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.
I was provided an eARC of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion in any way.
I’ve always loved ‘quiet YA’ – young adult stories that aren’t about saving the world but are about the mundane yet meaningful low stakes that focus on the growth and emotional journeys of its characters. Well, if you love quiet YA just as much as I do, may I propose ‘quiet MG’? Though a lot of contemporary MG feels like quiet MG – stories about a young person’s growth as they overcome an everyday conflict that leads them to learn something about themselves – there’s something about Clues to the Universe, the debut middle-grade book by Christina Li, that feels like your quintessential quiet MG. And friends, I adored Clues to the Universe, and I’m excited to tell you why.
Set in the 1980s, Clues to the Universe follows biracial Chinese-American girl Ro and white American boy, Benji. Both Ro and Benji carry heavy weights in their hearts – Ro has just recently lost her father in a car accident and Benji is looking for his father that has disappeared from his family’s life. Unbeknownst to each other at first, both Ro and Benji are searching for a connection to their lost fathers. When Ro sets herself on building a rocket and a case of switched identical purple folders brings her and Benji together, they find that the grief and loss that they carry feels lighter as their friendship grows – and perhaps the two of them can find what they are looking for.
Told in alternating narration, the first few chapters brilliantly set the stakes and juxtaposition of Ro and Benji’s lives. While Ro loves science, is methodical, Benji loves art and comics and a daydreamer. Ro and Benji’s family life is different too – Ro and her Chinese mother have a close, symbiotic, and supportive relationship, while Benji’s mother is stretched for time as a nurse and she disagrees with Benji on what to do with his life (and under no circumstances can he mention his estranged father to his mother). The friendship that blooms between them is sweet but also genuine and real in its portrayal; there are small hiccups here and there in their friendship, they face bullying, sometimes they do not agree and don’t understand each other, and feelings – feelings that I could relate to and empathise with – bubble up and get in the way. At the heart of this book, Clues to the Universe is a story about friendship – and what Ro and Benji have is one of the most heartfelt and genuine friendships I’ve read in a long while.
Central to Clues to the Universe is its exploration of grief and loss. For such an unassuming middle-grade about two sweet and wonderful characters who are just trying to do their best, Li’s powerful descriptions of grief made me ache and grieve alongside Ro and Benji. In Clues to the Universe, grief is shown not only in the way it feels in our hearts, but also how grief feels when we see a forgotten jacket slumped over a chair or a note sprawled inside a book. Ro and Benji’s feelings of loss felt so visceral that there were times where I wept for them. I appreciated that their grief, though a part of life and thus feels ‘small’, actually felt so meaningful, impactful and life-changing in the story. Clues to the Universe is a story that understands grief – and that’s why this is a story that young readers out there, grieving or not, will find solace and comfort in this book.
Though set in a small sleepy town and down-to-earth in its portrayal of friendship, family, and grief, I couldn’t help but also feel that this was a story dedicated to space and the vastness and permanence of it, to those who dare to dream big, to those who want more and bigger and better. Clues to the Universe is a story about searching for answers to questions that might not necessarily have any and about filling the small holes in your heart in your search. (After all, this story is called Clues to the Universe with good reason.) Ultimately Ro and Benji’s story is a satisfying one – one that provides the reader with closure or at least with the comfort that, whatever may come Ro and Benji’s way, they will be okay.
Clues to the Universe is a stellar debut, one that I absolutely loved and thoroughly enjoyed reading (though it made me ache and reflect). Younger readers will connect effortlessly with Ro and Benji and root for them to find what they are looking for, and older readers will also enjoy and appreciate its gentle exploration and portrayal of grief that is ultimately humanising and tender. A wonderful book, and I cannot wait to see what Li writes next.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A girl and a boy build a rocket together for a science fair experiment become close friends and, together, search for the boy’s missing father.
Perfect for: readers who love middle-grade realistic fiction; readers who love stories that focus on a non-romantic friendship; young readers who are interested in STEM
Think twice if: you’re not looking for a book that heavily explores grief
Genre: middle-grade, historical fiction (set in 1980s)
Trigger/content warning: mentions of death of parent, death of loved one, estranged parent, bullying