Published by Knopf BFYR on March 7, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: print ARC from Amazon Vine
A vibrant, edgy, fresh new YA voice for fans of More Happy Than Not and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, packed with interior graffiti.
When Julia finds a slur about her best friend scrawled across the back of the Kingston School for the Deaf, she covers it up with a beautiful (albeit illegal) graffiti mural.
Her supposed best friend snitches, the principal expels her, and her two mothers set Julia up with a one-way ticket to a “mainstream” school in the suburbs, where she’s treated like an outcast as the only deaf student. The last thing she has left is her art, and not even Banksy himself could convince her to give that up.
Out in the ’burbs, Julia paints anywhere she can, eager to claim some turf of her own. But Julia soon learns that she might not be the only vandal in town. Someone is adding to her tags, making them better, showing off—and showing Julia up in the process. She expected her art might get painted over by cops. But she never imagined getting dragged into a full-blown graffiti war.
Told with wit and grit by debut author Whitney Gardner, who also provides gorgeous interior illustrations of Julia’s graffiti tags, You’re Welcome, Universe introduces audiences to a one-of-a-kind protagonist who is unabashedly herself no matter what life throws in her way.
Diversity: 3 – Closer to Reality
Racial-Ethnic: 3 (Julia is Indian and so is her birth mother)
QUILTBAG: 3 (Julia has two moms who got her via sperm donor)
Disability: 4 (Julia and both of her moms are Deaf and Julia is explicit about the fact she’s not particularly good at reading lips)
Intersectionality: 2 (though I love the intersectionality present in Julia, the deep historical relationship between black culture and modern street art like graffiti goes untouched)
Illustrated YA books are my weakness and will always remains so. Though I lack any artistic ability, cruising art installations and museums and online collections makes me so, so happy. Words will always be my favorite, but being visually engaged by images as well as words? JACKPOT. Plus You’re Welcome, Universe featured a Deaf Indian protagonist and I’m here for that even if it isn’t #ownvoices. Meanwhile, it is pretty darn good.
While doing my research in prep for this review, I stumbled upon Gardner saying her book went through multiple Deaf beta readers and interpreters for the best portrayal possible. Even before finding that nugget, it was clear in the pages of You’re Welcome, Universe how much work went into crafting it. I’m not necessarily the best judge because I’m a hearie, but Julia’s voice and her experiences as a fully Deaf girl radiate from the page. She outright confronts one of the stereotypes for Deaf people and characters as well: the idea they’re all excellent lip readers. Julia is an okay lip reader at best.
Another thing about Julia: she is not happy. The book’s cover is so bright and happy that you might assume the story will be too, but Julia spends a great deal of the novel angry. Angry at her ex-best friend for getting her kicked out of her old school, angry at whoever is adding skeletons to her street art, and angry at how her art is treated by the community at large as vandalism. Basically, angry at everything. Thankfully, she’s never truly angry at her Deafness. We don’t need yet another self-loathing disabled character.
Initially, she’s even angry at a girl she sneeringly calls Yoga Pants, a hearie girl at her new school who tries to befriend her despite knowing little ASL and occasionally saying things that unintentionally hurt Julia. YP (her name isn’t conclusively revealed) makes missteps in their growing friendship, but she tries to learn from them and commits to communicating with Julia in Julia’s own language: ASL. She’s not just The Friend either; as a fat girl in recovery from an eating disorder, she’s got her own issues and gets just as much development as Julia.
The friendship between these two is as much at the core of the novel as the street art Gardner includes in beautiful illustrations and Julia’s experiences as a Deaf girl in a hearie world. When Julia moves from calling her new friend YA mockingly to using it as a term of endearment, it’s utterly sweet and made it easier to read books with less developed female friendships.
(The nickname, by the way, comes from how she wears yoga pants to school every single day, which I call bull on. NO WAY HAVE HIGH SCHOOL DRESS CODES EASED UP ON THAT RULE IN JUST FIVE YEARS. Silly complaint is silly, so moving on…)
My major hang-up with You’re Welcome, Universe is the lacking black presence in the novel. Black culture–specifically hip hop culture–and street art like graffiti have intertwined histories, but there are no major black characters or discussions of that history. A black man Julia is certain is legendary graffiti artist Banksy makes two short appearances, but it’s generally believed Banksy is actually a white guy. Julia is Indian and (without spoiling their identity) her graffiti war opponent is white. The absence of black people from a novel with street art at its center is concerning and creates a lot to unpack. As a white woman, I simply don’t have the tools to unpack it myself.