Review The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I novel

Fifteen years ago Carolyn Mackler won the Printz Honor award for her young adult novel, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, a funny and moving story of transformation, of finding the courage to be our authentic selves, and accepting the ones we love even when they make terrible choices. Many readers over the years have clamored for a sequel, and now we have one: The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I.

We asked Mackler what made her pick up Virginia and Annie’s stories again.  She gives us that answer in the piece below and as you’ll see, the changes in her worldview, reflected in that of her characters as she wrote The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, were eerily in sync with what’s happening in the country at large.

More.  That’s why I returned to Virginia fifteen years after publishing her Printz Honor story, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.  Over the past decade and a half, droves of readers have written to me saying that Virginia’s transformation from insecure wallflower to confident chick inspired them to do the same, that Virginia’s initial hatred of her plus-size body and then gradual acceptance encouraged them to stop hating their own curvy bodies, that Virginia literally saved their lives – and we want more.  Write a sequel.  Bring her back.  We want to know what happens to Virginia after her so-called happy ending.

I, personally, wanted more for Virginia.  That’s why I gave her The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I.  I was in my mid-twenties when I wrote The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and, in the ensuing years, I’ve grown as a person.  I’ve grown as a novelist.  I’ve gotten married.  I’ve had children – my older son is actually a teenager now!  I wanted to apply some of my newfound forty-something wisdom to Virginia.  At the end of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, it felt like a triumph for her to have the confidence to kiss her dorky crush, Froggy, in public (and it was, given where she started).  In The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, I wanted to give Virginia more lust.  More love.  More intense sexual feelings.  More confidence that a hunky guy like Sebastian with long floppy hair and eyes the color of blue-green sea glass would be attracted to her.  Sebastian brings love and lust, but he also brings more drama.  Because he is the last guy on earth Virginia should have any contact with if she wants to be loyal to her family.  More tough choices.  More chances for Virginia to decide who she is and what she wants out of her life.

I also wanted more for Annie.  That’s the girl that Virginia’s older brother, Byron, is accused of raping—and therefore suspended from college for a semester—in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.  In the first book, when Virginia sneaks up to Columbia’s campus to find Annie and apologize for the terrible thing her brother has done, Annie says to Virginia, “I think people can chose to be victims or they can chose to be empowered and to carry on.”  That’s where I was when I wrote the first book, that the person who is raped has to do all the work and the processing and carry the emotional load, that it’s up to her what the outcome is.  In The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, Annie is done carrying that load.  The rape is still haunting her, as rapes tend to do, so she reports it to the police and Byron gets arrested.  More repercussions for Byron.  More conversations in Virginia’s family about how you love someone who has done something awful.  Just as I was putting the finishing touches on The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, the #MeToo movement happened and I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone in that regard.  We all want more.  And, in this case, more is a very good thing.


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