“All my novels begin with a picture of a character. Then I start asking him or her questions—my favorite being why,” says Erin Entrada Kelly, whose middle-grade novel Hello, Universe was released on March 14. The picture that came to Kelly for this novel was that of an introspective, quiet, and lonely 11-year-old boy sitting deep in a well. “And I knew he must be down there for a good reason, because he’s so timid. What would bring a boy like Virgil into the bottom of a well?”
Answering this question through a shifting four-part narrative, Hello, Universe explores the intersecting stories of four middle school kids: painfully shy Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American, who feels achingly different from his classmates and his sporty, boisterous family; his seemingly fearless (but lonely) classmate Valencia Somerset, who’s deaf and has learned to hear “with her eyes”; Japanese-American Kaori Tanaka, an assertive teen psychic whom Virgil consults; and Chet Bullins, who tortures Virgil at school and in their shared neighborhood. Heavily influenced byfate (“there are no coincidences,” Kaori insists), the story traces the arc of an eventful day when the tweens' paths all collide, requiring them to draw on their different abilities and learn about courage, destiny, and friendship.
Kelly enjoys writing about middle school, though she vividly recalls how painful it was for her. “Middle school stands out to me for all the wrong reasons,” she says. “As the only Asian-Filipino student in my school, I was always an outsider, always lonely and sensitive…in fact, very much like Virgil.” Life in middle school is confusing and contradictory: “everyone separates into cliques. You’re constantly told ‘be yourself’ and you want to fit in but also stand out—just not too much.”
Like Virgil, Kelly was bullied a lot; remembering those difficult times “makes for a lot of rich stories”—and a desire to offer her readers the same refuge that reading became for her during a difficult time. “I want to give readers something that helps them say, ‘I am not alone. There are others like me; others have felt as I do.’ At that age especially it’s very confusing, and you feel like the only one of your kind, whatever kind that might be.” The challenge is “maintaining that level of honesty,” she adds. “You never want young readers to feel lectured. To encourage them to expand their worldview without condescending to them. I put a lot of effort into finding that balance.”
Hello, Universe is full of lovable and unique characters (even the bully’s back story lends his point of view some complexity) Kelly uses to explore the meaning of difference, the theme of friendship, the power of connection and empathy. “There’s this moment in the book where Valencia is convincing herself that solo’s the best way to go, it’s less trouble to do without friendship,” Kelly explains. “A lot of times we do tell ourselves that. But in reality we’re all connected. That’s what empathy is.” For much of the book, Virgil and Valencia’s lives run parallel, full of missed opportunities to meet, frustrating readers who know the two are meant to be friends.
“I knew Virgil and Valencia would understand each other in a way others might not understand them,” Kelly says. “It’s important to have someone in your life who gets you, warts and all, like no one else does. You have that rock, when you need it. Someone who reaches a hand out and vice versa. When you have that, the world can become a magical place.”
Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.