Clues to the Universe

Book review by
JK Sooja, Common Sense Media
Clues to the Universe Book Poster Image
Two friends look for fathers, reach for stars in brave tale.

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some information about what might be involved in building a small rocket. Mentions of radio transmission systems, batteries, aerodynamics, frames and fins, wind resistance, trajectories, and making "calculations." No actual math or science, but plenty of references to things that would be crucial for early rocket science learning. Some light engagement with Chinese cultural histories and traditions, like cuisines and eating rituals or attitudes and behaviors around holidays. 

Positive Messages

Strong themes of family, friendship, and standing up to bullying behavior. Some calling out of racist insults like looking "homeless" or "Pakistani." Be true to who you are even if others think it might be "nerdy" or "weird." Other positive messages include knowing your worth, being determined, and following through. Also, it's not weird being a girl good at science or a boy good at art. Don't be afraid to talk about grief and your feelings and thoughts about losing a parent.  

Positive Role Models

Plenty of positive role models, including strong girl and boy role models that don't easily conform to stereotypical girl and boy norms. Ro is a confident, scientifically astute half-Chinese, half-White girl. Ro is a shy, artistically talented White boy. Helpful and protective adults who care about the well-being and intellectual development of children. Healthy portrayals of father figures, even if they are either dead or absent. In the midst of talk about estranged parents and lost fathers, plenty of time is dedicated to hearing out both sides, with lots of space for the kids to actually talk about their feelings, disappointments, anxieties, and hopes. Strong mother figures. Bare representations of dealing with racism, bullying behavior, and feelings about having lost a father.

Violence & Scariness

Some nonviolent bullying behavior, including insults and pranks. A kid tackles another kid who stole a model rocket, wrestling over it as they fall. Later, another kid tackles a kid, kicking him once on the way to the ground. A few confrontations that almost end up in a tussle. 

Language

Some name calling and dismissive racist language. Kids say Ro is "homeless looking" for her raggedy or "non-girly" clothing, and she's called "weird" and "ugly." A kid refers to a boy as "that Pakistani," and another boy corrects him, saying the boy he referred to is Iranian. A kid refers to another as looking "Japanese or something."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Clues to the Universe is a young adult novel set in 1984 about two seventh-graders both struggling with having lost their fathers. One is a confident and scientifically astute half-Chinese, half-White girl named Ro, and the other is a shy and artistically talented and nerdy White boy named Benji. They both face bullying behavior from other kids at school, and Ro endures a handful of racist insults, stereotyping, and pranks. But they don't care about that. They want to finish Ro's model rocket and uncover the mystery of why Benji's father left and where he might be. This charming and brave real-world take on two kids' struggles through grief is filled with heart and surprises. Lots of the dialogue is between kids talking about their feelings about having lost a parent, through either abandonment or death. Expect some heavy, emotional, and tender moments. 

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Parent Written bysummerb April 14, 2021

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What's the story?

In CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE, it's 1984 and seventh-grader Ro is into outer space, rocket science, NASA, and physics. Also in seventh grade, Benji is into space but through comic books, drawing space aliens, and inventing his own space opera universe. Quickly becoming friends, they agree to help each other. Benji will help Ro finish her rocket, test its capabilities, and report their findings in a posterboard presentation at the science fair, along with charts, diagrams, calculations, and documented evidence from the field. And Ro will help Benji find his father, who left his family years ago. His mother never speaks of him, and there are no pictures of him around. But Benji discovers that his father is actually a successful comic book artist who writes and illustrates his favorite comic series, Spacebound. Might his father be leaving clues to his whereabouts in his comics, within the stories, characters, or locations? Like detectives, Benji and Ro pore over the Spacebound catalogue for further clues. Will they find Benji's father? Will he want to be found? Will Ro complete her rocket? Will she fulfill her father's request?

Is it any good?

While it meanders a bit in its middle third, this sweet story of loss, searching, and perseverance in the face of adversity just about touches the stars it so reaches for. Clues to the Universe is a stunning debut that surprises emotionally. Whether dealing with racist bullying behavior at middle school, parents who won't answer questions, or knowing your father will never be coming home, the two main characters each admirably face their fatherless realities in eager hopes of finding something that might replace what they lost. This novel gives words, time, and voice to many of the feelings kids must experience when going through losing a parent. There are plenty of unexpectedly affecting moments, and nothing comes off as overly sentimental.     

There are triumphant moments to cheer for and periods of tension and drama that will genuinely irk and annoy. Jumping back and forth in perspective between Ro and Benji can be jarring at first, but eventually the story settles into a groove that allows for chapter to chapter cliffhangers that help to propel it along. Some may find issue with the neat and tidy ending that many kids in similar situations either could never have access to. But this is not a gritty take on the "broken family" narrative. Rather, it's a tender look at grief that gives children a clear voice not often given. It's refreshing to see that each time an adult character might be expected to suddenly appear with some needed source of wisdom, information, knowledge, or guidance, they don't. Almost always, it's the kids' words that prompt the next piece of action or the next plan.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Clues to the Universe portrays kids having lost their parents. Do you think this sad situation that many kids experience is treated respectfully and sensitively? How so? Did anything surprise you about the way this novel talks about this?

  • How do you feel the characters handled the bullying behavior that came their way? What else could they have done? What would you do? Why do you think Drew behaves the way he does?

  • How did the ending make you feel? Would you have changed anything? If so, why?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love grief stories and friendship tales

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