Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez, 400 pp, RL 4

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe
by Carlos Hernandez
Purchased Audio Book 
narrated by Anthony Rey Perez

I absolutely LOVE and cannot stop thinking about this beautiful, rich, warm, generous gift of a book Carlos Hernandez has written. I have to confess, I was predisposed not to like it. I am not a fan of Rick Riordan's style of writing, which I would categorize (somewhat unfairly and too briskly) as big on action and light on reflection. Despite this, I have great appreciation for his Rick Riordan Presents imprint - for his willingness  to lend his name to a series of books that he does not benefit from financially and his recognition that these are stories (and authors) from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds  that need to be told. To this I want to add that I especially value this imprint's focus on the genres of fantasy and science fiction. While the number of middle grade novels featuring people of color is slowly rising, I find most of the titles fall into the genre of realistic fiction and historical fiction and it's great to see people of color in all genres. Last year I reviewed Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first title to be published by this imprint, and, while I found it well written and entertaining, and I loved learning about Hindu mythology, I also found it very similar to Riordan's writing with the fast paced action and black and white, good and evil themes. It was a smart book to start the imprint with, easing fans of Riordan's writing into new stories and authors, however it did not leave me wanting more. I started listening to Sal & Gabi Break the Universe not knowing much about the book and expecting more of the same. And, while I definitely didn't get more of the same, it also took me a while to figure out what I was getting. 

Narrated by Sal Vidón, the story begins on his third day in seventh grade at Culeco Academy for the Arts in Miami, where his father and stepmother have just moved. Sal has a vividly descriptive, colorful voice and I have to admit, there were times early on when I wished he would stop describing everything and get on with the story. Eventually, I settled in when I realized that this book is not about getting on with the story, it's about the people in the story, the connections they make, the way they work together and ultimately the magnificent, all encompassing love they have for each other. In fact, there isn't even a traditional bad guy in this book! And the bully at the start of the book is not really a bully, nor is the busy-body-brilliant Gabi Reál what she seems. A superb interview with Hernandez at Publishers Weekly reveals the thought and intention behind the characters and the plot that drive it,

I wanted to get away from the typical “person vs. person” story, and write a “person vs. the cosmos” book, because I don’t think we get enough of that. We have too many easy villains. We have too many targets for our anger and fear and desire to be victorious. The real world is more nebulous, and kids are smart; they know that you can’t reduce things down as easily as you do in fiction. So my challenge to myself was to do this in a way that felt exciting and lively, to tackle the idea of “what do I do in the world? How do I exist?” without pitting people against one another. I come from a literary tradition where you put characters in motion, put problems in front of them, and see what happens.

In his world, Sal is a pretty well adjusted teenager who speaks openly about losing his mother (Mami Muerta), going to talk therapy, coping with his Type 1 diabetes (Hernandez notes that the Latinx community has one of the fastest growing numbers of both Type 1 and 2 diabetes, he wanted to showcase it and also present a character living and thriving with a chronic health condition) and his dad's new wife (American Stepmom, which she suggests he call her). Sal exists in his world - and at his new school for the performing arts - is through his sleight-of-hand magic tricks and his act that goes with it. Outside of that world, Sal has discovered parallel universes, including those where Mami Muerta is still alive. Understandably, but heartbreakingly, Sal wants more time with his mother. Unfortunately, this breaks the universe...

Sal works through challenges at Culeco, from the intimidating Yasmany, to Gladis and her ojo turco scarf she is knitting to ward off evil (including Sal, who classmates think is a brujo), to the brilliantly bossy Gabi and her endless energy and devotion to both her education and her family, which includes anyone who is her friend as well as her many, many Dads. As Hernandez says, 

I wanted to present the idea of chosen family. We have the families we’re born with, and you have no choice in that. But then you have the people you meet in the world and form a connection with, who can help you reach your full potential. I wanted to celebrate that. For Gabi’s family, the title of Dad is a hilarious affection they’ve taken on as a private joke. It’s about those people who are sometimes closer to us than the ones actually connected by blood. If you do it right, and choose them well, that’s how you end up with someone like Gabi Reál, who manages to be student body president, good at making friends, able to deal with bureaucracy, and always on the move.

As Sal navigates Principal Torres and Mr. Milagros, a character I hope to see more of in the next book, at school he also continues to dabble with the calamity physics that his father is an expert in and what (somewhat) explains the holes that Sal is able to make between universes. Hernandez does a just the right job explaining this science/science-fiction in the book in a way that will engage kids but that I can't describe any further here. When a diabetic emergency lands Sal in the hospital, he meets Gabi's Cuban mom (who is always feeding everyone, despite being in the hospital seemingly nonstop), her many dads (each one with a specialty that adds to Gabi's upbringing - it really does take a village) and her one-month-old brother, Ignacio, Iggy, who is struggling to live in spite of his weak immune system. The way that Sal and Gabi and their families come together, and the way that the story moves from school to the hospital and back again is full of creativity, exploration and curiosity, despite the sad circumstances surrounding it. It is a joy to see how Hernandez has Sal face the problems in front of him while also finding himself in the world - and a few next to ours...

I want to leave with a final quote from Hernandez's interview with Michael Jones. Asked about the fact that Sal has a big heart and has no problem making a public apology when he realizes he has hurt someone, Hernandez, an associate professor at CUYN and game designer, responded,

I think right now we are in a time when people are using that language a lot, and rightfully so, to call out certain behavior. As a teacher, I see a lot of 17- to 19-year-olds, and I get high school seniors in my classes sometimes, and what I’m seeing is a level of openness and affection among male and male-presenting people, which is super-heartening. Sal isn’t just aspirational. He reflects, I think, a sea change happening in the younger generation which has opened up to allow for a lot more nuance and flexibility and kindness among those who adopt a male identity. So that idea of being decent, which I hit a couple of times in this book, is super important to me, not because I want it to happen but because I’m already seeing it happen. As a culture, it’s not only our job to point out what’s wrong, we need to celebrate what’s right. I see a lot of hope in the new generation.


Read more about these titles in the Rick Riordan Presents Series here:

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