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Book Review

Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Four different narrators tell this story: Virgil Salinas, Valencia Somerset, Kaori Tanaka and Chett Bullens. Virgil is a shy, skinny 11-year-old who struggles with learning and is afraid to speak up. Smart but friendless Valencia is deaf and in Virgil’s resource class. Kaori calls herself a psychic and feels she was born in the wrong place. Chet is a bully who mocks those who are different.

Virgil’s dad and brothers are soccer fans. When Virgil wants to take piano lessons, his dad says he needs to play sports, not fool around on a silly piano. His mom is interested in where he goes and says she loves him. Lola, his grandmother, tells him about a recurring dream: a boy begs a rock to eat him, and he gets eaten and is never seen again. Virgil wonders whether his parents would look for him if he were that boy. But he believes Lola would chisel the rock to pieces to find him.

Virgil ends his last day of sixth grade with one major regret. He failed to speak to Valencia, a girl he has seen at school and wanted to talk to. He schedules an appointment with Kaori to see if her psychic abilities can help him fix this Grand Failure.

Although Virgil goes out of his way to avoid Chet, the two cross paths. Chet calls him names and mocks him. Virgil envisions an alternate version of himself. His alternate would be able to grab Chet by the neck and throw him across the neighborhood. Chet would land on a chimney and be roasted. But in real life, Virgil runs away from Chet.

When Kaori learns of Virgil’s problem with Valencia, she is sure she can help fix things. She tells him to meet her the next day with five special stones. Virgil agrees to do this. Kaori’s mother says no one in the family is interested in second sight. Kaori’s mother has no appreciation for former lives and reincarnation.

Meanwhile Valencia is having a recurring nightmare about being the only one left on the planet. She has no one she can talk to about the dream. When she sees Kaori’s business card on the bulletin board at a local store, she wonders if Kaori can interpret dreams. She schedules an appointment on the same day as Virgil but uses an alias.

When Chet asks his father how people become deaf, his dad says they are born defective. He describes those with physical or learning problems as those who don’t have it all going on upstairs. His father makes fun of an overweight woman, and Chet laughs. His father believes that sometimes you must teach people by embarrassing them. They make fun of a cashier in training. Chet says he can usually get his way with his mother, especially if his father backs him up.

The next day, Virgil puts Gulliver, his pet guinea pig, in his backpack as he searches the woods between his and Kaori’s house for the five stones. While he is searching, he encounters Chet, who calls him names and makes fun of him for being in a lower-academic class.

Chet yanks the backpack off of Virgil and throws it down an abandoned well. Virgil starts climbing down the ladder to rescue Gulliver, though he is terrified at the prospect. When he is still a good distance from the bottom of the well, he discovers there are no more rungs. He wants to rescue Gulliver but is immobilized when he imagines all the frightening possibilities that could happen if he jumps to the bottom.

Finally, he looks down at Gulliver and jumps. He is unable to reach the rungs to climb back up and realizes he is stuck. He shouts for help, but no one hears him. While Virgil is in the well, he encounters Ruby, a ghost from a story he was told, and he carries on conversations with her.

Valencia says she and her mom don’t agree on anything. Valencia refers to her mom’s lectures as blah, blah, blah. Her mom always says I love you, but Valencia says it is always followed by something else like be careful or be sure to answer my texts. Valencia used to have a close relationship with her father, but she thinks he doesn’t know how to be close now that she is 11 and too big to put on his shoulders.

Valencia enters the woods on her way to meet with Kaori. She sees the cover to the well but doesn’t hear Virgil’s shouts. Afraid that an open well might be dangerous for the animals in the woods, she places the cover back on and unwittingly traps Virgil inside.

When Virgil, who is normally prompt and reliable, doesn’t show up for his appointment, Kaori knows something is wrong. She, along with Valencia and her 7-year-old sister, Gen, search for him. Valencia’s mom texts her to come home, but Valencia ignores her quite a few times until she can tell her mom is worried. They eventually find him, and Valencia goes down the well with Gen’s jump rope to rescue him.

After being rescued, Virgil encounters Chet on his way home. The bully once again begins taunting him. Virgil doesn’t run. He tells Chet he will regret it if he ever calls him names again.

When Virgil returns home after being trapped in the well, his parents are busy watching TV and don’t seem to notice him. His dad responds by telling Virgil to come watch television.

Christian Beliefs

Valencia doesn’t know what she believes about God, whether there’s one God or more than one, what God looks like, etc. She prays at night and says she imagines her prayers lifting to the clouds. When she was little, she thought the clouds would get so heavy that her prayers would fall and she would have everything she wanted. But she knows better now.

Valencia says if the man and girl who were giving out religious materials had stayed, she would have asked them questions about church, God, Saint Rene and baptism.

Other Belief Systems

Kaori calls herself a psychic and is into horoscopes, fortune-telling and stone reading. She tells Valencia she studied Freud and can interpret dreams. She speaks to spirits, has a spirit chamber and believes she has the powers of second sight.

She has a zodiac rug in her room. She claims to have had two previous lives. She consults crystals (which are really decorative stones she got at a garage sale). She speaks to and praises her ancestors.

Though she calls it a delicate matter, she believes the universe can be manipulated to do one’s bidding. She stretches events and ideas to make them fit these beliefs. For example, she says she had a dream about a hawk the night before Virgil texted her, but it must have been a vulture, and vulture starts with V just like the name Virgil. Therefore the connection is clear. Throughout the book, fate, premonition and the universe being in control are constant topics.

Valencia prays to Saint Rene, a patron saint of Canada. She doesn’t know whether she is supposed to say “amen” or not. Later she says that she prayed to Saint Rene for a friend to protect her from Kaori (in case she was a crazy killer).

When Virgil is trapped in the well, he hears Ruby San Salvador, a girl from a story, talking to him. He says he doesn’t believe in ghosts but continues the conversations. Ruby tells him she is there to fulfill her destiny of helping people in trouble. When he asks if she can help him move the cover to the well and get to the ladder, she tells him she can’t because she doesn’t have arms. She tells him he doesn’t need to write a letter with pen and paper to the people he loves. He can just close his eyes and mouth, and send his thoughts through the universe.

Authority Roles

Virgil lives with his parents. They call him “Turtle” because he is quiet. Virgil hates this nickname. But Virgil doesn’t have the courage to tell them how he feels about the nickname until the end of the book. When he finally asks his mother to call him Virgil, or Virgilio, she agrees.

When Lola arrives from the Philippines and meets Virgil, she whispers that he is her favorite. She listens attentively to him and intuitively knows what he is feeling. Lola tells Virgil lots of scary ghost stories, fables and dreams. When he returns home after being in the well, she knows something has happened.

Valencia thinks her mom is over protective because Valencia is deaf. Valencia feels she can’t talk to her. Kaori lives with her parents and usually refers to them as Mr. and Mrs. Tanaka. She says parents have a way of getting in the middle of things and screwing things up.

Chet sees his dad as an important person who travels to faraway places. His father tells Chet that people get respect when they know more than everyone else. His dad also says that unless you get respect— through fear or admiration — you are a weakling.


Offensive words include name-calling such as retard and stupid. Virgil imagines standing up to Chet, grabbing him by the collar and throwing him across the neighborhood and lands on someone’s chimney. Then the chimney would cook him like a lump of roast.


When Chet taunts Virgil, he says five times five is the number of times he made out with Virgil’s sister, even though Virgil doesn’t have a sister.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Special needs: Virgil has a learning disability and Valencia is deaf. They are treated poorly because of their disabilities.

Smoking: Kaori’s mother tries to hide the fact that she smokes, but her children are aware of it.

Prejudice: A man and girl come to Valencia’s home on a Saturday morning with a church pamphlet. As soon as they realize Valencia is deaf, they hand her the pamphlet and leave in a hurry. The girl turns back and looks at Valencia like she is a freak.

Lying/stealing: The middle schoolers occasionally talk about telling small lies to their parents. Kaori tells people that her parents were born in the high misty mountains of a samurai village even though they weren’t. Valencia swipes bowls and food to feed a stray dog.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

8 to 12


Erin Entrada Kelly






Record Label



Greenwillow Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published



John Newberry Medal, 2018; TLA Bluebonnet Award Master List, 2018-2019


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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