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[TITLE: Carlos Hernandez Fixes the UniverseDEK: This duology closer leaves behind a hopeful haven for young readers.]
To paraphrase Kate DiCamillo’s paraphrasing of Katherine Paterson, middle-grade authors are “duty-bound to end their stories with hope.” Of course, these two kidlit queens are concerned not with shielding readers from reality but, rather, with reflecting the sufferings that befall even the youngest among us. They know it’s the author’s job to acknowledge the pain and show a path forward. In his Sal and Gabi duology, which began with the Pura Belpré–winning Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (2019), Hernandez takes this quintessential duty to the next level. Hope is the very foundation on which his work stands.
On the surface, the world of Sal and Gabi is many things. Filtered through the consciousness of young Sal Vidón, an amateur stage magician with the power of crossing between universes, it’s the Miami, FL, of our own reality—hot, humid, diverse—but it’s also a science-fantasy wonderland where anything is possible: AI supercomputers, world-eating wormholes, sentient toilets. More importantly, it’s home to Culeco Academy of the Arts, whose inspiring approach to education conjures Hogwarts more than homework. It’s a school founded on a culture of creativity, collaboration, and support, where students are fully engaged in their theatrical crafts and the principal is as quick to dole out mama-bear hugs as she is to serve up discipline.
And yet, as ideal as Culeco is, it’s not some carefree Camazotz (à la A Wrinkle in Time), where everything works out for everyone. Despite the story’s epic trappings—magic powers and cosmic consequences—there’s no supervillain to contend with; instead, the conflicts are rooted in reality, the characters victims of everyday life. Sal is a type 1 diabetic, still mourning his mami’s death; Gabi’s infant brother is gravely ill; reformed ballerino Yasmany comes from an abusive household. These kids hurt. They’re flawed. They make mistakes and go too far—just like real people.
To be clear, the book has a plot, as well—Sal’s papi, a calamity physicist, is working to close various wormholes created by his son, even as an “Evil Gabi” from a parallel world fights to stop him from inadvertently destroying the multiverse—but plot is beside the point here. Hernandez writes with gleeful abandon, placing readers so firmly in the moment-to-moment of Sal’s endlessly wry, insightful, and comical perspective that the narrative vehicle is a series of madcap side quests and subplots: Sal’s race against time to not pee his pants, Sal’s race against time to flush Gabi’s spy-drone down the toilet, Sal and Gabi’s race against time to fix the school production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, their regularly paced effort to find Yasmany a safe home.
Hernandez writes fearlessly, filling his prose with emojis, interrobangs, and even interactive sections, frequently breaking the fourth wall. With his inventive style, zany world building, and off-the-charts joke-to-sentence ratio, this literary loon is operating somewhere in the space between Lewis Carroll and Louis Sachar, but he outshines all the great L(ew/ou)ises by grounding the madness in the honest, endearing, and authentic voice of Sal. In some ways, this book is an exercise in organized chaos, and it shines brightest when things quiet down and the characters open up, get “smeepy,” and let their vulnerabilities show. Beneath his book’s comedic veneer, Hernandez is teaching readers how to handle their own calamities: with the help of one another.
In Culeco, and in Sal’s life, community is everything. Almost every character makes a journey from hardship towards finding family: in the wake of Mami’s death, Sal is buoyed by his “American Stepmom” and new Miami friends; Yasmany finds comfort in the school principal and a home among Gabi’s myriad of dads; even “Evil Gabi” ultimately gets a second chance with a found family of other multiverse Gabis.
That’s the gift of these books: not just a rosy ending but a universe built around people’s fundamental goodness and grace, grounded in the events of daily life. In the construction of Sal and Gabi’s world, Hernandez has himself fixed our own universe—not by removing its flaws but by populating it with people who care for one another. It’s a place for readers to live in, a haven they can always escape to for comfort and for hope. And also, fart jokes. But mostly hope.
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