Hello, Heavy Medal – Hello, Universe
Hello, Heavy Medal readers.
I was born and raised in Taiwan. After college, I taught 7th and 8th grade English in a Taipei public school before pursuing a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature from The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. Those two brief but glorious years saw me reading 15-30 children’s books a week, discussing, thinking, and breathing the classics and the contemporary, books for the very young and also edgy YAs. We analyzed themes, examined authors’ crafts, and defended our tastes while ventured into new literary territories. After working as a children’s and school librarian for almost 25 years, this is still my favorite part of the job: discussing and writing about books for young readers. So, it’s with great pleasure that I accepted SLJ’s invitation to serve as one of the three bloggers.
Newbery experiences are not only professionally satisfying but personally affecting. The members of my 2002 Newbery Committee (A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Carver by Marilyn Nelson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath) have never ceased communicating, online and in person, celebrating milestones, discussing important issues, and supporting each other in difficult times. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we were reading the Newbery contenders when 9/11 happened and intuitively realized how life-affirming and healing literature could be, for ourselves and for our children. I served again on the 2013 Newbery Committee with Steven as my chair. And I will never forget his wise guiding words to our Committee: that as we discovered Newbery worthy books, we must examine and express “how” the author achieved such excellence. Our task was to truly understand the literary craft of each author. This is a constant question that I challenge my students, as young as fourth grade, to puzzle over and I hope to apply it diligently here on Heavy Medal.
Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly has a perfectly fitting title as a first post. This is one of those books that I felt reluctant to start: too many friends have praised and recommended it, a pressure that I don’t react well to, being a slight rebel at heart who likes going against the grain from time to time. Without the duty as a Heavy Medal blogger, I might have pushed it off for a long while. This is also a book that did not immediately grab me, a lover of fantasy, science fiction, and darker motifs. A tale of a shy Filipino American boy, who’s bullied and has a crush on a girl does not promise to be that thrilling. But Erin Kelly builds momentum as she adds other characters and narrative perspectives into the story. Virgil’s Lola, (Filipino for Grandmother) who loves to tell dark Filipino folktales that are often unsettling, casts an enticingly dangerous sheen over story’s tone. Kaori Tanaka, the twelve-year-old psychic and believer in Fate, is convincingly wise and witty beyond her years. And Valencia, the person of Virgil’s affection, is deaf but never disabled, full of confidence and self-awareness. By the time the major event (involving a backpack, a pet guinea pig, and a boy being trapped at the bottom of a well) occurs on page 116, readers have emotionally invested in most of the characters’ quirks and Virgil’s plight. The philosophical exploration of Fate, coincidences, and friendship deepens as well.
I especially appreciate the clarity and effective descriptions in Kelly’s writing.
“The darkness had teeth that snapped and clenched, and there was Virgil, sitting a the bottom of its throat.” (p. 157)
“His head suddenly felt very heavy, like someone had placed a brick on his forehead and asked him to balance it there…. His lungs felt full of air and empty all at once.” (p. 160)
One stylistic choice puzzled me at first – why did Kelly choose to present Valencia’s chapters in first person while all other chapters are in third person? Upon re-reading, I realized that it is about how the author could effectively present Valencia’s inner life. In the first person narratives, readers get to “listen” to Valencia’s very clear thoughts, expressed with an absolute loud confidence. It makes me admire Valencia more and really appreciate the author’s choice.
Are there elements that do not work for me? Yes there are — especially when it comes to the portrayal of Chet (the bully). Is this a book that is my top choice as a Newbery winner? I am not certain and would love to ponder and discuss more.
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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