Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe.
March 14th 2017 by Greenwillow Books
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central
Virgil's family calls him "Turtle" because he won't come out of his shell. His parents are both busy nurses, but his grandmother seems to understand him, and comforts him with stories. He has a crush on a girl in his class, Valencia, but doesn't know how to talk to her, so he consults Kaori, a girl who gives "psychic advice". Virgil also has to put up with local bully, Chet. When Chet throws Virgil's backpack down an abandoned well, he panics because his hamster, Gulliver, is in the pack, and jumps down into the well to retrieve him, and then is stuck. Valencia, whose deafness causes her some issues when dealing with others, is out in the woods observing squirrels on her way to get advice from Kaori, and vaguely notices the shift, but thinks little of it. When she arrives at Kaori's, Kaori is waiting for Virgil and voices her concern over his disappearance. The girls decide to investigate, and wisely start by asking his grandmother. Eventually, they come across Chet in the woods: he has been torturing snakes and has been bitten by one. All of the events come together, and Virgil is rescued from the well, tentative friendships are formed, and the adventure is neatly wrapped up.
It's difficult to write understandable and distinct characters in alternating chapters, but Kelly does a good job of this, even though some chapters are in first person and others are in third. Virgil's fear of everything is palpable but not overdone, Valencia's eccentricities and interest in animals are quirky but endearing, and even Kaori's business interest in psychic readings (and her attempt to advertising them on a message board in town without getting in trouble with her parents) is portrayed realistically. Adults, rather than being absent, are hovering at the edges so that there can be adventure but also help if situations get out of hand.
Virgil's grandmother plays an interesting role, sharing Filipino legends with him in order to make him stronger. One of these, about Ruby San Salvador, helps him when he is stuck in the well, since he has lengthy conversations with the spirit while waiting for help to arrive.
Readers who enjoy books with diverse casts but a general feeling of sadness such as Rivers' The Girl in the Well is Me, Appelt's Maybe a Fox or Spinelli's Eggs will find Hello, Universe to be a complicated blend of social issues framed in a classic neighborhood adventure story.
Don't think I will buy this one-- Chet was too stereotypical, and I couldn't believe that any 6th grader would be stupid enough to jump down a well. Okay, VIRGIL, didn't seem stupid enough to jump down a well. I'm sure this will get lots of love, but I don't see it circulating well in my library.
Dee, Barbara. Star-Crossed
March 14th 2017 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss
Mattie is in middle school, and her friends Lucy and Tessa know that she's had a crush on Elijah forever. The friends like to hang out, and try to stay on the good side of popular Willow, who can be very mean. When the school play is Romeo and Juliet, Mattie is thrilled that she gets a major part, and is okay with the fact that Mr. Torres, the director, wants her to work with Liam, the actor who has been cast as Romeo. New girl Gemma has been cast as Juliet, and Mattie thinks she is perfect. When Liam breaks his arm, Mr. Torres suggests that Mattie take over the role of Romeo. She's glad to have the acting experience, but worried because she has a huge crush on Gemma, and doesn't want anyone to know. Her sister and her friends are all supportive, and Gemma doesn't seem to mind, either. The play is a success, and Mattie learns to be true to herself and to not let her life be run by jerks.
Strengths: This was a great book to see. We have moved beyond a need to have the whole story be about emerging sexuality-- we just need to see characters of different kinds going about their lives. I loved that Mattie's sister and friends were very supportive, and also that the thought was brought up that having a crush on Gemma meant just that Mattie had a crush on Gemma. It might mean more later, but for 8th grade, it might just mean that she really like Gemma. For my students who still ask why "we have books like this", (used to describe a character in Rick Riordan, of all things!), this is a great mainstream title to introduce them to the fact that we have books like this because we need to be inclusive rather than judgmental.
Weaknesses: There was a LOT of Shakespeare in this. A LOT. I'm not a fan, and I don't know many middle school readers who are.
What I really think: I'll buy it despite the Shakespeare because it's a book I need to have.