You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner.
Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction YA, 297 pages.
Lexile: HL610L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 9.0 points) .
When a slur about Julia’s best friend is left defacing the gym for far too long, she takes matters into her own hands, only to be ratted out. Now she’s navigating mainstream high school with an interpreter, trying to deal with friendship drama, her moms, and a growing tag war.
So often in a book about a Deaf person or one that has ASL, it’s shockingly clear the author has no experience around a deaf or hard of hearing person. For example, hearing authors often write Deaf characters as quiet. While some Deaf people might not like to vocalize among hearing people, I’ve yet to meet a Deaf person who is quiet.
In contrast, it’s clear from Whitney Gardner’s writing that she has spent substantial time in the American Deaf community, and has an understanding of ASL. Already on page 18, a character is stomping to get Julia’s attention, and the quote in the header comes from the same page. Gardner’s characters are Deaf, but they aren’t quiet, and she reflects that in a way only possible after learning about Deaf culture.
I first got excited about this book way back in March 2017. There was a review up on Disability in Kidlit which has disappeared. It’s still referenced in this excellent article on the difficulties of writing a visual language and an interview.
It took a little longer to write this review. That did mean I was able to read a few others, and found myself surprised by some of the reactions. Bluntness is an aspect of Deaf culture, and it’s pretty common for a Deaf person to be irritated at clueless hearing people (the school gives her a handicapped parking space, ‘nuf said). The things many people said irritated them about this character are aspects of her culture.
Julia does have character flaws. She participates in illegal graffiti, steals, cuts class, lies, struggles with friendship and schoolwork, and at points is rude and angsty. I’ve read YA books that are a lot worse and yet are beloved by many. Throughout the book, Julia experiences significant growth.
I also liked that the storyline is not romantic. The main plot revolves around artwork and friendship. Julia is more concerned about getting into an advanced art class than pursuing the boy she likes. I did wonder if there was also flirting between her and a female character, but it wasn’t clear if she was bisexual. It’s still refreshing to read a YA book that doesn’t focus solely on romance.
The main diverse aspect here is Deafness, but Julia also has lesbian moms. Ma is of Irish descent while her birth mother Mee is Indian. Her name itself is supposed to be a pun – because she is Mee’s Jewel of India, her English name is Julia and her namesign incorporates the sign for jewel. This one felt a little off to me – that’s not how ASL puns work (based on the similar sound, it’s a hearing pun). However, there’s not a huge backstory to Julia’s parents, so late deafening or a fascination with English could explain that away.
Although the book’s focus has more to do with her deafness, Julia also deals with bigotry based on her skin color. She also has a friend who struggles with her weight in a very realistic way. The relationships between all the characters, even Julia and her mystery graffiti antagonist, are nicely developed. Gardner even manages to work in the unique concerns that a brown, Deaf graffiti artist might have interacting with the police.
While not action-packed, Gardner keeps the plot moving. Her descriptions subtly incorporate all 5 senses (yes, even hearing through vibrations or lipreading). Julia read so much like a more daring, 10-years younger version of a woman I know, and the multiple diverse aspects of her life were seamlessly and realistically woven together. Highly recommended.
Because of the choices mentioned above, as well as significant swearing, I wouldn’t generally recommend this for middle school, although it could be appropriate for individual students younger than high school.