Newbery Award Winner


Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2017. ISBN 97800662414151


Virgil Salinas is a quiet eleven-year-old with a big heart. It’s so big that when he learns that his guinea pig, Gulliver, isn’t supposed to live alone, Virgil decides to take Gulliver in his backpack everywhere. Unfortunately for Virgil and Gulliver, there’s a bully on the loose. When Chet “the Bull” Bullens throws Virgil’s backpack down an abandoned well with Gulliver inside, Virgil immediately climbs in to rescue his friend, leaving boy and guinea pig trapped below ground. But all hope isn’t lost. While Virgil battles his fear of the dark, taking comfort in his Filipino grandmother’s folktales and a Filipino spirit that listens to Virgil’s worries, his fortune-telling friend, Kaori, realizes something is amiss when he doesn’t arrive for his scheduled psychic appointment. With her enthusiastic little sister, Gen, and her new acquaintance, animal-loving Valencia Somerset, in tow, Kaori sets off to find her lost friend and maybe prove that there’s no such thing as coincidences. Told from the perspectives of Virgil, Chet, Kaori, and Valencia, this is a story of rescue, of bravery, and of friendship.


The strength of Hello, Universe lies in its characters. The main character of the story is Virgil, an introvert in a family of extroverts. Unfortunately, Virgil’s parents and siblings don’t seem to understand that Virgil doesn’t like being called the shy “Turtle” in the family, and Virgil isn’t brave enough to tell them how much the nickname makes him feel like a loser. Virgil also has to go to resource room on Thursdays because he’s having trouble with math, making him the target of Chet the bully. And to top it off, Virgil has wanted to talk to the cool girl with hearing aids, Valencia Somerset, since the beginning of the school year, but he’s always been too afraid. By the book’s end, however, Virgil’s emotional growth is palpable. Virgil is about to begin a friendship with the very girl he thought he’d never be able to talk to, and he’s learned to stand up for himself, both in his interactions with Chet and with his family. Readers will appreciate the believability of Virgil’s journey and the personal resonance of the challenges he faces—bullying, shyness, and feeling alone.

While the characters in Hello, Universe come alive on the page, the plot of the story is so slow that it often feels like it has never begun. Virgil doesn’t get trapped in the well until the book is already halfway over and his friends’ quest to find him in the forest is over so quickly that the so-called “dire” situation feels cheapened by the easiness of the way. Still, while the plot is lackluster, the conclusion is not. While Virgil’s episode in the well gives him confidence to be more brave, he isn’t suddenly able to solve all of his problems. Even after Valencia herself pulls him out of the well, Virgil is too tongue-tied and embarrassed to thank her. Yet, the conclusion is both hopeful and realistic—while Virgil was too shy to talk to her in person, the ending finds him sending Valencia a text message, one that makes her smile, promising readers a friendship on the horizon.

With a shy Filipino-American boy, a deaf girl who speaks her mind, a Japanese-American girl who isn’t afraid to embrace her quirky love of all things psychic, and a bully with a backstory that inspires empathy and understanding, this story avoids stereotyping and presents real kids with unique personalities, emotions, and perspectives. Kids and adults will appreciate the characters, the conclusion, and the believability of the story. While the plot has its problems, readers will find many aspects of this story to appreciate. Erin Entrada Kelly has written a solid middle-grade.


John Newbery Award Winner, 2018

Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee, 2018–2019

Booklist Book Review Star, 2016

Kirkus Book Review Star, 2016

From Kirkus: “The short chapters, compelling characters, and age-appropriate suspense will hook young readers immediately. . . . An original and resonant exploration of interconnectedness and friendship.”

From Booklist: “Readers will be instantly engrossed in this relatable neighborhood adventure and its eclectic cast of misfits.”


  • Virgil’s grandma, Lola, tells him many Filipino folktales. The stories help inspire Virgil to be brave. Read some Filipino folktales together and ask middle-graders to share their favorite folktales (Filipino or from another tradition). The following book might be a good resource:
    • Romulo, Liana, and Joanne de Leon (illustrator). Filipino Children’s Favorite Stories: Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales. ISBN 9780804850216
  • Valencia looks up to Jane Goodall as her animal-loving hero. Ask middle-graders to name their heroes and, if possible, recommend books about them. Set out books about inspiring real-life heroes for middle-graders to browse. Have a hero dress-up party.
    • Schatz, Kate, and Miriam Klein Stahl (illustrator). Rad Women Worldwide. ISBN 9780399578878
    • McGovern, Ann. Native American Heroes. ISBN 9780545467209
    • Norwood, Arlisha. Black Heroes. ISBN 9781641527040
  • Erin Entrada Kelly has written several award-winning books. Read Erin’s bio on her website ( to middle-graders, and give a short introduction to some of her other books:
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. We Dream of Space. ISBN 9780062747303
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. Blackbird Fly. ISBN 9780062238610
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. Lalani of the Distant Sea. ISBN 9780062747273
  • Put out a display of some of the 2018–2019 Texas Bluebonnet finalists including Hello, Universe. Then allow middle-graders to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Khan, Hena. Amina’s Voice. ISBN 9781481492065
    • Engle, Margarita, and Rafael López (illustrator). Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics. ISBN 9780805098761
    • Acampora, Paul. How to Avoid Extinction. ISBN 9780545899062
    • Gratz, Alan. Refugee. ISBN 9780545880831

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.