The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Long-awaited sequel should satisfy fans of Book 1.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Some places of interest in Manhattan. A few brief references to The Great Gatsby, including a quote. Being a feminist briefly explained.

Positive Messages

People are constantly inundated with messages that thin people are better than fat people, but fat people could become valued if they'd just lose some weight. Stop trying to be something you're not (like a skinny person who never eats); don't think in terms of either skinny or fat, just be yourself and never mind what anyone else says. Virginia eventually learns to accept herself as she is and to see herself as having value, but the message is undermined slightly because it happens mostly through finally believing that a cute guy is attracted to her and from being told a few times that she's pretty. Love is love, and shouldn't be judged. Being drunk is never an excuse for sexual violence, but the story asks whether someone who committed rape while drunk deserves harsh punishments like jail and being put on a sex-offender registry. Remember that people you think of as your enemies are people too, and sometimes it can do a lot of good to reach out to them.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Virginia's a good role model for academic achievement, making the best of things, and she loves her kickboxing class. She's remarkably resilient, maintaining her grades and a mostly positive outlook in the face of intense and constant fat shaming from her parents. She learns that she's capable of more than she thinks, and is able to make herself be the brave, strong, bold person she wants to be. Sebastian is the perfect loyal, supportive, no-pressure boyfriend. Without realizing it, Virginia's parents are awful to her, constantly undermining her self-esteem when they're not ignoring her or hoping she'll change. Older brother Byron is an entitled jerk and a criminal, although he usually sticks up for Virginia when the chance presents itself. Big sister Anaïs is in a same-sex relationship and doesn't need to identify with one particular sexual orientation.

Violence

A past rape on a college campus committed by her brother Byron, and events in the aftermath including law enforcement and court proceedings, is a major theme. The rape is never directly narrated and very few details are given about it, but it dominates Virginia's family and romantic life. Mention that in the past Virginia did "too many" things to hurt her body; no specifics are given.

Sex

Kissing and caressing not described in detail. Mentions of trying to "get inside my jeans" or "up my shirt." Two teens sleeping in a tent together kiss and caress after taking their tops off but decide to stop there. Getting your period, tampons, and pads mentioned a few times. Body parts like cleavage and rear ends noticed and mentioned as attractive. One same-sex kiss. Making out with someone you're not in love with is briefly compared to real intimacy.

Language

"Bitchy," "s--t," "f--k," "boobs," "dammit," "butt," and "asshole." Name calling includes "d--k" and "chubby chaser." The narrator labels herself fat on bad days, chunky on so-so days, and curvy on good days.

Consumerism

Lots of food outlets unique to New York City like Absolute Bagels and Zabar's. Several books Virginia is reading or has read. Vitaminwater, Nutter Butters, Torrid, Sephora, ChapStick, and Netflix.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The parents drink wine and hard liquor heavily when they're upset. They offer wine to Byron, who's underage, but not to Virginia, also underage. Bryon gets noticeably drunk at a party with adults and teens, has to be driven home early, and passes out on the couch. The role of alcohol in Byron's crime (he raped a friend while he was very drunk) is frequently mentioned with the disclaimer that it's not an excuse. A minor character smokes and says she knows that it's horrible.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I picks right up just a few months after Carolyn Mackler's popular The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (published 15 years ago) left off. Like the first book it explores Virginia's self-esteem and body image, and a lot of plot involves her older brother's crime of date rape. The crime's mentioned a lot, but it's not narrated directly and almost no details about it are provided. There are also a few mentions about how in the past Virginia used to harm herself. Sexy stuff is mostly vague descriptions of kissing and caressing; once two teens both take their tops off and kiss in a tent but decide not to go any further. Adults drink heavily when they're upset, and alcohol's role in the date rape is frequently mentioned while emphasizing that it's not an excuse. Readers feel sympathy for the rape victim, and some may even sympathize with Byron as the story asks how much, if any, punishment is appropriate.

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What's the story?

THE UNIVERSE IS EXPANDING AND SO AM I picks up Virginia's story a few months after the events in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. Her self-esteem and body image have improved a lot, but they still have a long way to go. She doesn't really like her boyfriend Froggy anymore, but as a fat girl she feels like if anyone's willing to be her boyfriend she should hang onto him for as long as she can. And it's wearing her out. As are her parents' constant harping on the virtues and values of being thin. That is, until she meets a really cute guy at the bagel shop who's really into her. And until her golden-boy older brother is arrested on date-rape charges. When Virginia learns that she and that cute guy she's now totally fallen for (Sebastian) are connected, and not in a good way, she has to keep their relationship a secret. If they were ever discovered, it would ruin everything.

Is it any good?

Author Carolyn Mackler's sequel comes 15 years after the first book, and fans of that one will be glad to be back in Virginia's company once more. In some ways, The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I takes Virginia on a similar journey as the one in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. She's still relatable, still has a messed-up family, and still has a way to go as far as self-esteem and body image are concerned. But fans of the first book will enjoy following her as she continues to heal, grow, and learn that she's so much more than a fat girl.

Mackler conveys the events of the first book well enough that you don't need to read it before this one in order to understand the characters or events. But it will deepen your understanding of everything Virginia's been through if you do. It's also a good chance to talk about the importance of consent, date-rape culture, and body image with teens during a crucial time in their development.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I treats Byron's crime of date rape. Do you think his initial punishment of expulsion was enough? Should he go to jail? Why, or why not?

  • How do Virginia's body image and self-esteem change? What makes them change? Does she inspire you in any way?

  • Did you read the first book? Which do you like better? Why?

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