You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney GardnerYou're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 7th, 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 297

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.

2.5 Stars

“Silence is the loudest sound.”

You’re Welcome, Universe taught me so much about Deaf culture, and for this educational aspect alone, I’d love to give it five stars. Its theme is underpinned by lovely graphics every other page. Unfortunately, the good rep, diverse characters, and strong focus on friendship were overshadowed by an otherwise weak plot. A lovely concept that just… fell a bit flat. 

As an able-bodied person, and not knowing anyone who’s deaf, it was difficult for me to judge the accuracy of the rep, but throughout the book, I had a good feeling about it. I scanned the reviews for insight on personal experience and stumbled upon Cait’s review, which confirmed my impression that the Deaf rep was well researched. I recommend checking out other #OwnVoices reviews as well.

☀ I’ve become allergic to books that throw in diverse elements just for the sake of it. Thankfully, You’re Welcome, Universe incorporated its diversity – disability, mental health, and race – in a thoughtful manner. This means that it added to the story and wasn’t included just to get a cookie from the readers. The main character’s a deaf Indian American girl, her best friend is hearing-impaired, her parents are a mixed-racial lesbian couple, and a new friend she makes at school struggles / has struggled with an eating disorder.

☀  Julia’s deafness is a crucial element of the book. After having been expelled from Kingston School for the Deaf, Julia attends a regular school and is faced with a lot of challenges. Her attitude toward her deafness was enlightening to me. Able-bodied people’s reaction towards disabled people always seems to be one of pity, and this book zooms in on issues in the interactions between hearing and non-hearing individuals – because Julia doesn’t want your pity, for its the only reality she knows. Lip-reading and sign language are central to the dialogue in this book. When people spoke too quickly, the author inserted blanks to demonstrate that Julia hadn’t been able to follow everything. People incapable of actual sign language would often sign letters to communicate with the main character. I loved that the author highlighted Julia’s perception as more nuanced and enhanced, for example picking up on the vibrations of cars or school bells hearing people identify by their noise (I also learned the deaf version of an alarm clock is a mattress that vibrates!).

☀ Prior to reading this book, I’d seen a lot of reviewers complain about Julia’s attitude. I can confirm that Julia is unapologetic, arrogant, feisty, and moody, but this didn’t make me dislike her. She’s a character who spits fire but she’s also honest, determined, and passionate. I remember adolescence as a time when I was often rude to people when it wasn’t called for because, hey, your hormones are going nuts and your frontal lobe hasn’t fully developped and sometimes life’s challenges are just overwhelming. Her characterisation just made her more realistic to me. In addition, I appreciated that her rough personality defies the stereotype that disabled people need to be soft and helpless. Sure, behind her rock-solid facade lies a girl who longs to be understood and appreciated, and the realisation that she deserves this is part of her character development. Another part of her character development are her interactions with her interpreter and her art teacher, both of whom she warms up to and learns to treat with the same respect she wishes to be shown.

To my delight, friendship was a central theme in You’re Welcome, Universe. I cannot stress enough that friendships and family are relationships, too, but YA contempoaries often seem to focus on only one relationship – a romantic one. Throughout the book, Julia discovers that sometimes people we perceive as friends put themselves first, that it is alright to dump false friends for real friends, that false impressions can almost prevent us from becoming friends with wonderful people, that she deserves friends who put her first, and that even good friendships have their ups and downs.

“I’m not better than friends, I want better friends. I want friends who are all in, all the time. It can’t just be all on your terms. You have to care, care about more than just yourself.”

☁ The plot is this book’s most prominent weak spot. From the premise, I had expected Julia’s art and the graffiti war to be a predominant element of the plot, but I didn’t think it’d make up almost the entire plot. Perhaps I am not artsy or versed enough in art to comprehend that art is the centre of a painter’s universe, but I had expected more from this book. I loved the amount of emotion the graffiti war evoked from Julia, but I had expected more subplots besides her “art subplot”. Maybe I could have even lived with this, had the revelations at the end been mind-blowing, but they weren’t. On the contrary, it brought forth a very juvenile side in Julia which I couldn’t connect with at all.

☁ Normally, I’d view the lack of romance as something positive. Though there is a potential love interest, the author decided not to pursue your typical YA contemporary love story. While I can appreciate this, I don’t regard the lack of romance in this specific book as only positive. On one hand, I preferred the focus on friendship rather than having a sappy romance which is basically every YA contemporary ever. On the other hand, the overall plot just didn’t have enough spark, and it suddenly made me long for romantic subplot. Weird, I know, but this is was happened.

☁ Speaking of sides of Julia’s character I couldn’t connect with: Though I didn’t dislike her for being the angry little shit she is, I do think a book is meant to show young readers that this kind of behaviour, even if it is normal to some extent, cannot always be tolerated. Julia wasn’t called out on her behaviour enough. Her vandalising property or getting back at her friend in a very twisted way was never properly addressed and condemned.

☁ I struggled with the combination of quotation marks and sign language. The author didn’t always distinguish between signing and speaking, but wrote everything as a dialogue. You can argue that this is accurate rep because this is what talking is like for deaf people. But when I read something in quotation marks, I automatically read and perceive it as spoken, and this was especially confusing because sometimes Julia (and other characters) chose to use her voice instead of signing. To me, as a hearing reader, it would’ve facilitated this reading experience if signed dialogue had been written, for example, in italic font. This way, I wouldn’t have had to constantly correct my “inner movie” from people speaking to people signing.

In a nutshell, You’re Welcome, Universe is a unique, diverse, and educational read with a strong focus on art, friendship, and Deaf culture. To some, the former will take too much away from a plot which could’ve been so much more, and this applies to me, unfortunately. I loved the bricks Whitney Gardner used to build this house, but I just didn’t love the actual house. I couldn’t really click with the story. Still, if the positives I mentioned convinced you more than the negatives, then I recommend giving this book a go!