Middle Grade contemporary stories always have a soft spot in my heart. It was my favorite growing up and today it’s still about half of my book reading. The plots almost always have three elements: 1. A Bully 2. Friendships and 3. Divorce or Death of a Parent.

Clues to the Universe doesn’t stray from this formula, but what sets it apart are a story with heart and main characters you won’t soon forget. It’s also set in Sacramento, 1983 so not a modern day contemporary tale.

Ro and Benji’s first person narration alternate through the 39 chapters. Both of their mothers are likable and want what’s best for their son or daughter. Ro’s mom is still grieving the loss of her husband while Benji’s mom is trying to forget the relationship that ended with her husband leaving and never contacting them again.

This leaves Ro and Benji to depend on each other for some big decisions in their lives. It’s a wonderful connection with a few bumps along the way. The science loving Ro pulls Benji to open his mind to other worlds besides his art work. And since Ro’s dad will never come back, she’s going to help her new friend reconnect with his.

Loss and grief combine in this special middle grade story, one that will have you reflecting and caring deeply about two sweet kids. Highly recommended!


The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.
Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.
Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?
As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

BOOK BIRTHDAY: January 12, 2021 PAGE COUNT: 304


  1. Drew is the bully and it won’t take long for you to dislike this kid. But even Drew has a story and his character arc was thoughtfully addressed.
  2. Grief is always a tough theme to do right in books. It is handled beautifully here and not with any quick fixes.
  3. Mr. Voltz, an elderly neighbor and shop owner, is another secondary character that is not wasted. He’s a quiet listener—just what Ro and Benji need.
  4. The final pages are devoted to an epilogue that wraps up the story in a special way with a line that couldn’t have been more perfect.
  5. Although the story is more about relationships than delving into what life was like in 1983, the lack of cell phones everywhere was a subtle reminder how quickly our world has changed.


Christina Li is a student studying economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest, but now calls California home. Clues to the Universe is her debut novel. Find her online at


I received and ARC for my honest review. Please leave a comment below.

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...always striving to reach the next peak in my life and career.
This entry was posted in Middle Grade Book Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. schmelzb says:

    I vary my MG reading between contemporary/realistic novels and mysteries. Li’s book seems to have both so it is definitely on my TBR list. Thanks for sharing, Greg.

  2. donnagalanti says:

    Great review! I’ve had this on my TBR list for awhile. I love contemporary stories that deal with grief as it’s something kids can connect to in reading if they are experiencing the same in their lives.

  3. I also like contemporary stories, about science and NASA — which there seem to be a lot of lately. But the friendship between Ro and Benji in this book sounds so solid. They have a lot to off each other. And I am found of intergenerational relationships, and like the addition of the elderly neighbor who is a good listener. A compelling read. Thanks for sharing today.

  4. Andrea Mack says:

    This book is definitely on my list of books to read! So glad to get your take on it.

  5. Sue Kooky says:

    I loveee contemporary stories when they are done well. They manage to capture the essence of life that you can often forget in your day to day life. I’m really glad that this book was able to do that well! Parental abandonment is, unfortunately, a topic that I know a lot of kids deal with. Books like these help make the process a little bit less lonely. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sue Heavenrich says:

    You had me at NASA. putting it on my TBR list

  7. Completely Full Bookshelf says:

    This sounds like an excellent book! There definitely are a lot of books that deal with the same kinds of realistic issues, as you mention, but I do suspect the reason they are so overused is that, if done well, they are really impactful—and it sounds like they are done well here! Thanks for the great review!

  8. This one is set where I live! And it sounds really, really good. I think I will have to check it out. Thanks for telling me about it.

  9. So glad you liked this so much. I have an ARC of this that I want to read. And I’m excited to interview Christina in March.

  10. I look forward to finding this book and reading it. (I do love books set in the recent past!)

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