Hello Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly. Illustrated by Isabel Roxas. Novel. 320 pages. Grades 3-7.
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Teacher's Guide

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In short chapters with sparse illustrations, the lives of four middle-school misfits intersect in a contemporary suburban neighborhood, during summer vacation. Virgil is small and painfully shy. Valencia is deaf and valiantly independent, but friendless. Kaori is a self-proclaimed psychic with her little sister for a sidekick. Chet is the neighborhood bully who is secretly afraid of dogs and desperate to make the basketball team. The narration switches between these different viewpoints. This book is great for about third grade and up, and it makes a wonderful read aloud.

School has just ended and Virgil is devastated. All year he has had a crush on Valencia, who he sees once a week in the resource room, but he has been too shy to even say "Hello." Now, he's run out of time. At home, his Filipino-American family is boisterous, and they have given him the nickname Turtle because he never comes out of his shell. Virgil's grandmother seems to be the only one who understands him, and she is a great comfort, even while she pushes him to engage in the world more. He's an easy target for the neighborhood bully, Chet.

I (Rebecca) always appreciate when authors include the viewpoint of the bully in a story and resist the urge to paint them as a single-dimensional character. Chet is mean and verbally harasses anyone vulnerable. His father is clearly the source of Chet's cruel and dismissive judgment of others. Chet's desperation to make the basketball team and his secret fear of dogs betray his tough exterior.

Virgil goes to Kaori, who believes she is psychic, to ask her to tell his fortune. She is a Japanese-American girl of the same age. Her room has a large zodiac rug where she, her sister, and her clients sit for readings. She is confident in her abilities, but she is frustrated by her mother who just doesn't seem to understand.

Kaori is the focus of most of the affectionate humor in the book, as she can sometimes really stretch the connection between so-called signs and happenings. She is also the character who stresses how fate is a force in the world, which is one of the main themes of the book. Kaori advertises her services, and, as fate would have it, Virgil's Valencia arranges to get a reading from Kaori.

Valencia is deaf and is shunned by her former friends because of her impairment. She's got spunk and resilience though, and she has found ways to enrich her solitude, mostly by making nature observations in the neighboring woods and recording them in her notebook, as well as by befriending a stray dog there.

As Virgil is walking through the woods to his appointment with Kaori, he is accosted by the bully, who steals his backpack and drops it down a dry, abandoned well. Virgil climbs down a ladder after it because his guinea pig is inside, but he becomes trapped in the well.

The remainder of the book focuses on a vivid portrayal of Virgil's angst while in the well and the slow realization by Kaori and Valencia that something bad has happened to Virgil.

This book excels at portraying the inner world of its diverse characters. Virgil's experience in the complete darkness of the well is particularly moving.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Some students will need help deciphering the different narrators. Who is talking? Where are they? What do they know that other characters don't know? What clues does the author give to help you keep track of who's narrating?

  • This is a great book for looking at how an author develops characters. How does she distinguish each of the four main characters? What does she tell us about each of them? What does she show us about each of them? Find quotes from the book that illustrate this.

  • What is happening in the well scene? What about the voice Virgil hears and the wings? Do you think they are real? Does he?

  • Fate is mentioned a lot in the book. What does the word mean? Is it different than predestination? What are some examples in the book where the author implies that fate is at work. Do you believe in fate?

  • Discuss the multiple-narrator style more deeply. Why does the author do this? Do you like it? What can writers do when using this technique that is different from traditional single-viewpoint narration?

  • This book provides a good starting point for discussions about bullying. What is bullying? Is there a range of behavior from thoughtless to unkind to quite cruel? What kinds of things can help decrease bullying in a group? Try some of them. (More books with bullies)

  • Discuss some of the many truisms used in the book such as, "It doesn't take many words to turn your life around". What does each one mean? Do you agree?


  • Right off the bat, there is a wonderful simile, ". . . that's how the Salinas family was--big personalities that bubbled over like pots of soup. Virgil felt like unbuttered toast standing next to them." What makes these parallel similes work? Look for some pairs of adjectives to describe the pots of soup and the plain toast that might fit the people as well i.e. Loud-Quiet, Big-Small, Colorful-Plain, Flavorful-Bland, Lively-Still . . . Can you think of any other two objects that might also work as a simile instead of the pots and toast?

  • This book is particularly good for character study discussions and activities. What do the different characters have in common? How do they differ? Make a chart of the main characters and brainstorm lists of adjectives that describe them.

  • To go deeper with character studies, you could look through the book for methods the author uses to portray the various qualities in the characters: direct description, things they say, things they think, things they do, things others say about them.

  • Discuss the different types of narrator techniques available to writers. Try some of them yourself. Write a simple story and then rewrite it with a couple of different point-of-view techniques. Which one works best for your particular story?

  • Find the Philippines on a map. Research some facts about the Philippines, and see how they may have effected the Salinas family in the past and now.

  • After discussing fate, it might be a good time to do some comparative religion research on how major faiths address destiny, free will, and chance.

  • Kaori consults star charts to determine the astrological predictions in her psychic readings. Research more about astrology and its history.

  • Create a nature journal similar to Valencia's which documents observations in your local area.

  • How deep is the well? Reread the description of him coming down the ladder and the letting go and falling down from the base of the ladder to the bottom of the well. Use this information to make estimates of how deep the well is. How much space is usually between each rung of that kind of ladder? What's the least number of rungs he seems to go down? About how many feet must be between the base of the ladder and the bottom of the well?

  • Virgil is afraid he'll run out of oxygen. Make a guess for how wide the diameter of the well might be. Use that and your depth of the well calculations from the previous activity to get an estimate of the volume of the well. Research the amount of oxygen typically contained in a given amount of air. Research the amount of oxygen a person needs. Can you make some calculations that would tell you how long it would take for the oxygen to run out?

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