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Clues to the Universe

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This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to questions bigger than yourself will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly, Sara Pennypacker, and Rebecca Stead.

On the surface, Rosalind Ling Geraghty and Benjamin Burns are completely different. Aspiring rocket scientist Ro normally has a plan for everything. Yet she’s reeling from her dad’s unexpected death, and all she has left of him is a half-built model rocket and a crater-sized grief that she doesn’t know how to cope with. Artist Benji loves superheroes and comic books. In fact, he’s convinced his long-lost dad, who walked out on his family years ago, created his favorite comic book series, Spacebound--but has no way to reach him. 

Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners. But when a mix-up turns the unlikely pair into friends, Benji helps Ro build her rocket, and Ro helps Benji search through his comics—and across the country—to find out where his dad truly could be.

As the two face bullying, loss, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

304 pages, ebook

First published January 12, 2021

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Christina Li

4 books136 followers

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5 stars
421 (43%)
4 stars
381 (39%)
3 stars
146 (14%)
2 stars
21 (2%)
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5 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 238 reviews
Profile Image for Fadwa (Word Wonders).
547 reviews3,524 followers
December 8, 2020
Content warnings:

This book tore my heart to pieces and put it back together and I did NOT see that coming. Don't get me wrong, I knew this book deals with grief, it's right there in the synopsis, but what I didn't expect is how beautiful the depiction was and how soft and tender and heart achingly sweet this book would be.

Clues to the Universe is a story set in the 1980s (which I didn't know, for some reason I thought it was a contemporary) that showcases a beautiful friendship between Ro, a biracial Chinese-American girl whose only dream is to be a rocket scientist and Benji, a white boy whose head is full of dreams and fictional stories he renders in drawings. What I loved most about their friendship is how genuine and real it felt, how there was so much love in it, but also conflict like between any 12 year olds navigating the dynamics of a new friendship while also dealing with their own grief and heartache, but being there for each other above all. Conflict and differences be damned.

The exploration of grief is genuinely some of my favorite I've ever read, it's so simple yet complex. It shows just how insidious grief can be, how it's not just this overwhelming feeling that takes over all the time, how it can also be found in small ways, in day to day mundane things, in little reminders that feel like a punch in the gut. Clues to the Universe shows that grief ebbs and flows and never truly goes away. It also shows through both Ro and Benji's feelings and actions how even though it's a universal experience, different people experience it and cope with it differently.

All of the above makes the book so bittersweet, the perfect read to cuddle up with on a rainy day.
Profile Image for CW ✨.
670 reviews1,714 followers
November 10, 2020
My full review is now on my book blog, The Quite Pond.

This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, and it DELIVERED - and also shattered my heart in the process.
Clues to the Universe is a splendid, heart-aching, and soft debut and y'all absolutely need to read this.

- Follows Ro, a biracial Chinese-White American kid who is starting a new school following the death of her father. She's trying to build a rocket - so she can send tangible memories of her father into space so that they can be preserved forever - and finds unlikely help in Benji, a comic-book lover who is trying to find his lost father.
- What I loved about this book is that it thoroughly and tenderly explores grief. The way Christina Li describes grief - in the little moments and the reminders - was so raw. But it's also a hopeful story; one that's gentle in its depictions of grief and guides the reader through a wonderful and emotive story.
- This book is just so... soft and sweet. There are moments of bittersweet, but I just loved how the two characters, who feel immense and insurmountable grief and loss, find belonging, closure, and connection in one another.
- The friendship between these two was such a highlight. There's a bit of conflict too - and I think that Christina Li does an amazing job at building it up and resolving it. In fact, the conflict makes Ro and Benji's friendship stronger.

Honestly? Add this to your reading lists. This is a fantastic debut and I cannot wait to see what Christina writes next.

I was provided an eARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Trigger/content warning: death of loved one (not described, but remembered), bullying
Profile Image for Enne.
718 reviews112 followers
February 1, 2021
4 stars

This book really is the embodiment of “messy kids big hearts” because, throughout this book, both Ro and Benji are consistently very messy and get themselves in a lot of messes and say a lot of messy, not very-well-thought-out things to each other, but throughout it all, you can still tell how much they love each other and how much they want each other to succeed. This is one of my favorite kinds of friendship stories to read because I think it perfectly captures the imperfection of friendship.

This book has a sort of melancholy to it that I really loved it. It’s very bittersweet, in that it’s a book about death and grief and endings, but it’s also a book about joy and new dreams and new beginnings. I really loved that Ro’s and Benji’s dreams were both such a central part of the story. I really loved how they played off of each other and how those dreams played such a large part in the development of the characters and also the plot.

I also really loved the contrasting family dynamics in this book! I do wish that we had gotten a bit more of an exploration of Benji’s family dynamic, but I really loved what we got to see of it and how it compared to Ro’s family dynamic!! I just think it was really interesting to see the two side-by-side and to see how both Ro and Benji thought that the grass was greener on the other side and how that played into some of the conflicts we saw between them.

I thought this book also had a really good exploration of grief, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a main part of the story. Even though it wasn’t something that was often focused on in the story, it was something that felt like it was threaded throughout the entire story and I really loved that aspect of it because, to me, it really spoke of how grief can be a constant thing, even if you don’t notice it.

There are so many things to love about this book, but my favorite thing, without a doubt, is how unabashedly and unapologetically Ro and Benji care. Care about each other, care about their families, care about their hobbies, care about the things that are important to them. They get things wrong sometimes and make mistakes because they’re kids, but they never shy away from admitting how much they care about something or someone and I loved that.

This book made me incredibly emotional and it was such a bittersweet, but also such a comforting read, and I absolutely cannot recommend it enough.

trigger warnings: death of a parent, grief, parental abandonment, bullying
rep: biracial MC (Chinese/white), Chinese side characters
Profile Image for Kate.
408 reviews241 followers
July 31, 2022
"Scientists are detectives. They go into deep oceans and to the ends of thick jungles to find the clues to the universe. They stare at things under a microscope and crane their necks at the stars, always hoping to find something new. But scientists are also detectives who go on missions that don't work. Who climb to the edges of jungles that yield nothing. Who hunch over a microscope looking at things that don't make sense. Who stare at the universe and recalculate the entire system of gravity and space and time until everything finally matches up. Sometimes, science means looking at the cards ten times before you finally catch the trick. It means failing, and trying, and failing again, all in hopes of making things better the next time around."

There's so much to love about this beautiful, magical middle grade coming of age novel. I'm saving most of my commentary for my full review but for now, here are the things I loved the most about Clues to the Universe:

- The way it discusses and portrays grief and its effects is absolutely beautiful, genuine, and heartbreaking.

- I was a space and dinosaur kid, and this book reminded me of what it was like to look at the unknown and feel the purest, most unadulterated desire for knowledge. If you were ever a child who just wanted to know things, this book will resonate with you in the best way.

- This book's message of ultimate, unconditional love made my heart hurt in the best way possible.


🌿 Read my full review at my blog, Your Tita Kate! 🌿
Profile Image for breana ♡.
303 reviews1,471 followers
May 22, 2023
a heartwarming story about grief/love that encapsulates the simple warmth of childhood friendship

ro and benji are my sweet, brilliant children <3
April 22, 2022
A heart-warming, and also heart-breaking story. It’s the 1980’s, and news about the creation and launching of several different space shuttles is frequent. Ro is fascinated by the space program just like her late father was. She and her new friend Benji collaborate on a very special science project, each hoping in their own way to feel close to their fathers again, but for very different reasons.
Loved the nostalgic feel of this book! Brought back memories of watching space shuttle launches at school, looking up telephone numbers in the Yellow Pages, and writing actual letters to long-distance friends!
I highly recommend this to all middle-grade readers and teachers! Could be a great tool to interest kids in science projects.
Profile Image for Yan.
56 reviews46 followers
February 1, 2021
I didn’t expect to love this book so much. I’m sad because I want more of Benji and Ro. Maybe a sequel in which they’re older? LIKE PLEASE?!
Profile Image for Darla.
3,519 reviews620 followers
December 27, 2020
The 80's are my jam, so I love discovering new juvenile fiction set in that era. This book is set in 1983 and a time when we were ramping up our space game with the space shuttles. Christina Li tells us the story of Rosalind (Ro) and Benjamin (Benji) with alternating POV chapters. They accidentally switch purple folders in their first science class of the year and soon have a pact. Ro will have help building a rocket she had started with her late father for the science fair. While working on their rocket Ro will help Benji look for his absent father (now a famous comic book artist/writer) and get extra credit for their science fair project thus avoiding the threat of losing art class for an extra study hall. It's a win-win, right? Not so fast. There is a prank war that could derail their project. Benji's mom does not want to talk about his dad. Ro's extended family is trying to get her and her mom to relocate from Sacramento to San Francisco. I loved the way the alternating chapters gave us intimate glimpses into each of their lives and households and also the connections they already had like Mr. Voltz. There is a frantic road trip to LA and fascinating facts about building a rocket. Highly recommended!

Thank you to Quill Tree Books and Edelweiss+ for a DRC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for rain.
627 reviews370 followers
February 12, 2021
content/trigger warnings: death of a parent or loved one, bullying, grief, divorce, abandonment

- This is a story about family and friendship that will make you feel things

I am used to reading fast-paced fantasy middle grade books which is why I was pleasantly surprised when this quiet middle grade swept me off my feet. Clues to the Universe is a brilliant debut set in the 1980s that follows Ro and Benji—two promising kids who unexpectedly found friendship through science and comics. I love how the progression of their bond seemed so realistic, showing the highs and lows of new friendship in an endearing way.

Clues to the Universe also explores family dynamics. Ro and Benji yearn for their fathers, and they both found a certain connection to each other because of this. I also admire how this book shows the contrast between Ro and Benji's families and how it showcases the love their mothers have for them.

- It features a raw exploration of grief that punched me in the heart

I cried at least five times when I read this book. Christina Li's raw portrayal of grief and loss broke me into a hundred pieces. Despite the heaviness of these concepts, I believe that Christina portrayed both in a way that is still palatable to younger readers. This is a book that will tug your heartstrings, regardless of age.

Despite all the waterworks, this book is not entirely bleak. I definitely felt a lot of pain while reading it but accompanying that was a feeling of hope. Ro and Benji, despite everything they've been through, have big hearts and big dreams. I couldn't help but cheer them on with a smile on my lips and tears in my eyes.

note: i received an advanced copy of this book from the published and edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Tammie.
373 reviews605 followers
December 22, 2021
3.5 stars

Thank you to HarperCollins for sending me an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Clues to the Universe is a story about a girl and a boy who are both so different yet so alike in many different ways, and their unlikely friendship. At the beginning of the book, Ro has just recently lost her dad in an accident, while Benji is determined to find his father who walked out on him when he was a toddler. Ro agrees to help Benji find his father if he helps her build the rocket that she was supposed to build with her father.

This is a beautiful debut novel from Christina Li. The way this book explores grief is so incredibly moving - every single person in the book has experienced grief and trauma in one way or another, and each of them have their own way of coping with that grief. Some of my favourite moments were actually when we got a glimpse of the adults in Ro and Benji's lives dealing with their grief through the eyes of these two children.

This book explores some pretty heavy themes in a way that is very accessible and perfect for a younger audience. I enjoyed this book a lot more than I had anticipated, and I think this is such a great book for readers of all ages.
Profile Image for Priya.
1,512 reviews37 followers
September 8, 2022
This was another of those heartwarming MG books that I love reading these days. It deals with some tough themes - the loss of a parent, a missing parent, bullying, starting over at a new location. What's wonderful is that while it is a tearjerker in places, it's never bleak.
I didn't know this was a book set in the early 80s but it became so much more relatable personally because of that. Benji and Ro find kinship with each other. She is grieving for the father who unexpectedly died, leaving behind only memories of their scientific conversations and a half built rocket. He has no clue where his dad is and when he learns that his favourite space comic was created by his dad, he wants to approach him and know if he even misses the family he left behind.
Partnering for a Science project leads to Ro and Benji sharing their sadness and trying to help each other. For Ro, to help Benji meet his dad feels really important because she so wishes she could have that chance herself, something that endeared her to me more than ever.
This brings back memories of school and friendship and communication in an age when we didn't have so much advanced technology and had to actually interact! In that way, it was a very nostalgic read too.
Profile Image for anika.
52 reviews41 followers
June 15, 2021
ahh i just finished speed reading this book and i loved it! both ro & benji are such good characters, and i liked the two perspectives. the story itself was really awesome but at times, the book felt like it was too fast paced, and might have benefited if it was a little more spread out. i also like how it kinda talks about race, but not in that serious of a way, like in a way that makes sense for the book. all in all, great read, and if i read this in like fourth grade i feel like it would have been one of my favorite books!
Profile Image for Mimi.
452 reviews110 followers
January 6, 2021
This was so wholesome I can't even😭😍
Profile Image for Hoover Public Library Kids and Teens.
2,661 reviews58 followers
August 3, 2021
Ro and Benji are both having a rough start to the 1984 school year. One is still reeling from the death of her father, the other from a best friend's cross-country move. But an accidental switching of folders in science class leads to a tentative partnership to complete their dream projects.
Profile Image for Alysa.
Author 2 books107 followers
October 6, 2020
Christina Li’s debut, CLUES TO UNIVERSE is told in alternating POVs between Ro and Benji, two twelve-year-olds who are both searching for a connection to their lost fathers. Both kids are adrift when they are thrust together as lab partners in science class. Polar opposites, the kids find little reason to connect at first. Ro, who loves science, is organized almost to a fault, whereas Benji is barely passing math and science. But what begins as an unlikely pairing soon develops into a loyal partnership, with Ro and Benji dedicating themselves to helping the other find or foster a way to connect with their lost fathers.

Themes of connections lost and found, friendship, and learning to accept that perfection is not necessarily always so perfect are woven beautifully throughout the book. The alternating POVs draw the reader in and help illuminate that our differences aren't so different after all. The character of Mr. Voltz, an elderly shop owner who plays in both Ro and Benjis stories, especially pulled at my heart as I love nothing more than an intergenerational story.

Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the opportunity to read an e-arc of Christina Li's wonderful debut. I look forward to reading more works from the author
Profile Image for Eleanor.
76 reviews
January 30, 2021
Can a book make your heart burst with joy yet ache with longing at the same time? 

I literally never cry when it comes to books...I only cried once and that honor went to Anne of Green Gables. But Clues to the Universe touched me so deeply and gave me all the feels! This incredible debut novel is now going on my favorites of all time list. I'll be posting a...er...professional review...eventually...once I stop sobbing inside, but in the meantime, just do yourself a favor and read it!!!
Profile Image for Afoma (Reading Middle Grade).
618 reviews335 followers
April 6, 2021
Clues to the Universe is a heartfelt middle grade debut about a sweet, unlikely friendship, STEM, the grief of losing a parent, and the joy of finding one. This book also features an art-loving protagonist and a heartwarming sense of community. Finally, the author addresses bullying realistically and sensitively. Overall, an excellent debut I would highly recommend.

Read my full review on my blog.
Profile Image for Kath Quiambao Lau.
486 reviews176 followers
March 30, 2021
Another must-read middle grade fiction! Clues to the Universe follows the story of Ro and Benjie. Ro is trying to finish the model rocket she has started building with her father when he's still alive. Benjie is a comic-book lover and an artist. He believes that the artist/creator of his favorite comic book is his father who walked out on him and his family.

The friendship between Ro and Benjie is so precious. They learned from each other and support each other. I also liked that the adults are present in this book. Both are missing their fathers but they still have their families supporting and caring for them. The author's portrayal of loss and grief is raw and genuine but still accessible for the target audience. This book reminds us that grief has no time limit and everyone deals with it differently. This was an amazing debut and I can't wait to read Li's next books.
Profile Image for Ris Sasaki.
989 reviews166 followers
May 5, 2021
2.5 ⭐ (?)

To be quite honest, I wasn't feeling this book ever since the beginning, but there were still elements to it that I liked and appealed to me like Benji's artistic side, the hardworking personality of Ro and their cute and heartwarming friendship.

But Benji's trajectory with his dad was kinda bound to go wrong and this kinda ruined the book for me.
It was just another one of those MG books that the parent made my enjoyment decline A LOT.
Not only his dad but also his mom. . . I totally get their fallout and their kinda hatred towards each other, but she still shouldn't have done what she did and his dad should have done much more than he did.
Just thinking about it just makes me mad all over again...

Overall, it was kinda of a good read but I could totally live without the stress that these middle grade parents make me live 😶
Profile Image for Pietra Ibrisimovic.
232 reviews3 followers
July 6, 2023
what a sweet, wonderful story :’))))) i love these kids so much i love what they have to say i love knowing about their dreams and their fears and i love to see them overcome anything that stand in their way ugh and above all i love their friendship

ro and benji you have my entire heart!!!!!!!!!
Profile Image for Racquel Marie.
Author 6 books561 followers
November 4, 2021
reading this book is the equivalent to having someone give you the best hug of your life after you've had a big cry <3
Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,192 reviews169 followers
August 30, 2022
I read this because my 6th grader read this and the title intrigued me. Unfortunately, the title oversold the book a bit. It was a cute middle grades book about two kids- one who just had a dad die, and one who has a deadbeat dad. Unfortunately, both types of grief are dealt with somewhat superficially, especially the latter.
Profile Image for Kate.
Author 3 books447 followers
September 2, 2020
A girl who loves science and a boy who loves comic books forge a beautiful friendship around their shared search for family connection. I loved the way this story touched on cosmic things... not just rocket launches and craters on the moon, but our cosmic connections to our families and friends, and our need to make sense of the mysterious universe we all share. Many thanks to Harper Collins/Quill Tree Books for the ARC of CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE.
Profile Image for Alicia.
1,488 reviews63 followers
April 25, 2022
I know this is marketed as a middle grade, but it wasn't written young or dumbed down. Change the MCs into a higher grade at school, and it was straight up YA.
There are some heavy themes in here: death of a parent, absentee parents, bullying, and usual high school drama, but it was actually a really wholesome sort of book. Ro wants to be a rocket scientist, and Benji is obsessed with comic books. There's no romance; it's just a tale of friendship and finding your people. I didn’t find it to be an emotional hitter, but it was just superbly written and a very enjoyable read.
It truly is an amazing debut. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Katelynne.
812 reviews11 followers
May 25, 2021
Clues to the Universe takes place during the 80’s but feels so timeless. I loved the friendship between Benji and Ro. I also felt the representation of bullying and Benji and Ro’s reactions to it were so relatable.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 238 reviews

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