“Because here’s the thing about the universe: sometimes it doesn’t tell you all its secrets at once.”
Found family and biracial characters. Building a rocket and eating char siu buns. Science fairs, comic books, and the 80s.
🎶 These are a few of my favorite things. 🎶
And if they’re some of your favorite things too, then you will probably love Clues to the Universe by Christina Li as much as I did!
Clues to the Universe is a middle-grade novel about two lonely kids who decide to help each other achieve their dreams. In the process, they become best friends, and learn about both themselves and each other.
“This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.
The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.
Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.
Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?
As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.”
Content Warnings: death, PTSD, grief, bullying, car accident, separation of parents
Ro Geraghty is the new girl at school. She is fascinated with space and rockets, and wants to build her own model rocket to honor her late father. Benji Burns loves to draw, and is obsessed with the Spacebound comics. He wants to learn more about his long-lost father.
The two pair up in science class, and agree to help each other in their missions, forming a close bond along the way.
I loved this heartwarming and touching middle-grade story so much. Christina Li wrote a beautiful friendship; created three-dimensional characters; and tackled topics such as grief, PTSD, bullying, and separated parents in a quiet but profound way.
My favorite aspect of the book was by far the friendship between Ro and Benji. The development of the close bond between them felt very natural. Li did a phenomenal job in not rushing their relationship’s progression from classmates to project partners to close friends. I loved how Ro and Benji both had flaws, and through their friendship, they each learned to address/accommodate those flaws in order to be a better friend. The deep care they each have for the other’s dreams and wellbeing was heartwarming and refreshing to see.
Outside of the two protagonists, however, Li also brought the other characters to life! The surrounding cast of characters felt so three-dimensional. I loved how they all had their own issues that they were working through, and their own relationships to each other. It meant that instead of coming off as foil characters, these people felt like they were all inhabitants of a very real, suburban community that I stepped into.
One of my favorite characters was definitely Mr. Voltz. The grumpy elderly neighbor who secretly has a soft heart inside and becomes a mentor is one of my favorite tropes. His arc added a layer of complexity to the story, as I became intrigued in his backstory.
I think Li did an incredible job with plotting a complex story that takes twists and turns. She was able to raise stakes for both of the characters, and give them their own motivations, without resorting to making the consequences life and death. That’s not an easy thing to do in my opinion, but Li pulled it off incredibly. I liked how she threw wrenches in the characters’ plans, such as the red herrings in the search for Benji’s dad and the failed rocket launches.
Finally, Li excelled in discussing difficult topics. The way she portrayed the experience of losing someone, and the non-linear cycle of grief, truly spoke to me. I think oftentimes, in an effort to capture what these kinds of experiences are like, it can be easy to complicate things. However, through the voices of her young characters, Li would describe the experience in such a simple but true way, naming physical reactions like a stomachache, or comparing loss to craters on the moon. It reminded me of how kids often see things in a very stripped-down light, which can make their perspectives profound.
Overall, Li combined so many elements that simply made the book fun to read. Having the Spacebound comics play a crucial role in the plot appealed directly to my story-within-a-story-loving heart. Scenes such as the Lunar New Year celebration felt warm and familiar, and I loved seeing the Chinese-American representation. The characters grew on me so much, and getting to watch them accomplish their goals was so gratifying and made me really happy. (I’m not saying I’d adopt these two kids in a heartbeat, but I’d adopt these two kids in a heartbeat).
I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a hopeful, poignant, and warm story about an incredible friendship. This unique middle-grade book will make you ruminate on the wonderful complexities of the universe as you root for the protagonists to achieve their dreams.
I hope you pick up this book! It’s available to purchase online through Bookshop. I can’t wait to read the works Christina Li will publish in the future. Clues to the Universe is a true mark of how accomplished a writer she already is. It’s so inspiring to see young, female, Asian-American authors in the industry. From reading Christina’s blog, it’s clear that her craft is something she’s been working on for a very long time, which is incredible. Basically, stan Christina Li.
Have you read Clues to the Universe yet? What are your thoughts on it? I’d love to know!
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