Thank you to Quill Tree Books for providing me an ARC of the book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. All quotes are from an advance copy and are subject to change in final publication.
Title: Clues to the Universe
Author: Christina Li
Publication Date: January 12th, 2021
Publisher: Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins)
Source: Digital ARC via publisher
Age Range & Genre: Middle grade, historical fiction
Representation: biracial Chinese/white mc
Content warnings: mentioned death of a loved one, grief, bullying, abandonment, mentions of divorce
Synopsis: 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.
Y’all, this book…this book is so tender and warm and touching. I’m pretty sure I had tears in my eyes for at least a third of the book. Grief manifests differently for everyone, and we all process it in our own ways, but Clues to the Universe is a reminder of how we can help others around us move forward and heal, especially when we have hard conversations about what it’s like to miss someone.
Christina Li writes about grief with a skill that transcends the boundaries of age, so that anyone who picks up Clues to the Universe can be moved by its characters and message, and it is so, so beautiful in its simplicity.
…sometimes I wondered if some people were meant to walk around with craters in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
The Characters: Science baby Ro & art baby Benji
(because they are both baby)
Rosalind “Ro” Geraghty has a need to make sense of the universe after all that has been taken from her, using numbers and logic to help cope with the loss of her father. She’s determined to honor his memory and immortalize it in whatever way she can, which for Ro means successfully building a rocket and launching it into space. When she transfers to a new school, Ro keeps her head down until she becomes Benji’s somewhat unwilling science fair partner. As they begin to work together in earnest, they discover that they have more in common than they think, and Ro’s own grief pushes her to put together the clues that will lead Benji to his long-lost father. She might not be able to see and talk to her father again, but nothing will keep her from trying to achieve that very thing for her new friend.
Benjamin “Benji” Burns is a far cry from Ro’s analytic sensibilities and is a day dreamer at heart. Benji takes ideas and runs with them as far as his imagination can take him, which means that sometimes, he strays a little from reality and doesn’t recognize what’s right in front of him. He has an artist’s soul and perspective, and possesses such a beautiful way of looking at the world around him. Where Ro is fearless, Benji is more timid, but they give each other the pushes they need in order to come to terms with different kinds of loss. Their friendship is quiet and steadfast, and although the two of them are complete opposites on paper, they can understand each other without even having to speak.
Also, Mr. Voltz is definitely Carl Frederickson from Up, and you can’t change my mind. And I may or may not have teared up every single time Ro’s mom called her baobao, but that’s neither here nor there.
And so we stayed out there for a while, making up our own constellations, like the Intergalactic Octopus and the Massive Flying Saucer, the pork buns warming our hands and the universe in our ears.
The Plot: Christina Li doing her best to make me cry
Okay, so, no, this is not the official plot of the book, but I could swear it is because there are so many small moments that tugged right at my heartstrings it almost felt like a personal attack.
I never thought I would be so invested in a middle school science fair project, but here I am. Ro and Benji are brought together by Ro’s model rocket, but along the way, they bond over Spacebound comics and their quest to solve the mystery that is Benji’s dad’s disappearance. Benji is sure he’s out there somewhere, and that he’s leaving clues for Benji to find him. When Ro discovers that this is the only thing keeping Benji and his dad apart, she’s determined to help her new friend by solving the puzzle. It takes Ro’s genius mind and Benji’s optimistic heart to put together all of the pieces, and along the way, they both find answers about themselves and their families that they didn’t even realize they were looking for.
The way Christina Li contends with loss, missing loved ones, and how the hard things in life never get easier, exactly, but we learn to live with them anyways, makes Clues to the Universe unbelievably special. And whoever they are, wherever they are in life, I think everyone could benefit from reading this tenderhearted book.
Because here’s the thing about the universe: sometimes it doesn’t tell you all its secrets at once. Sometimes you have to spend years, decades, to answer a question you have. Sometimes you have to travel to the deepest of jungles or to the edges of space to figure things out. And sometimes you don’t figure things out, but get one step closer.
Reasons to Recommend Clues to the Universe
As a biracial kid going to a majority white school, all while dealing with the unexpected and devastating loss of her father, Ro struggles with feeling like she doesn’t truly belong anywhere. Middle school is a tumultuous time at best, and throwing grief and racial micro-aggressions into the mix certainly doesn’t make it any easier. I loved how honestly Ro and Benji are able to talk about what it’s like for Ro to be half Chinese and half white in their town, and how we get to see how much Ro loves and celebrates her Chinese heritage amidst those struggles.
I won’t spoil anything, but the ending is perfect. It’s such a good representation of how far both Benji and Ro have come from the beginning of the book, along with their loved ones, and left me feeling so hopeful. The kids are truly alright.
I don’t read a lot of middle grade anymore, but I think there are some things in life that just have to be expressed in that frank way only kids possess. Christina Li handles grief so deftly and yet in a way that’s so easy to understand and relate to through her middle schoolers, which is extremely impressive because she doesn’t make it look difficult at all. Sometimes the secrets of the universe are right in front of us; we just have to be willing to look.