Hello, Universe

Virgil is a shy kid in a family of out-going people. His parents call him Turtle because he never comes out of his shell. The only bright spot at home is his grandma Lola who tells him fantastic ghost stories, mostly about kids being eaten by something (rocks, trees, monsters, it doesn’t matter what). Virgil consults his friend Kaori, who is a psychic, about what he should do about a girl he likes at school. He doesn’t want her for a girlfriend, which is refreshing, he thinks they would be good friends. He has been too shy to talk to her the entire year they spent in class together.

Valencia is deaf, but strong-willed and determined. She too is lonely. She used to have friends but they have all fallen aside as they grew older. She wears hearing aids and reads lips, but still has a hard time with people. She sees Kaori’s card at the grocery story and decides to consult her.

Kaori believes that she is the reincarnated spirit of a 65-year-old revolutionary and that really says all you need to know about her. She works with star charts and crystals to determine the future. She enlists the help of her younger sister Gen in her business and has only one client (Virgil) until Valencia contacts her.

Chet is a bully to everyone it seems. He wants to be just like his dad, who also doesn’t have a lot of respect for people. Chet tries but doesn’t always succeed at being powerful. He has failed to make the basketball team even though he practiced a lot. Chet picks on Virgil and Valencia because they are different and he doesn’t understand them. He lives in the neighborhood so he can also pick on them outside of school as well.

The four characters’ stories intersect in the woods one day. Virgil and Valencia are both going to meet Kaori. Chet is trying to catch a snake. When Chet catches Virgil instead he throws his backpack down an abandonded well not knowing it contains Virgil’s guinea pig. Of course Virgil goes after Gulliver and gets stuck in the well. When he doesn’t show up to meet Kaori she gets worried and when Valencia arrives for her appointment she is drawn into the hunt for Virgil.

This book is one of those hidden gems that you just happen across on a library shelf. I am not sure I would have picked it up for the cover or for the description; I am reading it because it is in on the SLJ Heavy Medal Blog and I see why it is in contention for awards this year. It was fantastic in a way not all books are. I loved the multiple narrators and particularly enjoyed the fact that Valencia’s chapters are in first person while all the others are in third person. I loved that this was a story about friendship and how hard it can be to make friends when you are different. I adored Kaori’s character and want her to be my friend too. I also love that Virgil’s journey gave him the strength to text Valencia in the end and to speak up for himself as well. I would also like to have Lola tell me stories.

I liked the diversity of this cast of characters. Virgil is Filipino-American, Kaori and her sister are Japanese-American, Valencia is deaf. But this diversity is not treated like a plot point but just a point of fact. There are people of different backgrounds everywhere and it is good to see that reflected in middle grade literature. I also like that Chet was not redeemed in the end, because some bullies are not. Even though he is helped by the people he bullies you get the sense that it is not going to change his behavior. This is a fabulous book that deserves to be read.