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Hello, Universe Summary, Characters and Themes

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is a Newbery Medal-winning middle-grade novel. It tells the story of four kids whose lives unexpectedly intersect:

  • Virgil, a shy Filipino-American boy,
  • Valencia, a deaf girl who believes in signs,
  • Kaori, a girl obsessed with becoming a fortune teller,
  • and Chet, the school bully.

When Virgil gets trapped in a well, the others must overcome their differences and fears to help him. It’s a story about friendship, finding courage, and the unexpected ways our paths can connect.


Virgil Salinas is a shy Filipino-American boy who just wants to blend in, despite the boisterous personality of his loving family. His grandmother, Lola, is his only true confidante, sharing whimsical Filipino folktales. One of her recurring dreams, about a boy trapped in a forest and swallowed by a stone, particularly resonates with Virgil.

Valencia Somerset is a deaf girl struggling to understand her place in the world. She has a recurring nightmare of a solar eclipse where everyone around her mysteriously vanishes. Wanting to understand its meaning, she secretly visits a fortune teller.

Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic whose family has no idea she runs her business out of their home. She aids her little sister Gen with elaborate rituals for her clients and believes her own powers of foresight connect people.

One morning, Virgil seeks Kaori’s help to get the courage to talk to his crush, a girl named Valencia. Kaori agrees but needs him to bring her special stones. Meanwhile, Valencia, also intrigued by Kaori’s flyers, is saving up to make an appointment.

The school bully, Chet Bullens, intercepts Virgil in the woods. Chet sees himself as superior and powerful, mimicking his father, who disdains anything he considers weak. Chet tosses Virgil’s backpack, containing his pet guinea pig Gulliver, into an abandoned well and leaves.

Virgil, terrified, descends to save Gulliver but becomes trapped when the ladder fails to reach the bottom. His desperation attracts the attention of a comforting imaginary voice, echoing one of Lola’s tales. Inspired by the voice, Virgil yells for help, his voice carrying through the woods.

Valencia, who loves nature, is in the woods with her secret canine companion, Sacred. She spots the uncovered well and, fearing another animal might fall in, replaces the cover, unknowingly sealing Virgil’s fate.

Valencia arrives for her appointment, learning from Kaori and Gen that Virgil is missing. The link between Virgil and the mysterious girl (initialed V.S.) suddenly dawns on Kaori, but she keeps the discovery to herself.

Kaori, Gen, and Valencia search for Virgil. They encounter a sullen Chet, who’s been bitten by a snake and is convinced he’s dying. Valencia recognizes his bite is harmless and urges him to seek medical attention. During their search, Valencia connects some dots: the uncovered well, the discarded pillowcase, and Lola asking about Virgil. She leads them to the well.

Virgil is rescued with Gen’s jump rope. An encounter with Chet on the way home gives him new courage. No longer tolerating being called “Turtle,” he insists on being called by his name, surprising his family.

That night, Kaori and Valencia finalize their partnership as nature expert and psychic. Valencia ponders how much her day has changed. Just before sleep, she receives a text message that sends shivers down her spine: a simple “Hello” from Virgil.

Hello, Universe Summary, Characters and Themes


Virgil Salinas

Virgil is a shy, sensitive boy who feels overshadowed by his boisterous Filipino family. They call him “Turtle” because he’s hesitant to come out of his shell, a comparison that makes him feel inadequate. Internally, Virgil longs to be seen and heard, particularly by his crush, Valencia. 

He admires his grandmother, Lola, who sees his true potential and tells him stories from Filipino folklore that resonate with his experiences. His rescue from the well is a turning point. He faces his deepest fears, interacts heroically with Ruby San Salvador, an internalized figure from Lola’s stories, and ultimately confronts Chet. 

When he insists that his family not call him “Turtle”, it’s a significant moment of self-discovery and assertion.

Valencia Somerset

Valencia is a resilient, intelligent girl who is Deaf. She faces challenges like being underestimated or ignored, but her inner strength shines through. 

Valencia carries a profound sense of loneliness that she tries to hide with quiet determination. She’s a keen observer of the natural world and keeps a zoological journal where she documents her findings. 

Valencia’s resourcefulness is demonstrated when she treats Chet’s snakebite and guides the rescue of Virgil. 

While she doesn’t believe in traditional forms of fate or the supernatural, the events of the day make her reconsider the idea that inexplicable forces might be at play.

Kaori Tanaka

Kaori is a self-assured Japanese-American girl who embraces the extraordinary. She runs a psychic advice business with her younger sister, Gen, and believes wholeheartedly in her powers. 

Kaori has a flair for the dramatic and is somewhat self-centered, often focusing on how events reflect on her or relate to her mystical abilities. However, she’s also instrumental in bringing Virgil and Valencia together. 

Despite her grand pronouncements on fate and destiny, she shows genuine care for her friends and is ultimately a force for positive change in Virgil’s life.

Chet Bullens

Chet is the school bully who embodies insecurity masked by aggression. He targets those who are different, like Virgil and Valencia, as a way to exert power. Chet’s home life provides insight into this behavior; his father preaches that dominance is the path to success, which pressures Chet. 

The snakebite incident reveals Chet’s vulnerabilities and fears—though he lashes out defensively, he’s also a child in need of guidance.


Finding Your Voice

One of the most powerful themes in Hello, Universe is the importance of discovering your own voice and breaking out of your shell. Virgil Salinas is a painfully shy boy trapped by his own insecurities and the teasing of others. 

His family calls him “Turtle” due to his withdrawn nature. But through his experiences in the well, empowered by the imaginary presence of the brave Ruby San Salvador, Virgil begins to understand his strength. This leads him to not only call for help but also to stand up to Chet and, eventually, even challenge his own mother’s use of his hurtful nickname. 

Valencia, though hampered by her deafness, is outspoken and direct. She learns to embrace her differences and, despite initial skepticism, uses her voice to help Virgil.

The Power of Connection

Kelly skillfully weaves together the stories of four seemingly disparate children to illustrate how deeply our lives can intersect. 

Kaori, with her supposed psychic powers, initially believes she has manipulated events to bring Virgil and Valencia together. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that a series of small coincidences had a greater impact than she foresaw. 

The paths of all four children intertwine unexpectedly. Valencia’s actions, from feeding Sacred to replacing the well cover, inadvertently change the trajectory of Virgil’s day. 

This illustrates how even small acts of kindness or seemingly insignificant decisions have the potential to ripple outward and connect us in ways we may never fully comprehend.

The Importance of Perspective

Perspective plays a major role in how the characters in Hello, Universe understand themselves and the world around them. 

Virgil often sees his shyness as a weakness, while others may view it as quiet thoughtfulness. Chet, fueled by his father’s harsh view of the world, perceives kindness as foolishness and is unable to grasp the pain he causes with his bullying. Valencia, due to her deafness, has a uniquely attuned understanding of body language and non-verbal cues that others miss. 

The novel encourages the reader to question their own assumptions and see the world through the eyes of others. Often, the things that seem to separate us can actually lead to greater understanding and empathy.

Confronting Fear

Fear drives many of the actions and decisions within the novel. Virgil’s intense fear of the dark nearly paralyzes him in the well. 

However, driven by Ruby’s imaginary encouragement and the desperate need to save Gulliver, he overcomes this terror and calls for help. Chet is also ruled by fear – fear of failure, of appearing weak, and of disappointing his father. This fear manifests as aggression and cruelty towards others. 

Confronting and overcoming fear, whether it be of darkness, vulnerability, or failure, is a transformative journey for the characters in the story.

The Interplay of Fate and Free Will

Hello, Universe explores the delicate balance between the idea of a predetermined destiny and the choices we make that shape our lives. Kaori, with her belief in her psychic abilities, tries to orchestrate fate to bring Virgil and Valencia together. 

At times, coincidences seem so numerous that destiny appears to be at work. Yet, the characters also make choices that have significant consequences. Virgil decides to climb down the ladder in the well, Valencia chooses to replace the cover, and Chet pursues the snake. 

The novel doesn’t offer an easy answer, but rather presents an intriguing tension between the idea that our paths are preordained and the power of individual actions to change the course of events.

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