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Holding Up the Universe Review Feature

January 03, 2017

★ “At first glance, the premise of Niven’s second YA novel, after All the Bright Places, seems dark and improbable: high school junior Libby Strout was once so heavy that she had to be rescued from her house by a crane, senior Jack Masselin has prosopagnosia (face blindness), and they meet when Jack—whose friends, girlfriend, and huge Afro are designed to protect the cool-guy persona he uses to disguise his condition—goes along with the horrible game of “Fat Girl Rodeo.” Libby’s size and backstory make her a target, but she can dance again, and she’s smart, brave, bitingly funny, and no one’s victim (as Jack finds out when she slugs him). Meanwhile, Jack is isolated, angry, and guilty about the compromises he has made. As the semester progresses, they suffer through detention and counseling, Libby makes friends and contends with bullying, Jack opens up to her about his face blindness, and they move—carefully—into romantic territory. Niven makes the novel’s improbable setup work, avoiding the suggestion that happiness lies in thinness as she creates two indelible characters and a heart-stopping romance.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

★ “Libby Strout is used to being alone. After her mother’s unexpected death, she had eaten her grief away to the point of morbid obesity. Her trials and challenges with this issue turned her into a social media spectacle and forced her into seclusion. Now she is entering high school after years of homeschooling and a medical surgery that helped her go from 600 to 300 pounds. Jack Masselin is the resident bad boy and part of the “in” crowd, but his behavior is all a facade to cover up a big secret. Jack has prosopagnosia, a neurological condition that causes facial blindness. He uses identifiers such as hairstyles and voice recognition and has mastered the art of keeping people at bay so as not to betray his disability. Libby’s and Jack’s worlds eventually collide after a bullying incident and poor judgment, which places them both in after-school detention. As their friendship grows, they learn what truth and honesty are all about. Libby’s unique presence and drive to be herself permeate this poignant story. Jack, who is biracial, transcends the popular pretty boy trope. Both are complex, nuanced protagonists. Written in short chapters of alternating perspectives, this is a thoughtful exploration of identity and self-acceptance, with commentary on overcoming adversities that will hit close to home. The work also examines anxiety, mixed-race marriages, and LGBTQ issues. VERDICT Niven’s approach to hard-hitting subjects will speak to the intellectual teen crowd, including fans of Niven’s previous work, Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, and Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything.” —School Library Journal, Starred Review

★ “Three years after Libby Strout was named “America’s Fattest Teen” and was airlifted out of her house, she is ready to start her junior year of high school and put her infamous past behind her. She is determined to make up for lost time and to be the girl who can do anything—if only her classmates will see her for who she is instead of just seeing her size. Jack Masselin is one of the cool, popular kids who seem to have everything easy, but Jack is hiding a big secret that could jeopardize his entire school life. Jack has a disorder called prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces. Each morning that he wakes up, his family and friends are strangers to him. Relying on hair styles (that can change) and personality traits to identify his family and friends is getting harder to do as Jack gets older. When Libby is the victim of a cruel joke and Jack is the reluctant perpetrator, they are both sent to group counseling where they learn that they are not as alone as they thought. Told in chapters alternating Libby and Jack’s points of view, Holding Up the Universe is a thoughtful story of friendship and love. Both Libby and Jack are vulnerable, flawed characters who find peace when they find the strength to be honest with themselves and their loved ones, and when they find each other. This is a worthy addition to any young adult collection; the story is engaging and difficult to put down.” —VOYA, Starred Review