Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Winner’s Circle: Hello, Universe (2018)

Sometimes, when you get Sam, Rachael, and Tess together in the same [virtual] space, it's hard to get them to focus. They might want to spitball ideas for a Newbery tribute band. (Mos' Distinguished? Newbery Kids on the Block? Newbery Manilow?) Or they might want speculate what a Garfield/Warriors crossover fanfic would entail. (Would Garfield eat those warrior cats alive, or the other way around? Or would they all just have a lasagna party and then murder Odie?) But we finally got it together long enough to collect our thoughts about this year's Newbery winner, Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Like for last year's winner, we came up with a few burning questions each and answered them via online chat, and awaaaay we goooo!

First, let's summarize to book in thirty words!

Tess: It’s just your basic boy meets girl, boy gets trapped down well, girl consults psychic medium, girl rescues boy with jump rope, boy texts girl “hello” love story for kids.

Sam: “What’s that, stray dog whose name is totally Sacred, not Lassie? Little Virgil’s fallen down the old well? Quick, let’s get the psychic medium, her sister, and Virgil’s secret crush!”

Rachael: A misunderstood boy who doesn’t know how to take proper care of his guinea pig gets brave and makes some friends. Hopefully, they can teach him about responsible pet ownership.

Which character did you most relate to?

Tess: Probably Kaori Tanaka. I’m secretly interested in “new age” topics like astrology and crystal healing. And I have the tendency to get very enthusiastic about stuff and then rook my friends into it. I could see a young Tess making a young Sam and Rachael start a psychic detective agency with her (the way grown up Tess made her friend Eric start a Twin Peaks podcast with her LOL)

Sam: I would totally have started the psychic detective agency with Rachael and Young Tesserana Jones! As for me, definitely Smaug. If someone poked me with a stick, I might well bite them too.

Rachael: I probably related most to Valencia - the quiet girl who’s a lot snarkier on the inside than people expect her to be. I aspire to be Virgil’s Lola, though, for she is a Giver of No F*cks.

Do you think it’s believable that a sensitive, intelligent kid like Virgil would not have researched guinea pigs and found out that they are social animals who need cage mates? 

Tess: Speaking as a children’s librarian, in my professional experience, the vast majority of young people research THE CRAP out of a potential pet WAY before their parent or guardian even CONSIDERS getting them such an animal, so yes, this was a bit of a plot hole. (Unless Virgil was gifted the guinea pig, or adopted it suddenly, and had to do research afterwards.)

Sam: That seemed sort of odd to me, frankly. But Virgil clearly isn’t getting much help at home with things like “what does my guinea pig need?” so I was willing to let it slide.

Rachael: I’m glad you guys thought that was weird too. I didn’t know if I was just living in a bubble of Super Well Informed Pet Owning Kids.

How do you feel about the use of the word “retarded” in context in this book? 

Tess: I feel the context is very important. No one likes the word “retarded.” But I think it was clearly portrayed as something unsavory said by an unsavory individual. It’s not presented as an appropriate thing to say. It’s vile, and Chet is vile for saying it, that was the takeaway for me.

Sam: I pretty much felt the same way. Language can be really powerful, and the slap in the face that that word carries felt like a considered, careful way to advance the author’s point. What matters is how the word is deployed by the author, and I think carries the impact Kelly intended.

Rachael: Again, same. I think it’s timely too - “retarded” is one of those words that’s just on the edge of fading out of social acceptability. People have a vague sense that it’s offensive, but, especially if it’s not being used to describe a specific person, they won’t shut it down as quickly as some other slurs.

What do you think of the mid-novel introduction of the voice of Ruby?

Tess: I don't remember Ruby. I didn't even read this that long ago! Jog my memory?

Sam: Ruby is the voice of the character from Lola's story who starts having conversations with Virgil when he's in the well.

Tess: Oooh okay. Yes, of course, now I remember. When you said "voice," I thought it was another character who chapters were focused on, and I didn't remember a Ruby!

Rachael: Me too, Tess.

Sam: It bothered me, and I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly why. I think it might have to do with my uncertainty as to how to handle it. Is the voice actually Ruby? If so, it’s the only unambiguously supernatural event of the book, and it doesn’t come until halfway through. Is it meant to be a well-induced hallucination? Or is it supposed to be an open question as to whether or not it’s real? If it’s either of the last two, then I think it’s underwritten. I guess I didn’t feel like I knew how Kelly wanted us to interpret the voice, and that made it hard for me to enjoy those passages.

Rachael: I think it’s the weakest part of the book, or at least it stood out to me as such on my first reading. Like Sam, I wasn’t sure how to take it. Real? Symbolic? It’s the only element of magical realism in the book (aside from the overarching theme of destiny). Of course, I’m always aware that the Newbery Committee has read these books several times, and maybe it fits in better on subsequent readings. I have misgivings about that too, though: isn’t a book that takes several readings to appreciate different from a book that stands out as excellent on your first reading? How many kids are likely to read the book more than once and pick up on these things? (I almost never read books more than once, which is part of the reason I don’t want to be on the Newbery Committee. I would balk at that stuff.)

Tess: I felt indifferent to it, I guess. I saw it as a coping mechanism. If I was trapped, I might start talking to myself, or talking to characters from myths my grandmother told me, as a way to panic less, and that’s how I interpreted those parts of the book. I felt like there were actually a lot of things in the book that you could go back and forth on whether they’re “really” happening or not. For instance, when Lola had a dream about a boy swallowed by a rock, was that a premonition of Virgil becoming trapped in a stone well, or just a weird coincidence? Are Ruby or Pah “really” in that well? The book’s not clear about it, but I was okay with it.

How much do you hate Chet?

Sam: I don’t. He’s just a Philip Larkin poem in action.
“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”
He doesn’t have a future, and he’s awful, but I understand how he got that way. He’s a pitiful figure rather than a contemptible one to me.

Tess: You make an excellent point, Sam. I guess I don’t really hate Chet. He’s a jerk, but he’s just a kid. I really hate his dad.

Rachael: I feel a deep compassion for him conceptually that would not stop me from wanting to punch him in the face if I ever met him.

Why do you think Chet gets a series of chapters told from his perspective?

Tess: I guess because “be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle?” Because bullies often abuse because they themselves have been abused, and they often put others down because it’s the only way they can prop themselves up, because they’re that emotionally insecure, and really we should feel sorry for them. Because Chet’s a human too. But his chapters were my least favorite chapters. Because when you’re being bullied, it doesn’t really help to know your bully is hurting too, you just want them to stop hurting you. Incidentally, R.J. Palacio did not give Julian, Auggie’s bully in Wonder, his own series of chapters, which was the subject of some controversy when that book came out. Palacio claimed she didn’t want Julian’s negative backstory to hijack Auggie’s story, but later published an ebook, The Julian Chapter, where we get his perspective, which includes the character having a redemptive epiphany. As much as I would love for it to occur to Chet break the cycle of toxic masculinity and not be mean to Virgil, or anyone else, that wouldn’t be realistic, and I guess I’m glad Kelly didn’t include it.

Sam: I couldn’t help but think of The Julian Chapter too, especially since I complained about the lack of Julian’s perspective a lot when I first wrote about Wonder as well. I don’t know how I feel about this in Hello, Universe though. We get to see that Chet is awful essentially because his father is a Terrible Person, whose approval Chet craves and can’t obtain... but we never get a redemption arc, or even a hint of self-awareness. That the character with the worst backstory (and make no mistake, Chet’s home life is an order of magnitude worse than Virgil’s, for all the time that the book spends hammering home the point that Virgil doesn’t fit in with his family) ends up with the worst prospects for the future made me deeply uncomfortable, especially given how much time the book spends on the notion of “Fate.” It’s not quite “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Universe,” but it walks right up to that line.

Rachael: Remember, though, that the entire book takes place in the span of a single weekend. I don’t think the fact that Chet doesn’t have a revelation during that time period necessarily means that Kelly is casting him into the fiery pit of her disapproval. I think, in addition to showing the inner landscape of a bully, the Chet chapters serve to show how everyone is at a different point in their own personal development and willingness to confront their own demons. That’s a major theme of the book - it’s all kind of the story of Virgil reaching a turning point in his own story. This isn’t Chet’s story, and Chet is in a different place.

I was really expecting a redemption arc for Chet. How do you feel about the fact that he doesn’t get one? Do you think the seeds of redemption were sown, like, at all? 

Tess: I was also expecting a redemption arc, like maybe that he would be consumed by guilt, team up with Kaori and company to find Virgil, and end up becoming friends with them. I’m torn about the fact he doesn’t get one. Having some real life long term experience with bullies who have not changed, despite numerous opportunities to do so, it’s realistic that Chet wouldn’t change. If there are any seeds sewn at all, they might be in his beginning to question his father’s expectations of him. He talks about attempting various sports, and not being very good at them, despite desperately wanting to excel athletically, in order to win his father’s approval. If he really digs deep and thinks about why he must struggle so hard to please his father, he may start to wonder if his father is worth pleasing, and since his father is his main role model for bullying behavior, that may then be called into question. The seeds may also be sewn in the way he’s intimidated by Valencia. I think he’s interpreting it as fear of her difference, but I think it’s more likely awe of her confidence. If he can figure out that it’s the Valencias of the world that have it going on, not the Chet’s Dads of the world, there may be hope for him yet.

Sam: I found the lack of a redemption arc distracting, frankly. It wouldn’t have to be a complete arc -- and it’s possible that you’re right in the way the tentative beginnings of such an arc are there, Tess -- but we’ve spent so much time in Chet’s head that I think the incipient arc isn’t obvious enough. Again, part of the reason that this bothers me is that, for all the time the novel spends on how Virgil’s family doesn’t get him, and on how Valencia navigates her disability, Chet seemed to me like the character coming from the most impressively awful (and emotionally abusive) background. Virgil has his Lola, Kaori has Gen, and even Valencia has Sacred. Who or what does Chet have? If fate’s a real thing, it’s given Chet a pretty raw deal.

Rachael: I agree that Chet’s situation is disturbing, but this is one of the aspects of the book that emphasizes choice over fate. I agree with Tess that Chet has been given examples of strength outside of his household. It’s really going to be up to him whether he uses that as an opportunity to question his father’s messages, or doubles down on the bullying.

What did you think of the ending?

Rachael: Loved it, at the time. It made me cry, because I thought the author really communicated how much courage is required, sometimes, to reach out in the tiniest of ways. I also liked that Virgil took a while to get there, even after the big rescue. Sometimes experiences take a while to sink in, and sometimes you get a second (or third, or fourth) chance to be brave.

Tess: I liked it. I found it surprising because when I realized this was a story about a boy trapped in a well I presumed 1) that the ordeal would draw out over several days of searching for him and 2) adults would have to be involved at some point. I would have been disappointed if we got no exchange between Virgil and Valencia. When they climb up that ladder together and are finally face to face I was yelling into the book “SAY SOMETHING VIRGIL.” But I get that he needed more time, and was happy to see him communicate with her in the final moment of the book. I also liked that he stands up to Chet, tells his family how he feels about their affectionate but belittling nicknames, and adopts Sacred.

Sam: It reminded me of the end of Criss Cross, a bit, except that in that one, the deeper connection is missed, whereas here, we’re led to believe that Virgil and Valencia will likely become friends. It struck me when I was reading it as a bit sappy, but upon reflection, I think it’s just that I was in a grumpy place personally as a reader. It’s an effective ending in the context of the book.

Do you believe in fate now?

Tess: Kind of!

Rachael: No, but I believe that events sometimes line up a way that mimics it.

Sam: Not as much as I believe in observer bias.

Do you have any final thoughts about Hello, Universe? And please answer in song. 




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