Holding Up the Universe

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Holding Up the Universe Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Insightful, inspiring romance full of surprises.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 20 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Chock-full of literary references including books by Harper Lee, Shirley Jackson, John Knowles, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Arthur Miller. Discusses prosopagnosia (face blindness) and references prominent researchers studying the cognitive disorder.

Positive Messages

We're all damaged in our own way. People who behave cruelly aren't necessarily mean at heart. It's impossible to control how others see you, but your best chance to really be seen and heard requires being authentic and maintaining integrity. It takes courage to make meaningful change. Making assumptions about people you don't know risks closing yourself off to life-changing experiences. You can nurture your own joy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Libby is a strong, powerful character. She's in touch with her vulnerabilities and fears, and her strength is in her determination to take hold of the steering wheel in her own life and find joy. Her confidence is hard-earned, and she's unapologetic about her positivity. Jack at first lets fear and insecurity guide his choices, but seeing someone else living authentically helps him get in touch with his own courage. His young brother, Dusty, is similarly thoughtful but more resilient: He holds others accountable for the words and actions and expects them to try to be their best selves. Parents and teachers are generally caring and attentive, giving teens room to find their own way.


Two girls are tackled by boys playing a cruel game they call Fat Girl Rodeo. Girl punches a boy. Insults and taunting of girl as "whore" with references to "blow jobs" and being undesirable as a sexual partner. Boys get into very physical, violent fights. 


Teen girl is eager for first kiss, hopeful about finding a boy to "claim her body," and fascinated by anecdote about a woman losing weight by having "marathon" sex. Some descriptive talk about making out. Teen tries to convince partner to have sex. Some kissing. Students face discipline for having sex in a school bathroom.


Frequent swearing, both casually and as insults, including "ass," "a--hole," "bastard," "bitch," "bulls--t," "damn," "d--k," "douche," "douche bag," "f--k," "f--ker," "goddamn," "hell," "jerkwad," "kick-ass," "pissed," "prick," "s--t" and many variations. Other coarse content includes references to "blow jobs" and "whores."


References to brand-name cars, snack foods.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens gather for parties with alcohol and weed. A peripheral character is high at school. One teen generally doesn't drink to avoid losing self-control.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Holding Up the Universe deals frankly with fat-shaming, bullying, depression, and peer pressure. It's another patient, emotionally complex story by author Jennifer Niven (All the Bright Places). Her two teen heroes both have difficult histories: Libby's mother died unexpectedly, and Libby, who is white, is terrified of dying herself. Jack, who is biracial, is full of secrets: that he has a disorder that makes even loved ones unrecognizable, and that his father, in remission from cancer, has been carrying on an affair with a teacher at Jack's school. There's frank talk about sexual attraction and desire, and there's some making out, frequent strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t"), and some drinking and drug use. It's a harsh but clear-eyed look at what's on the mind of teens, and messages of resilience, courage, and joy shine through.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byCAG1 September 22, 2018

Full of cussing.

If you do not like the Lord’s name taken in vain, then choose another book. I can tolerate mild cussing, but this book bothered me.

Only one sex attempt and... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byfrsullivan11329 December 3, 2019

Amazing book!!!

wow this book was so great, very inspiring. but is has a lot of sexual content and swearing so maybe not for younger kids. I really liked this book though.
Teen, 14 years old Written bybbyblue.amaya_knows May 11, 2017


This book was very... CUTE. It was more of a book about learning to love yourself than a romance. There is barely any kissing, and only mentions of sex. The boo... Continue reading

What's the story?

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE follows the relationship that grows between Libby Strout and Jack Masselin, two teens who meet because of a vicious bullying "game" that lands them in group counseling. Libby, who became known as "American's Fattest Teen" when she had to be cut out of her home, is returning to school after years away mourning her mother and tending to her own health. Jack is hiding the fact he can't recognize faces, not even his own, so he overcompensates by trying to be the life of the party. To protect himself, he ends up making Libby a target for bullies. But Libby can stand her ground, and her confidence, enthusiasm, and hope make Jack take a long, hard look at his own choices.

Is it any good?

This unflinching look at courage in the face of bullying is unforgettable, primarily for its remarkable heroine: She's fierce, funny, and absolutely done with being mocked and targeted for her size. Libby and her counterpart, Jack, take turns telling their story in Holding Up the Universe: Both speak intimately and honestly, confronting difficult truths about themselves and the people they're closest to. Despite their unique circumstances, the struggles they face -- to be seen, to be heard, to be respected, to be given room to be themselves -- are universal.

Libby, Jack, and his brother Dusty are remarkably self-aware, empathic, and considerate -- almost overly so. Teen readers might find these characters rather unrealistic in their frank courage, but odds are they'll be adopted as inspirational heroes. This is a terrific book for encouraging teens to be their own wonderful selves.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about integrity in Holding Up the Universe and why Jack sometimes acts against his better judgment. Is it hard to maintain integrity in the face of social media and peer pressure?

  • Do you feel that your friends, family, classmates, and strangers see you the way you want to be seen?

  • Is it "better to hunt than be hunted"?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romance and tales of bullying

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate