Virgil is a shy child in a family of gregarious people. His parents call him Turtle because he never comes out of his shell. The only bright spot at home is his grandma, Lola, who tells him fantastic ghost stories, mostly about children being eaten by something (rocks, trees, monsters — it doesn't matter what).
Virgil consults his friend Kaori, who is a psychic, about what he should do about a girl he likes at school. He doesn't want her for a girlfriend, which is refreshing; he just thinks they would be good friends. He has been too shy to talk to her the entire year they spent in class together.
Valencia is deaf, but strong-willed and determined. She too is lonely. She used to have friends, but they have all fallen aside as they grew older. She wears hearing aids and reads lips, but still has a hard time connecting with people. She sees Kaori's card at the grocery story and decides to consult her.
Kaori believes she is the reincarnated spirit of a 65-year-old revolutionary and that really says all you need to know about her. She works with star charts and crystals to determine the future. She enlists the help of her younger sister Gen in her business and has only one client (Virgil) until Valencia contacts her.
Chet is the local bully. He wants to be just like his dad, who doesn't have a lot of respect for people. Chet picks on Virgil and Valencia because they are different and he doesn't understand them.
Their stories intersect in the woods one day. Chet catches Virgil and throws his backpack down an abandoned well not knowing it contains Virgil's guinea pig. Of course Virgil goes after Gulliver and gets stuck in the well. When he doesn't show up to meet Kaori, she gets worried, and then Valencia arrives and is drawn into the hunt for Virgil.
Erin Entrada Kelly's 2018 Newbery Medal winning book "Hello Universe" is one of those hidden gems that you just happen across on a library shelf. It was fantastic in a way not all books are. There is the diversity of this cast of characters. Virgil is Filipino-American, Kaori and her sister are Japanese-American and Valencia is deaf. This diversity is not treated like a plot point but just a point of fact. There are people of different backgrounds everywhere, and it is good to see that reflected in middle grade literature.
I liked that Chet was not redeemed in the end, because some bullies are not. Even though he is helped by the people he bullies, you get the sense that it is not going to change his behavior. I also loved this was a story about friendship — how hard it can be to make friends when you are different and how having friends can give you strength you didn't realize you had.
Angie Bayne is the children's department manager at Missouri River Regional Library.