By Maureen Tai, 8 January 2020
Twelve-year-old Kaori Tanaka – a proud Gemini – liked to tell people her parents were born in the high, misty mountains of a samurai village. In truth, they were both second-generation Japanese Americans from Ohio. No matter. Kaori knew in her bones that they were meant to be born in the mountains.
While Kaori is not the protagonist in Erin Entrada Kelly’s charming and whimsical Hello, Universe, she is without a doubt, my favourite character in this middle grade novel that Anna, Ben and I literally devoured over our recent summer in Taiwan. Not that any of the other cleverly voiced characters are any less engaging: there is the main character, Virgilio/Virgil, whose family nickname is ‘Turtle’ due to his shy, quiet nature; Valencia, who is strong, warrior-like and deaf; Chet, the school bully with a face like a pug and the disposition of a thug; and Gen, Kaori’s assistant and younger sister, whose trailing pink jump rope appears throughout the book and ends up playing a fairly critical role at the book’s conclusion. Family, friendship, Filipino folklore and fate are deftly weaved together to form an extremely enjoyable and satisfying story, making Hello, Universe one of our top reads for 2019.
Do you believe in the ability to see and feel beyond what you can perceive with your (limited) five senses? Do you have dreams? Have you trusted your ‘gut feelings’, relied on intuition, just had an inkling, or experienced déjà vu? Is that the Universe speaking to us, whispering to us of things that are destined to happen? And if we hear these voices, should we act on them, and how?
These questions are posed, indirectly, in Entrada Kelly’s novel. We follow the lives of four very different middle-graders over the course of a very long and eventful day, each told in their own unique voices. Virgil’s journey begins with a consultation session with Kaori, a self-proclaimed psychic. He feels an inevitable connection with a girl at his school, a deaf girl called Valencia Somerset, whom he has never spoken to but admires from afar. The beginnings of a crush perhaps? But poor Virgil is too shy to act on his ‘gut feeling” and Kaori ponders a solution.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Virgil, Valencia has her own supernatural issues. Plagued by sleeplessness caused by inexplicable nightmares, Valencia spots Kaori’s business card at the local supermarket, and is compelled to independently seek the psychic’s advice. But before Kaori can help her, Valencia is in turn called upon to help Kaori locate a missing client, a shy Filipino boy who coincidentally goes to her school…
Meanwhile, the school bully decides to set himself a heroic (and foolhardy) challenge, putting himself in exactly the right place and time to collide with Virgil, with devastating consequences for our gentle hero and his guinea pig, Gulliver. Thanks to Kaori’s quick-thinking, Valencia’s resourcefulness and Gen’s surprising (yet oddly expected) contribution, all’s well that ends well. As it should. After all, it is the Universe that is speaking!
For ages 8 and up.