Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Sal Vidon has just started at a new middle school and he’s already been to the principal’s office three times. That’s because Sal is a magician, or so he says, and, indeed, very strange things happen around him. For example, he made a dead chicken suddenly appear in a bully’s locker, and he made his dead mother appear in his kitchen to cook up a feast of Cuban food one day before his father and stepmom got home from work.
Soon Sal attracts the attention of school council president Gabi Real, a smart industrious middle-schooler who notices Sal’s special skills and sets out to discover his secret. Eventually Sal explains: he can create holes in space-time and retrieve objects or people from parallel universes. There’s a price, though. As Sal’s physicist father explains, each time Sal brings something from another universe, some calamatrons come with it, and the build-up of these chaos particles will eventually destroy our universe. When the rift in the bully’s locker is slow to close, releasing a bunch of calamatrons, Sal and Gabi must work together to solve the problem.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (2019) is a finalist for this year’s Nebula (Andre Norton) Award, which is how it caught my attention. It’s a delightfully entertaining story full of charming characters and a fun, kooky plot. Sal and Gabi are clever, witty, and good-hearted. Sal likes Gabi because she acts as the bully’s lawyer when he appeared before the principal, and she built a lie detector that works. Gabi likes Sal because he used “whom” correctly in a sentence, and she’s intrigued by his magic. All of the adults — parents, step-parents, teachers, school staff — are benevolent and supportive. Even the bully is really a good kid who just needs to be steered in the right direction. (Some readers are going to find all of this goodness to be a bit syrupy.)
Almost all of the characters are of Cuban descent, which is one of the things I found so refreshing and appealing about this story. Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is steeped in Cuban culture and filled with Cuban food (my favorite cuisine).
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is amusing, with lots of comedic elements that will appeal to all ages, as well as a few of the fart- and wedgie-jokes that are requisite for a middle-grade novel. Though the story relies on the science fiction idea of parallel universes, it’s actually a small part of the plot. Author Carlos Hernandez seems most interested in telling a warm-hearted Cuban-inspired tale.
Though Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is mostly funny and light, Hernandez takes the opportunity to present some tough subjects to his middle-grade audience. Sal has diabetes, so his physical limitations (and lack thereof) are part of his experience and young readers will probably learn a lot about that medical condition. Sal and his father still grieve for Sal’s mother, even as they try to move on with a new wife and mother who they also love. Gabi’s baby brother is very ill in the NICU and her family spends a lot of time gathered in the hospital’s waiting room (eating Cuban food). These weighty topics give the book some welcome gravitas and Hernandez handles them with deftness and sensitivity.
The audio version of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe was produced by Listening Library and read by the fabulous Anthony Rey Perez. I loved his performance. A sequel, called Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, will be released next month. I am likely to pick it up.