Clues to the Universe

HarperCollins/Quill Tree. Jan. 2021. 304p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780063008885.
Gr 4-7–Twelve-year-olds Ro and Benji are both having a rough start to the school year. Ro’s father recently died, and her mother can no longer afford her private school tuition. Transferring to a school where she knows no one proves difficult, and overhearing conversations of students trying to guess her biracial ethnicity (she is white and Chinese) is painful. Benji, who is white, is lonely and aimless because his best friend, Amir, moved across the country. When Ro and Benji begin working on a science fair project together, an unlikely friendship is formed. While the two are very different in terms of personality and interests, they bond over the shared experience of not having a father. The combination of Ro’s aptitude for science and logic and Benji’s artistic talents and laid-back personality results in a good team. Soon the two are working on more than a science fair project. They are helping each other fulfill a dream that will bring them closer to their absent fathers—building the rocket Ro and her dad were going to work on together and tracking down Benji’s comic book creator father. Since the story is set in the 1980s, before use of the internet was widespread, finding Benji’s father is no easy task. The novel feels contemporary, so the setting may be somewhat confusing for readers who don’t understand the technological limitations. Ro and Benji alternate narration, which helps the reader see their evolving perspectives of each other and provides a mechanism for telling their backstories. The book would have benefited from a stronger distinction between the two voices, though a heading at the beginning of each chapter indicates which character is speaking. It is refreshing to see a strong friendship between female and male characters depicted in a middle grade novel; it’s the authenticity of this relationship that drives the heart of the story.
VERDICT The message of resilience, courage, and friendship will resonate widely with young readers. Themes touched on include grief, fears, bullying, and identity, making the work highly discussable and a good candidate for classroom use.

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