Top positive review
Mold-Breaking Middle Grade adventure
Reviewed in the United States on March 15, 2019
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call Carlos Hernandez’ Sal & Gabi Break the Universe a mold-breaker. Any expectations you bring to the book based on the publishing line it’s a part of, the genre it falls into, or the age reader it’s aimed at, are likely to be mistaken. The main characters also don’t fall into expected roles from similar stories.
Rick Riordan’s various series have been mythology-based, and most of the initial titles in the Rick Riordan Presents line have stayed in that mold while lifting up the voices of marginalized peoples to tell stories from their own cultures. In Sal & Gabi, Hernandez makes full use of his heritage, but there’s almost no mention of mythology or gods. Instead, the author immerses us in modern Cuban-American language and cuisine, and … sleight-of-hand magic? Yep. Sal’s goal is to be a different kind of hero: a magician who brings joy to sick kids stuck in hospital just like the magician who did it for him. There’s no demi-god lineage, no monsters waiting to attack. The little bit of the past that impacts Sal’s present is not a mythological past but rather his own.
In fact, there are no fantasy/magic elements at all other than Sal’s sleight-of-hand. The book is, I think, the first under the RRP umbrella to be science fiction. But rather than the far-future we often see in MG and YA books, this is a near future that is recognizably our own world with some hints of advanced (if not openly available) technology. And rather than dystopia, we get loving families, helpful adults, and a sense of community and hope. Even at the book’s darkest moments, and there are a couple, I didn’t feel despondent or mired down.
Hernandez also manages to avoid one of the problems I struggle with in the few middle-grade books I’ve read, including the early Percy Jackson books (as much as I loved them): his characters act and sound like thirteen-year-olds. So many MG characters either read much younger than their supposed age, or much older. Reading the banter between Sal, Gabi, and their classmates, I felt like I was listening to my own nieces and nephews.
At first, the characters seem like they’re going to fall into traditional roles: Sal as the titular chosen one, Gabi as the too-smart-for-her-peers outcast, Yasmany as the bully and “big bad.” But here again Hernandez subverts expectations. Yes, Sal can do something remarkable (rip holes between universes and pulls things – and people – into his own), but he’s not a Chosen One. Nobody is spouting prophecies about what he can and will do, and even the most scientifically-adept characters in the book don’t know why Sal can do what he can do, or what effect it will have on the fabric of the multiverse. Gabi is smart and sassy and a little bit feared, but also well-liked by her peers. Yasmany starts out as the bully, but he’s neither a snob nor a jerk, and his character shows immediate depth that characters like Draco Malfoy only wish they could have exhibited in the first book of a series. Not only is Yasmany not the “big bad,” the book doesn’t have a “big bad” at all! It’s so refreshing to read a MG/YA book where the conflict is situational rather than staged, and where the tension comes from wondering what new situation is going to complicate things rather than wondering when the hero is going to punch the villain. Other than the initial Sal-Yasmany encounter, which never gets as violent as it threatens to, I’m not sure there’s a single fight scene in the entire book.
Sal, Gabi, Yasmany, and their classmates enjoy school, are creative without being falsely eccentric, and are polite even when they’re arguing. Sal’s and Gabi’s parents are involved in their kids’ lives rather than absent, curious and supportive without being pushovers. The other authority figures (principal, custodian, teachers, nurses) are likeable and engaged rather than stern and unyielding roadblocks. Again, there’s that sense of family and community, with good (but not untroubled) relationships almost all around. And people actually apologize when they make mistakes or false assumptions.
Anyone who has heard Carlos read any portion of this book at various conventions and reading programs over the past year or two will not be surprised at the amount of humor the book holds. Everything from slapstick to fart jokes to more intricate wordplay is present, but the characters never engage in humor that is denigrating, embarrassing or vulgar. Even the snark and sarcasm teens are known for is delivered gently.
Finally, I have to acknowledge how empowering it has to be for Cuban-American kids to read this book and “hear” their own language, the beats and rhythms and slang. There were even bits of dialogue completely in Spanish with no direct translation into English. I don’t read or speak Spanish but was able to pick up context clues and go back later to look up translations, but I was happy those moments exist in the text, because they will reach the intended audience and make those young readers smile and feel represented.
Also: the sequel has been announced, and I cannot wait to find out how Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe and what happens before they do.