In Whitney Gardner’s spectacular debut YA novel, whenever Julia, a passionate graffiti artist, leaves a new piece of street art someplace in her neighborhood, she says “you’re welcome, universe.”
And I feel like that’s what Whitney Gardner is saying with this book, a moving, beautifully written contemporary novel full of quirky art and complicated friendships. You’re welcome. Because much like Julia’s stunning artwork that she painstakingly paints across her town and school, this book is a gift to be thankful for.
Let’s talk about it a bit.
In You’re Welcome, Universe, we meet Julia, a deaf teenager who spends her evenings creating gorgeous pieces of street art around her small town. She leaves them behind with her signature “here” logo, her work adding bits of beauty to otherwise plain places. The back of score boards, underpasses, and the like. She surfs message boards and talks to other artists, and seems to be doing fine in her underground life… until she uses her art to stand up for a friend.
And everything backfires in the worst way.
That friend betrays her, even though Julia made a gorgeous mural to cover up a slur written about her BFF on a wall, and she finds herself expelled from the specialized deaf school she’d been attending. Now, forced to go to a public school, she’s completely out of her comfort zone. She has to get adjusted to all these new people, new teachers, and new ways of communicating, with an interpreter aiding her in the classroom.
The frustrations mount, and she takes it out on the walls around her, expressing herself… and someone decides to move on her turf, painting OVER her work. Changing it. A graffiti war erupts with this unknown artist, taking away the one thing that continues to give her comfort in her world turned upside down. Her art.
Ah, and the art. One of my favorite things about this book, in addition to all the humor and heart, was the accompanying illustrations. Throughout the novel, you get to see the works of art that Julia has created, and see the subsequent changes her nemesis is making as the graffiti war heats up. The illustrative moments further accentuate the story when Julia is signing, sometimes giving us drawn hands and gestures.
It’s a creative flourish that I just adored, like other YA novels that have had accompanying drawings, like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie or The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson.
You’ll have to wait until March to pick up this delightful book, but the themes of complicated friendships, unwanted fame, graffiti art, and disability can be found in scores of equally lovely reads. I’ve rounded up a few to hold you over.
You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner hits stores March 7th.
The Art of Falling by Jenny Kaczorowski: In this YA debut, a teen girl who is smitten with the captain of her football team, who she’s been close with her whole life, finds herself wrestling with a bit of an identity crisis. Because she doesn’t want to be that cliché.
But, like how Julia winds up expelled for her graffiti, Bria finds herself punished for doing the same… creating a massive mural where some awful art used to be, and now has to clean it all up.
With the boy she doesn’t want to be falling for, but totally is. It’s a story about breaking down the walls you’ve built your whole life, to be the person you really are, and is heartwarming and sweet.
And, much like the Skittles that Bria absolutely loves, this book is really easy to devour quickly, a digital-exclusive novel that’s just around 200 pages long.
The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding: I’ve talked about Spalding’s latest YA contemporary novel a lot in the past year, as it was hands down the funniest YA novel I read in 2016.
Much like Gardner’s novel, it’s a quirky story of romance, complex friendships, and has an inclusive (Jules and Julia both have two moms), diverse cast. Both novels talk about trying to save some form of art. Spalding’s story is about saving print and the written word, while Gardner’s protagonist wants street art to be loved and respected.
And both novels will certainly make you smile.
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: You know, it might seem weird to have a sci-fi novel in the mix here, but what I loved the most about Khorana’s novel was how it was less about the sci-fi, and more about the frustrations of being someone that feels like an outsider all the time.
And that’s a major theme here in Gardner’s debut. She’s removed from her school, from her safe space where she had people around that could potentially understand her, and kinda forced to make friends with people she would never see herself spending time with.
She even gives her first real friend at her new school a nickname that’s making fun of her.
And that’s what happens in Mirror in the Sky. Tara launches her junior year with not just the discovery of a mirrored Earth across the cosmos… but spending time with a popular clique of students, leaving her totally out of her element and floundering while learning about herself.
Also See: Going Geek by Charlotte Huang.
#famous by Jilly Gagnon: This one just came out this month, and will certainly make the perfect read before (or after) Gardner’s story.
In #famous, we get a dual POV story about two teens who end up in a whirlwind romance of Internet fame after a photo goes massively viral.
In Gardner’s book, Julia works in a fast food restaurant, much like Kyle, one of the leading characters of #famous. Part of the love story in You’re Welcome, Universe centers around Julia and a coworker at her fast food joint, just like how Rachel in #famous crushes on Kyle where he works at Burger Barn.
Love and fast food. This die-hard White Castle fan approves.
Song of Summer by Laura Lee Anderson: Another quick-to-devour YA novel like The Art of Falling, Anderson’s novel of two teens falling for one another is a delightful, realistic read full of swoons and tears.
In this shifting POV novel, we meet Carter and Robin. Robin is on a quest to find the perfect boy with great taste in music, and when she meets Carter, she’s smitten… only, he’s deaf. And he doesn’t necessarily want a girlfriend, especially one who isn’t deaf and won’t really understand him.
This is something that Julia struggles with in You’re Welcome, Universe as well, while making friends in her new school. New people who want to try to learn to sign, but she feels will give up. The frustration of communication. It’s a battle she’s lost before, and doesn’t want to deal with it again.
Also See: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John