in the first place. That was the whole reason I was crying.”

    Outside of Virgil’s grandmother, the adults were somewhat naive to their children’s social anxieties. This strengthened the characterization to me. They all felt like distinctly different, real children. Even Chet. And I liked how the resolution and each of their changes felt true to their characters.

    Monica said it best about this book. I think it very subtly and quietly, does a lot of things really well.

  9. Oh, Thank you. This has been sitting at the top of my list as well, but as Mr. H. said, more by the process of eliminating underwhelming titles. Something with stronger elbows could shove it aside, but it worked for me on all levels.

    It does seem quiet but so layered and poignant it doesn’t fade into the shadows. And if at all possible, books should have in house phychics as well to keep the plot in hand.

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