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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist – Hello, Universe

hellouniverseShort List Title:  HELLO, UNIVERSE

(Titles on our short list will be included in the live Mock Newbery in Oakland.)

Before I go any further, I just want to give everyone a heads-up that I am writing this from Australia, where I am visiting for a couple of weeks.  This just means that, depending on where you are, I am likely awake while you are sleeping and sleeping while you are awake, so may not be here to respond to comments rapidly.  That’s the case for my next four posts.  I’ll be back home just a couple of days before our Mock Newbery discussion in Oakland and can’t wait to see some of you there!

In the meantime, let me introduce Helle Universe to get our discussion going.

One of the strengths of Hello, Universe is the successful crafting of four interwoven voices and stories that didn’t feel forced.  Each voice felt distinct and authentic.  The use of first person for Valencia only gives the audience a deep insight into her inner thoughts and also made the writing more dynamic and interesting.

Kelly crafts a story that is quiet, emotional, and compelling and that runs the risk of being overly sentimental or, for lack of a better word, twee, but manages to stay on the right side of that line.  She takes commonplace children’s problems and brings them to an extreme in a plot that is engrossing, suspensful, at times humorous, and ultimately satisfying.   I think the uniqueness of these characters is wonderful and the actual writing, sentence by sentence, is superb.

I have heard concerns about Chet’s character and its one dimensionality and I do echo those concerns a bit.  I think he is the weak link of the four voices and is a bit unbelievable.  At the same time I wonder if he is maybe just right for children, the intended audience, who imagine bullies just as Chet actually is.  Is this a fair treatment, and is it respectful of the child audience?

Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. Cherylynn says:

    As someone who cannot hear out of one ear and have siblings with hearing aids I find the voice of the Valencia to be sensitive to the issues that someone with those problems faces. I loved the romance with that tentative first love and uncertain feelings. Characterization was a strength. My issue was actually with the predictability of the plot. I thought that it was a weakness. When you tell me that the younger sister follows the older one around with a jump rope, I know there will be a need for it later and someone falling in a hole is a pretty common problem in stories. Sharon enjoy your vacation.

    • Been thinking about that jump rope and it occurred to me that we need to consider it not from our experienced adult-reader perspective, but from a child who may not be as familiar with such tropes. That is, it may not be obvious to them at all that the inclusion of the jump rope will mean it will help Virgil eventually

  2. I liked this title a lot. The presentation of theme – finding your voice – was particularly well attended to, though I think there are more successful examples of that theme this year – most of which, unfortunately, are not on our short list. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to compare that which is not on the table. I do think children will like this book and relate to at least one of the four central characters. Each is so unique and well-rendered.

    Kelly’s writing is simple but powerful, her characterization deft but purposeful. I am one of the voices who felt that Chet is an extremely effective character. I expressed earlier in the year that I particularly liked that Chet did not change by the end of the book. HELLO, UNIVERSE does not shy away from the fact that some people, no matter how dire the circumstances, do not, cannot, and/or will not change. I’m sure we’ve all met someone (or are related to someone) who fits this mold. Chet is one of those people.

    I’d like to call to attention the line in your review, Sharon: “At the same time I wonder if he is maybe just right for children, the intended audience, who imagine bullies just as Chet actually is.” I taught in public education (middle school) for 17 years, and can safely say that many children do not have to “imagine” bullies like Chet. They are the victims of bullies who *are* Chet or bystanders who watch bullies like Chet. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and Chet is only one particular type of bully. A vicious one, to be sure, but one all the same. And a very effective bully at that. I think it was purposeful for Kelly to choose this stripe of bully, and I also think many children will have a visceral response to his character. I like that kind of fearlessness in writing, and Kelly achieves it for me.

    I think this is a book around which consensus could easily be built. It is not a title I nominated, nor would I even put it in my Top 5 of the year. However, I would happily be persuaded to vote for it if it came down to brass tacks. I think, sweet as it is, the book has a lot going for it and it has an easy audience, too.

  3. I too have written before here and elsewhere of my appreciation for this title. What I feel is done so well is that the strong emotionality underlying each character’s direction is kept at the right level — too much and it would become maudlin, too little and it would feel single-dimensional.

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but recall appreciating tremendously the writing —
    I recall elegant and beautifully constructed sentences. I too thought the weaving in and out of the four character threads masterfully done, spare, but done so that as we turn the pages we get to know each character as a highly distinctive individual. As for Chet, I’m with Joe in thinking he is the character he needs to be for this story and also, very much appreciated that he starts a bully and stays a bully.

    Unlike Cherylynn, I did not find the plot predictable. It was not at all clear to me how Virgil would get out of the well. And that the jump rope would be used to help was not so evident to me (at least so I recall, having read the book months ago). I was charmed by those sisters, to be honest.

    An introvert myself, this felt like a book for that sort of reader, quiet, wry, and introspective.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Coming after THUG and REFUGEE, two books that might be faulted for offering “easy conclusions,” I commend this book’s unexpected moments. I liked the uncanny episodes with Ruby in the well. I liked that Virgil wasn’t immediately transformed by his ordeal (as would have happened in a lesser book) and seems to blow his chance with Valencia despite Kaori’s and fate’s intentions. That was refreshing and distinct.

    But then I think plot undermines interpretation of theme at the actual ending, which is admittedly cute and open and satisfying, but ultimately a sop. If you’re going to have a Newbery winner about destiny and criss-crossing lives, it should have courage of conviction (and kept Virgil and Valencia apart) for more coherence and poignancy in plot/theme/character/style.

    Unlike some others, I felt all the principal characters were, if not one-dimensional, a bit flat (so two-dimensional?) One of the ways I assess characterization is to gauge how much it would take to describe them. So if Chet were more-or-less fully described by the phrase “stereotypical bully” then he would be one-dimensional in my book. In his case, taking note of how he works for dad approval adds some dimension, but maybe there’s not too much beyond that. Similarly, if I describes Kaori as a “New-age-y romantic” how much more is there to say about her really? If you look at the publisher’s descriptions, “Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his crazy-about-sports family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and she loves everything about nature” do the characters really display much more than these few descriptive words, as likable and sympathetic as they are?

    As far as the long list goes, I think the richest characters this year are actually the non-fictional ones: Vincent and Theo, Mildred and Richard, Shannon – they gave me the strongest impression of not being reducible. But even among the fictional group, I think some characters (Starr, Patty) surpass Kelly’s and many equal them.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Although I wouldn’t rate the character development HELLO UNIVERSE as highly as I would other books, I do think there’s more to these characters than their book jacket portrayals. “…[S]hy and kindhearted and feels out of place…” is an accurate description of Virgil. We don’t learn that he is actually other things too…instead we learn more about those qualities. The strength I see is in the author’s exploration of what it’s like inside the head of that shy kid with specific examples that illuminate.

      Yes, he’s out of place in his loud family, but you really learn specifically what that means to him when he tries so hard to maintain the quiet of his house, “careful not to make any noise so he wouldn’t wake anyone up. For his sake, not theirs.” “He was too busy relishing in the discovery that he could hear his thoughts.” [p 81].

      His quietness takes on a different significance when he finds it such a challenge to yell for help, even when he’s in danger: “Who goes eleven years of their life without yelling once?…He wondered if he even yelled when he was a baby. He would have to ask his mother. She would know.” [p 146]. So we’re learning more about what it is to be that quiet, plus seeing the almost automatic reflection and self-criticism that’s a part of him.

      When he’s about to jump off the ladder, we see the physical manifestation of fear, as he hears his own breathing, identifies every part of his body that sweats, links his situation to his experience with monkey bars, “which he’d never been able to cross in his entire life.” [p 124] It’s a very personalized inventory of the feelings of a scared kid with no self-confidence doing something really difficult. It’s more interesting and rings truer than any of the many more dramatic scenes if REFUGEE, and I think it’s because the author has given us real insight into how Virgil thinks and feels.

      I think this kind of exploration of those surface trains listed on the book jacket is most successful with Virgil, but it happens with the others as well. In a way, the list of traits seem to align with how the kids’ parents might describe them. The parents don’t play roles in the action, and except for Chet’s father seem like decent, caring people. But I think they impact the kids’ worlds significantly. None of them are seeing their kids in the ways they want to be seen, and that drives the children’s inner conflicts. I appreciate the way the author didn’t make that an issue, and didn’t really make the kids themselves all that aware of it, but it’s something readers can see.

      • FWIW I’ve said before and will again — this is a book that speaks to introverts. I found Virgil’s character beautifully developed and complex. From his unhappiness at being called Turtle and other deeply introspective thoughts, I found him a rich and complex character and suspect he will be similarly recognized as a fellow by other young introvert readers.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I agree with you both that Virgil is the book’s best case for “delineation of character.” I agree Kelly’s ways of manifesting his character are sensitive and that he is a relatable character.

        But then let me ask this – does farming out 3/4 of the book’s viewpoints to the other characters make the book less effective than if the book had just been about Virgil? Despite the book’s pitch about being about 4 kids, I think a strong argument could be made that the book is really only about Virgil in any meaningful sense.

        And doesn’t the end of the book then betray the work Kelly put into Virgil’s character? As suggested before, I thought the truest moment of the book was when he couldn’t talk to Valencia after Fate delivered her to him. I also consider myself shy and introverted in person. Ordeal or no, there isn’t the slightest chance at his age I would have had the courage to text a girl out of the blue like he does. I used the word “sop” before – this really felt like a concession to the romantics like Kaori in the readership at the expense of Virgil’s integrity.

  5. Steven Engelfried says:

    Joe mentioned avoiding comparing HELLO UNIVERSE to books that aren’t on our short list. It’s actually fine to compare books on our short and long lists to other eligible books from this year. The Terms and Criteria say: “The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award.” For the Committee, that can include books that did not get nominated. Which can be helpful. When talking about VINCENT AND THEO, for example, a member might refer to UNDEFEATED or another history/biography title in hopes of supporting an argument that V AND T is a distinguished nonfiction book by comparison. In the Committee, if UNDEFEATED had not been nominated, it still almost certainly would have been among the “suggestions” that members submit monthly. So the member could be fairly confident that everyone at the table knows the book, even if they haven’t re-read it and looked as closely at it as they would have done with nominated titles. We don’t have that layer in this blog, of course, but it’s fair to assume that a lot of people reading are familiar with books beyond our short and long lists.

    Which is a very long way of saying: It’s fine to name the books from this year that did a better job on the “finding your voice” theme than HELLO UNIVERSE.

    • Thank you, Steven. That was an extremely helpful clarification and provided great context to how Real Committees operate. Now that I know this tidbit…

      To me, TRAIN I RIDE, THINGS THAT SURPRISE YOU, and FOREVER OR A LONG LONG TIME all interpreted a theme similar to HELLO, UNIVERSE far more successfully. Each of the principal characters in these books (especially in the latter) suffer in a visceral manner, and when they find their voice at the novel’s end, it’s deeply satisfying. I’d argue, too, the THE WAR I FINALLY WON also conquers HELLO, UNIVERSE in interpretation of theme, though I’d like to save my adoration of that book for when we discuss it. 🙂

  6. Leonard, which non fiction title are you referring to when mentioning Shannon ?

  7. I wondered if he was referring to REAL FRIENDS… Am I correct?

  8. The nonfiction reference threw me for a minute, but then I realized what you meant. Not an error in my book, was just thinking of REAL FRIENDS as a graphic novel only. It’s not though.

  9. I agree with everyone that it’s well-written prosewise and the multiple POV is well done. I love the characters and the voice. I laughed out-loud several times, which is always a good sign! I agree with Cherylynn about the jump rope, but it didn’t bother me too much. For me, it’s not a wow book, but it’s a very good book.

  10. This remains one of my favorites of the year. I have said before though, that may be in part due to the fact that I haven’t been wowed by a lot of the middle grade fiction that usually makes up the bulk of my To-Read pile (that is, until I began reading a particular graphic novel for the long list discussions here).. Still, I find this title particularly strong in many of the Newbery criteria and like Joe said above, could see consensus being built around it for the simple reason, that it doesn’t appear to be quite as divisive as some other titles.

    I liked the four different narratives and how some are in third person and some are in first person. I heard each character come through their sections so I thought the points of view felt authentic. I thought the stories converged perfectly. I think Steven did an excellent job above, citing examples of Virgil’s character development. I would argue Leonard’s characterization by stating (with no disrespect to children) that sometimes children can be summed up by a handful of adjectives. I’m thinking of many of my current 5th graders. I don’t think a character needs to possess a ton of traits and have those traits explored by an author to be deep or three-dimensional. Yes, Virgil is shy, but by showing him function in his family, and interacting with others his age, and sticking him in a well where we can psychologically examine him, allows his character and that one trait to become multi-dimensional, in my opinion.

    I also thought I read somewhere, maybe in another thread on this site or maybe in comments on Goodreads, someone commenting on how Virgil was too smart to jump into that hole. That it didn’t feel plausible. This action adds depth to his character in my opinion, by showing his concern for his gerbil. I thought this further showed how thoughtful of a character he was. I found him to be perfectly complex for the intended audience.

    As for Chet… I think Chet is just the right antagonist for Virgil’s story and it’s not because he’s a stereotypical bully that kids will be able to imagine easily. Kids are smarter than that. Kids understand that bullies come in all shapes and sizes and genders (Mika from ALL’S FAIRE comes to mind as another bully kids will be able to relate to easily). Chet is the exact type of bully that would terrorize Virgil. That’s not stereotypical. That’s just real. I liked the peek into Chet’s world, seeking his twisted father’s approval, and liked how this wasn’t sugarcoated or overexplained to readers through more narrative. Yes, the scene with his father is in there specifically so readers can see WHY Chet is why he is, but Kelly trusts readers to see this in that one scene and doesn’t elaborate on it. I also really appreciated how her writing of Chet is so blunt and unchanged in the end. A somewhat simmered down version of Wolk’s Betty from last year’s WOLF HOLLOW.

  11. Speaking to character, excluding Virgil, we have three over-the-top personas, two of which bring a delightful texture to this narrative. I’ve never met an elementary age psychic, nor a Jane-Goodall-level naturalist of that age. Kelly’s development made me believe in them, and confirmed that the world would be all the better to have them. There was a time I would have felt that Chet and his father were too over-the-top blustery and cruel to feel genuine. I don’t need to look beyond the adoration I see for our current Bully-and-Chief, to find that there are those who prize a show of might and cruelty to achieve the ends they feel they deserve, to confirm that the world is peppered with Chets.

    Virgil has the only well-delineated character arc, but I do think that also serves the narrative. I found HELLO UNIVERSE a lovely balance of moving forward. I don’t think, as Leonard does, that the ending would have been better served to have Virgil and Valencia severed permanently. I do think child readers are capable of reading harsh realities, but it would be the wrong tone for this type of book.

    My biggest problem with this book, which is one my top three of the year, is that it is really hard to book-talk.

    • There’s something else about Virgil’s reaching out to Valencia via text message that felt genuine to me. I can’t put my finger on it but I thought that was fitting for his introverted personality.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      DaNae, I am not inherently opposed to the idea of Virgil and Valencia, it really was just an execution problem for me relative to Virgil’s character arc and the plot pacing. I think I would have been OK with the ending had the run-up been handled a little differently. The last chapter is Valencia’s. The one before that is Virgil’s where we start to see the changes in him. It is my purely personal reaction that what happens in that chapter didn’t “extrapolate” credibly for me so that he’d be texting Valencia by the end of the next chapter. Kelly had laudably let Virgil’s experience take time to shape him, so then it suddenly felt too soon, especially since we are not seeing Virgil and his further evolution, but Valenica, in that last chapter. It’s a minor point. I think Kelly is a good author and this is a good book.

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