Phew, baby! The characterization in this book! Listen, generally speaking when I’m excited about a book I’m excited about the whole dang thing, but wind up yelling about one particular aspect of it because that’s what my brain can focus on. Guess what! I’m gonna keep doing the same thing! SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE is SO GREAT. It’s got SO MANY amazing things going on. There is an amazing art-focused school that is so cool I wish my own children went there. There are actual holes in the fabric of space-time! The author tackles serious issues through an authentic lens of childhood – there’s parental loss, child abuse, blended families, divorce, and more going on here, but we see it all through Sal’s eyes. There’s not a gloss over things, exactly, but there is a sense of what is important and not important to a 13 year old, and it’s not what the adults might think is. The heroine, Gabi, has a whole lot of dads, which I love A LOT. The context of it isn’t ever addressed, and it’s just… not important? Sal is surprised, but he takes it in stride and really never thinks about it again, because he’s got other stuff going on and it’s just not important. This is a really hard balance to strike when you’re writing MG and YA books, I think, because you’re balancing a really thin line: make it too childlike, and your young readers will roll their eyes and scoff, and make it too grown-up, and gatekeepers and adult readers may think it’s Too Much. It’s hard to capture the difference between a teenager’s perspective and an adult’s, especially because everyone is different. Carlos Hernandez does it really well here.
And look! That’s not even what I wanted to talk about! See, I can multitask after all. What I wanted to talk about is characterization! This book has a lot of secondary characters (in part due to Gabi’s amazing family!). Some of them even come from other universes. And every single one of them is fascinating. I’m waiting for a BuzzFeed quiz – which one of Gabi’s dads are you? My favorite, as you may have surmised from the first two words of this post, is American Stepmother. Upending the ‘bad stepmother’ trope is always wise, but it’s done SO well here. And relatedly – the backstory built in shows us that Hernandez did what writers should always do: started the story as the action really begins. He could have started it earlier, with the action that prompted Sal’s family to move to Florida, but instead he works it in as part of American Stepmother’s characterization and it’s a really, really good choice. Sal’s fellow students are all interesting (I mean, as they should be, considering the school they go to), and even the hospital is painted with an incredible sense of fellowship and community. There’s a whole lot to say about how this book takes on the concept and dynamic of family, but I’m not sure I have the words to say it beyond how much I loved the way it made me feel.
I want everyone to go read this book, and then people will stop looking at me strangely when I blurt ‘phew, baby!’ at random moments, because American Stepmother’s lexicon has BECOME MY OWN.