Book Review: You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

Title You’re Welcome, Universe
Author Whitney Gardner
Published March 7th, 2017 by Knopf
Pages 297 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Purchased, Hardcover
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChaptersThe Book Depository

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.

Six stencils and it’s gone. Okay, the tag vanished by Stencil Number Two, but I have a point to prove. I’m not covering up your scribbled slur with just anything. I’m making art here. I’m creating. I’m on fire.

No good deed goes unpunished and few know that more than high school junior, Julia Prasad. When the Kingston School For The Deaf refuses to act after a slur is written about Julia’s best friend, Jordyn, Julia decides to takes matters into her own paint-stained hands and creates a beautiful work of art in its place. Sure that her act of vigilante vandalism will remain their little secret, Julia is stunned when Jordyn betrays her trust and identifies her as the artist, getting Julia expelled from Kingston in the process. Now, Julia must confront the difficulties of being the only Deaf student at a mainstream school, earn a place in the school’s advanced art class and navigate the complicated social politics of her job at McDonalds, all while continuing to create graffiti art within the suffocating confines of her new small, suburban town. But when a rival artist begins adding to (and maybe even improving) her work, Julia finds herself the unwitting participant in a graffiti war and enters an increasingly risky game of one-upmanship with surprising, and heartwarming, results.

It’s silent.
Who am I kidding? It’s always silent, but this – I can feel it. Like for the first time, I know what the word really means. It pounds in my head. Silence is the loudest sound.

In You’re Welcome, Universe, Whitney Gardner makes a concerted effort to ensure her young adult debut is as inclusive and intersectional as possible, and thus beautifully captures the diversity inherent in the world around us. The novel’s protagonist, Julia, is a Deaf, Indian-American teenager with two lesbian mothers, charmingly referred to in the text as “Mee” and “Ma”, who are both also Deaf. Gardner’s choice to portray Julia’s parents as positive, active, and invested participants in Julia’s life is a particularly welcome addition to the story, all the more so because young adult novels are so often populated by parents who are uninterested in or entirely absent from their children’s lives for the sake of plot convenience. Julia’s relationships with other secondary characters are equally well-rendered. From her burgeoning friendship with a girl known only to her as “Yoga Pants” (“YP” for short) to the dismantling of a toxic friendship born of little but convenience and proximity, Julia’s relationships are allowed to progress organically and each contribute in a meaningful way to her personal growth. These and other relationships also allow You’re Welcome, Universe to touch upon important issues including disordered eating, body image, ableism and bullying. Julia’s identity as an Indian-American was less overtly explored and could have benefited from greater depth and attention. Nevertheless, it was nice to have a character whose race was explicitly identified on the page and deviated from the tiresome homogeneity of Caucasian characters who so often dominate the market for books aimed at this age group.

My piece is still burning under the overpass and, more important, untouched. Now this, this, is real street art. Not some Sharpie doodled on poser-printer paper in art class.
This takes ovaries.

While You’re Welcome, Universe is not an #OwnVoices novel and I cannot speak directly to the voracity of Whitney Gardner’s portrayal of Julia as a Deaf teen because I do not share that identity, it appears as though the author put a great deal of time, care and attention into ensuring that the representation in the novel is as sensitive and accurate as possible. Gardner expertly explores the nuances of Julia’s disability, and the effect, both positive and negative, that being Deaf has on Julia physically, mentally and emotionally. Julia becomes an object alternatively of curiosity and alienation at Finley because of her interpretor, Casey, who helps by signing the teacher’s lessons to her. (“They act like Casey’s conjuring black magic, waving her arms around, when really she’s only blathering on about tariffs or decimal places.”) Despite the assumptions of those around her to the contrary, Julia also struggles to read the lips of those speaking to her, and these omissions are eloquently represented in the text with dashes (“–“) to indicate the words that allude her. (“Was everyone deaf — old school?”) Few of the characters Julia interacts with are familiar with ASL (American Sign Language), and instead Julia is frustratingly forced to act out a pseudo game of charades in order to make herself understood. (“There’s only a million more things I wanted to say to him. Or, you know, have an actual conversation. But that’s all I get with Hearies. Hi. Bye. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Head nod.”) Finally, Gardner is careful to note the painful, everyday microaggressions that are perpetrated against Julia. These include (but are not limited to) those who address her interpretor, Casey, rather than speaking to Julia directly, the student who holds Julia’s hands together, unaware that this effectively silences her, or the older man who assumes Julia’s use of her phone to communicate is indicative of a generational fad and not a practical necessity. The author’s exploration of Julia’s identity as a Deaf teen is informative without ever appearing patronizing and encourages readers to become more educated about, mindful of and empathetic toward those in the d/Deaf community.

“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.”

Julia has the potential to be a polarizing protagonist for prospective readers who prefer a more biddable, even-keeled character, but Gardner is to be commended for her courageous storytelling. The author bravely explores Julia’s deepest flaws and insecurities with a raw, emotional vulnerability many readers will recognize from their own turbulent teenage experience. Julia is proud, passionate, fiercely independent and quick to anger, especially when she feels she’s being pitied, and must overcome the pain of her past – most notable of which is her toxic relationship with Jordyn – in order to pursue and embrace the happiness she so richly deserves. The street art that Julia creates acts as an outlet for things she might otherwise be unable to articulate. From an image of Julia’s beloved car, Lee, to instructional hand positions for various words and phrases in ASL, You’re Welcome, Universe is beautifully complimented throughout with illustrations by Gardner that marry the written and visual arts to bring Julia’s world to life in rich, vivid detail. Nowhere is this more effective than in the author’s inclusion of Julia’s artwork, and her artistic rival’s additions to it. It is because of these illustrations that the reader is given a unique glimpse into the protagonist’s perspective in a manner few novels allow. Julia’s art is treated as a character in its own right, continuing to improve and evolve over the course of the story, an evolution which runs parallel to that of the protagonist’s own personal growth.

My lungs are shredding. Tension rips through my chest. I run my gloved finger through the wet paint on the last little beige circle. My work looks right back at me. It’s the biggest, most beautiful piece I’ve ever done. My gift to Greenlawn. You’re welcome, Universe.

An uplifting, satisfying story of one teen’s attempt to leave her own unique mark on the world, You’re Welcome, Universe is a loving tribute to the d/Deaf community and an art form that is all too often unexplored and unappreciated. Creative, inclusive, sensitive and insightful, You’re Welcome, Universe would make a valuable addition to any classroom, library or personal collection and will inspire readers to look at art, and the world around them, in a new and exciting way.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Here’s what some other reviewers had to say about it!

● Ashleigh Paige @ The YA Kitten wrote “You’re Welcome, Universe is YA novel to remember and pass along to your friends.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Gabrielle @ So We Read This Book wrote “You’re Welcome, Universe was like nothing I’d ever read before, and I mean this in the absolute best way possible.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Cait @ A Page With A View wrote “My little sister is Deaf and we’ve been waiting forever for an accurate portrayal of a Deaf main character who gets to do more with her story besides just…be Deaf. This book was so incredibly well done!” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

One Response

  1. I AM SO EXCITED FOR THIS NOW! I am Indian and I cannot wait to read a book that represents a part of me! I’ve heard such fantastic things about this and reading this review has just reconfirmed my decision to give it a read! Thanks for the lovely review and so good to hear you enjoyed it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!