Clues to the Universe

clues to the universe

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends, and Ro even figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.---from the publisher

304 pages                  978-0063008885                    Ages 8-12

Keywords:  fathers, loss, grief, bullying, finding yourself, friends, friendship, middle school, science fair project, diversity, diverse books, biracial, Asian American, 9 year old, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old


"Winter, spring, summer or fall

All you have to do is call

And I’ll be there

Now ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend”

-- Carole King (1971)


“I guess my brother was kind of right. He always was. There were things that I knew Dad coming home wouldn’t fix. Drew Balonik would never stop hating me. I would never stop being the last one picked for the softball team in gym class. Mom would never stop worrying about me.

But maybe if Dad was back in my life, things would be easier to bear. I could spend weekends with him. He could take me on his trips. I could see him work on his comics. Work with him, even--I had some pretty sweet ideas on how Gemma could take the nuclear semiconductors back from the Raiders. Maybe, just maybe, he could get a house on the other side of Sacramento and I could see him every weekend, just like Holly Berger with her dad. I could introduce him to Mr. Keanan. Man, my art teacher would love him.

What was he like, even? Maybe he imagined things in shades of colors like I did. Maybe he was also the kind of person who left colored pencils around and, you know, was okay with a little bit of a mess sometimes.

Maybe if Dad was around, I wouldn’t be the oddball out anymore.”


“I rushed up to my door, but the door was locked. Mom was out. I fumbled with the key, my fingers shaking. I heard the screen door snap shut behind me. I raced to my room. I threw my rocket into the closet and then sank to the carpet, against my bed.

The Container of Dad’s Things sat in my sock drawer, untouched. I’d never told Benji about it, I suddenly realized. I’d been so caught up in building the rocket itself that Benji never knew that I didn’t just want to launch a rocket--I wanted to launch a rocket that would clear the sky and the atmosphere and go out there, into space and stars, carrying the picture of Mom and Dad. I wanted to build satellites and space shuttles.

How could I build anything close to that if I couldn’t even get a homemade rocket to launch right?”

CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE, set in Sacramento, California in the early 1980s, is the poignant story of two fatherless seventh graders who find one another. Most notable is the deep friendship that develops between Benjamin Burns and Rosalind Ling Geraghty. Any middle school student--hey, any human being--would be lucky to have such a friendship. The story includes instances where the two young people have significant disagreements, yet find satisfactory means by which to retain that comradery.

Equally significant, are the bullying aspects of the story. One particular incident that befalls the two friends at school arises so precipitously that it shocked me as deeply as it did Benji and Ro. It’s nowhere near the most horrific or sensational instance of bullying that I’ve experienced in children’s literature, but it is set up so well, and comes across as so believable, that it triggered a painful, emotional response in me.

Brought together by the sheer randomness of classroom seat assignments at the beginning of the school year, Ro, whose father was killed the previous year by a drunk driver, gets to know Benji, whose father left when he was a baby and has never contacted him since. The two new friends make a deal: Benji will help Ro with her rocket and Ro will help him find his father.They do a great job of bringing out the best in one another as they find themselves over the course of seventh grade.

The story unfolds through alternating first-person narratives. The two tweens are well-drawn characters whom we come to care about. I appreciate that the girl is the driven science geek and the boy is the artistic one.

I would be delighted to encounter either, or both of these kids, in a future book.

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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