We loved Jennifer Niven’s emotional first YA novel All the Bright Places and now she’s back with Holding Up the Universe. Fans of John Green should pay attention: we may just have found your new favourite author.
When we meet Libby Strout, she’s preparing for her first day back at school after a rough few years. After the death of her mother, Libby found herself mentally, and then physically, trapped in her room. Once dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen,’ Libby worked hard to become healthier and to stop caring what others think, no matter what she weighs. Everyone knows her ‘secret’, and you know what? She doesn’t care.
Jack Masselin, on the other hand, cares very deeply about keeping his truth hidden. He’s congenial and charismatic, friends with everybody and yet, no-one really gets him. And absolutely nobody knows that Jack can’t actually recognise faces. His girlfriend, his mother, his friends – they’re all facially indistinguishable. Jack suffers from a very real neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, also known as ‘face blindness,’ and things like spotting his girlfriend in a crowd or picking his little brother up from a party become scary.
When Jack and Libby are brought together in detention after a cruel prank, they’re sure they have nothing in common. Slowly but surely the pair become friends, and you’ll be cheering as Jack and Libby inevitably realise they’re falling for each-other:
“Suddenly I’m filled with this safe, warm feeling that I haven’t felt in a really long time. It’s the feeling of everything is going to be okay. You are going to be okay. You may already be okay. Let’s us be okay together, just you and me…”
The novel is told through both their eyes (that line was from Libby), and it means you really get to know each protagonist. Niven writes characters that feel real. They’re not the prettiest, smartest, funniest – they don’t always feel like they fit in.
In their own ways, there’s a lot to admire about the characters of Libby and Jack. Libby is resilient and unafraid to be who she is, bullies be damned. She loves her dad, she loves her friends, and she loves to dance. Throughout the book, Jack is struggling with his disorder. He’s always aiming to come across as aloof, and hasn’t yet found a way to show others who he really is. It’s wonderful to watch as these two bring out the best in each-other, and at the same time, Niven is giving teen readers a really important message.
Like Libby, Niven herself struggled with both anxiety and her weight as a teen. She says in her acknowledgements that this book “comes from my heart, as well as my own loss and fear and pain, and from real people who are dear to me.” It’s this sincerity that comes across so strongly in the novel, and can be summarised into one motto: ‘YOU ARE WANTED’.
When you’re a teenager, it can be challenging to work out how you see yourself, let alone how to show that self to the world, and this book gets that. It’ll find a home in a lot of high-school libraries, as well as on the shelves of teens. We recommend it for readers aged 13+ because it does deal with some tough, but very important, issues.
These days readers of good YA fiction are spoiled for choice, but there’s something special about Jennifer Niven’s books. She doesn’t suger-coat how challenging being a teenager can be, and nor does she underestimate the magic of that time. Holding Up The Universe introduces two characters that will stay with you, and a core message about self confidence and self worth that’s crucial for young people. No matter who you are, you are wanted and you are loved: as Libby puts it so eloquently: “don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself.”
Jennifer Niven is also the author of several books for adults, including narrative non-fiction, a memoir, and four historical novels. She wrote her first book for teenagers, All the Bright Places, in just six weeks, and it has gone on to sell half a million copies worldwide. Her interests include road trips, Japanese food, and Amy Poehler, and she lives in Los Angeles.