Jan 7, 2021

Voice is Where the Magic Happens: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

craft post by Kristi Wright

Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is a highly entertaining, adventurous middle grade novel with heart. But, hands down, the novel’s voice is where the magic happens. Though voice is a really hard thing to define and an even harder thing to craft, here are four “voice” techniques Hernandez uses to excellent effect. 

Crafting a narrator with the soul of a comedian

Comedy is inherently voice-y. When Carlos Hernandez’s narrator, Salvador Vidón, delivers his story with comedic timing, readers are hooked. Right away, with Hernandez’s opening, readers know they are in for a laugh-out-loud adventure:

There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies. Ignore them. Stand up to them. Tell a teacher, tell a parent, tell your dentist while he’s jamming your teeth back into your face. 

The real way to deal with a bully is to stick a raw chicken in their locker. (1)

Most of the time, Hernandez uses humor to set up more than just one joke. Take the opening of Chapter 26:

It was ninety degrees outside–ten thousand with humidity. Florida in August, man. Kill a Connecticut boy faster than you can say “sunstroke.” (194)

A few sentences down, Sal uses Gabi to contrast his own reaction to the heat, which gives us character insight:

…she looked completely, annoyingly, unbothered by the heat: no pit stains, no forehead sweat, no flushed cheeks, no nothing. (194)

A page later, he revisits Florida’s weather with:

Man, how do people walk around in Miami? I felt like I was being digested inside a dragon’s stomach. (195)

All of which sets us up for when he turns the tables and uses heat as a punchline metaphor for Gabi’s emotional state:

Now it was Gabi’s turn to get overheated. (196)

Enriching voice with culture

In the following example, Hernandez layers Miami Spanish into his joke to create a more culturally rich experience: 

“Salvador Vidón, how long have you been attending my school?” asked Principal Torres. I’d only been at Culeco for a few days, but I already knew three things about her: (1) she was a big woman, (2) she was a smart woman, and (3) most importantly, she was a principal. That meant she had zero tolerance for cacaseca. 

“Cacaseca” is the word Miami talk-show hosts use instead of BS. It literally means “dry poop,” but really it means “Dude, your poop is so played out. Don’t try to play me with your played-out poop.”

“Three days,” I replied to Principal Torres, with exactly zero cacaseca in my voice. (7)

When Sal ends up in the hospital, Hernandez uses culture to conjure the picture of a large extended family in the waiting room:

As we approached the other waiting room on this floor, I heard a bunch of voices: Spanish and English, all ages, everyone laughing and talking at the same time. Papi calls that many Cubans partying together a “gallinero”–a chicken coop’s worth of noisy, cheerful clucking.

It stopped me in my tracks. That much joy coming from a hospital waiting room is… unusual.

“This is the best family,” Nurse Sotolongo said over her shoulder. “They’ll probably adopt you before the night is over. Come on.” (114)

And they do take Sal under their collective wing. When Nurse Sotolongo asks the mom of the group to watch over Sal, she answers:

“Like he was my own.” And she meant it. Nurse Sotolongo had been right–Cuban Mom was ready to adopt me on the spot. (115)

Like Sal, the reader is drawn in by this big, warm Cuban family and never wants to leave it.  

Imparting a consistent world view 

When your novel’s world view is both consistent and identifiable, it becomes another layer that enhances the voice of the story. In Sal and Gabi Break the Universe there are no evil villains. Characters are fully-formed three-dimensional beings. Families, no matter how unconventional, are warm and loving. Heck, in the world according to Hernandez, even detention has a warmth that’s undeniably satisfying:

It’s funny. When I saw the room for the first time, I’d thought the kids were trapped in there like zoo animals. I’d assumed they were miserable, but that was just because I was feeling salty and didn’t want to be in detention. Now that I’d seen it from the inside, I had a whole different perspective. 

Emotion literally changes your eyesight. I would have to remember that. (182)

In the world according to Hernandez, when Sal does something truly wrong, he makes amends. He pranks Gabi with a fake tarantula, and discovers that she’s not just afraid of spiders, she’s destroyed by them. As soon as he realizes that he’s gone too far, he apologizes, sincerely and deeply, despite them being (at least for now) adversaries:

“It’s fake? She asked, her terrified eyes reading her spider.

“Yes! It was just a joke, I swear!”

“Just a joke,” she repeated. And once she’d digested my words, she regained her composure enough to bury her face in her hands and weep uncontrollably. 

My peripheral vision informed me that kids were starting to move toward us. Some might have been coming over to console her; others, friends of hers who maybe wanted to fight me. But I couldn’t tell who was which. My instincts told me to run. 

So I did–right over to Gabi. I fell to my knees in front of her. 

I locked my fingers together in a single fist of prayer and shook it at Gabi like a mighty maraca. I didn’t think, I just let the words flow. “I am so sorry I am so sorry I had no idea you were that scared of spiders I mean I knew you were a little scared but I didn’t know anyone was that scared of spiders I am the biggest jerk in the world I will make it up to you I’ll do whatever you want I’m sorry please forgive me.” (155)

Notice the non-traditional use of punctuation in this last paragraph of dialogue, making it clear that Sal’s words are running into each other as he speaks from the heart. 

Throughout the book, when push comes to shove, characters try to do the right thing. This may be a multiverse, mind-bending, action-packed novel, but at its core, it’s about people who want to do good, no matter how unconventional their approach. 

Ensuring that sentences delight readers

Open the book to any page–I dare you–and you’ll arrive at an unexpected and original description. 

For example, this description of clothing burns an image on the mind:

I finally got a good look at Principal Torres’s red pantsuit, which looked like it had been co-designed by Hillary Clinton and Santa Claus. (18)

And then there’s this fabulous description of a character’s reaction:

Ms. Reál laughed. She immediately regretted it and then, recovering fast, cleared her throat and put on a face that was six times more serious than it needed to be. (297)

And let’s not forget the peppy dialogue. Hernandez writes with all the energy of a fast-paced Gilmore Girls episode. Here’s a scene where class president Gabi, who is determined to get to the bottom of Sal’s “magic tricks,” is coercing him into taking a lie detector test as part of a theatre class talent show: 

Gabi looked at the audience as she welcomed me onstage. “Thank you so much for being my victim–I mean, volunteer, Sal. I wasn’t sure you would. I couldn’t help but notice that you were the only person in the entire class who didn’t raise his hand. Why is that, Sal?”

Man. Right out of the gate, and she was going for the jugular.

All right, Gabi, wanna play rough? Let’s go. “Because we both knew you were going to call on me,” I replied, more to the audience than to her.

“Oh? And why is that, Sal?”

“Because I made a fool of you earlier today, in front of Principal Torres. And that made you angry.”

The audience oohed. 

“I wasn’t angry,” she replied, and whether she flipped her hair because she felt irritated or because she thought it’d be funnier to look irritated, I couldn’t tell.

So I pressed her. “You don’t like to be fooled, do you, Gabi? You’re dying to know how I do my tricks.”

The audience oohed even more oohily.

I had to hand it to Gabi–she laughed, took my jabs in stride, and kept the show going. “So you’re up here to tell me and the whole class how you pulled off your tricks? Isn’t that, like, against the magician’s code?”

“I’m going to answer your questions,” I replied. Then, stroking my chin, I added, “We’ll see if your machine can sort truth from magic.”

“This is great!” sid Mrs. Waked over the applause. “Did you two plan this?”

“Music, Mrs. Waked!” said Gabi, giving her the hand signal repeatedly. It was the only sign she was losing her patience. 

“Oh, right! Sorry Gabi. Got caught up in the act!” (57)

The scene goes on with Gabi actually performing the lie detector test and Sal turning the tables on her brilliantly. It’s a master class in using dialogue to create a scene that’s on fire with excitement and tension. 

Through a combination of humor, culture, warmth and language, Hernandez uses voice to make his characters unforgettable and his novel hard to put down.  

Now it’s your turn 

  • Think about your own work. Who is telling the story? What’s their voice? Hernandez takes a born comedian and lets him loose. Your narrator/viewpoint character doesn’t have to be a comedian. They might be thoughtful or ironic or hard-boiled or sarcastic. Whatever they are, think about how you might double-down with language that reinforces that voice while also surprising and delighting your reader.
  • Brainstorm layers you can add to the voice to enrich it. For example, Hernandez layers his novel with rich Cuban culture. Perhaps you can do something similar with a culture that is part of your heritage, or maybe your layer will be something else, such as a metaphor that spans your story, or a vibe, or even “setting as character.” 
  • Think about the world view you want to impart. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Warm? Cold? Keep that world view front and center in your mind, so that you are able to reconnect to it over and over again. 
  • Never forget the power of language: whether it’s surprising description or peppy dialogue or screaming action. Delight your readers and they will delight you by becoming avid fans. 

If you enjoyed this craft post on voice, here are two others you might enjoy:



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