Tag Archives: reviews

Can you still like something that’s problematic? Reflections on Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen.I’ll start with a disclaimer: I have not seen the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I first heard of it when NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour did a review of the Tony Awards that included a clip from Ben Platt’s performance of “Waving Through a Window” that made me instantly look for the soundtrack. (For those of you whose libraries have hoopla, the original Broadway soundtrack is on there. I borrowed it within minutes of hearing that clip on PCHH.)

I then spent the next hour or so listening as I walked around my neighborhood. I absorbed the full soundtrack in one stretch. And the music really resonated with me. The songs are catchy, some of the lyrics are really poignant (as someone who struggles with anxiety, I really connected with “Waving Through a Window”), and the soundtrack genuinely moved me.

The next day I went online and looked up a plot summary. Because as much as I got from the music, I missed some key parts of the story just listening to the songs once. (If you’re not familiar with the plot, Wikipedia has a short summary here.) I had mixed feelings about the hero profiting off of a lie about his supposed friendship with a suicide victim. I don’t agree with Evan’s actions, but I can understand how he got there, fibbing to help Connor’s family cope with their grief. And since I missed so much plot just listening to the songs, I assume the show itself does a better job of showing the consequences of Evan’s actions.

Many critics seem to think so. In addition to winning six Tony Awards, the show received many glowing reviews. But others who have seen the play point out its problematic content. They argue that Evan never has to answer for his lies except to the Murphy family, who all forgive him despite the fact that he took advantage of them when they were grieving, making them his surrogate family because he was unsatisfied with his own living situation. While I heard the opening number, “Does Anybody Have a Map?” as two mothers’ frustrations at not always knowing the right thing to say (which, though I’m not a mother, I sometimes feel in my role as a teen librarian), critics have argued this presents the parents of teens struggling with mental illness as victims. While mental illness affects family members, too, focusing too much on their struggles can diminish the very real struggles of the individual who has a mental illness.

I’m ill-equipped to form a full opinion on this musical until I’ve seen the play myself. I worry that we don’t get to hear from Connor — the real Connor, not the Connor Evan invents for the Murphy family — at all. I worry that Evan may not face enough consequences for his actions, especially since nobody except his mother and the Murphy family learns he lied about his friendship with Connor. But I also genuinely like this music. I see it in the way someone (I believe it was Roxanne Gay, but please correct me if I misattribute this) described misogynistic rap music: she knows the lyrics are horrible, but it’s so catchy, so she’s going to listen to it and sing along.

I know Dear Evan Hansen has problematic aspects. As I said, I can’t form a complete opinion of the show until I’ve seen it. But I do know I still like the songs, and I’m going to let myself listen to and enjoy them, and I’m going to be critical of the play.

Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen? Have you heard the soundtrack? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Reflections on reviews, reviewers, and privilege

Let’s get this out of the way. Hi, I’m Liz, and I have a lot of privilege. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman from a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight or where my next meal will come from. Neither I nor my siblings have ever had “the talk” with our parents — the one about how to act if we’re stopped by the police. I’ve never been targeted by TSA agents because of my looks or my faith. I can never fully understand the experiences of those who have dealt with these things.

That said, I do my best to relate to and learn from those whose experiences are different from my own. I listen. I am fascinated by others’ stories — I want to know more about those who live in different communities or have different customs that those I grew up with. I care deeply about representation — in books, movies, media, workplaces … basically everywhere. Representation matters.

When We Was Fierce.So, when I first heard about e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I was excited about a book written from the perspective of an African-American teen in an African-American community. After reading starred reviews of the book in KirkusPublisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, I eagerly pre-ordered it for my library and added it to my to-read list.

It’s a reflection of my privilege that, despite everything I’ve heard about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, despite my involvement in conversations surrounding the We Need Diverse Books movement and calls for #ownvoices representation, I didn’t consider who was writing these reviews. I trusted the word of reviewers who are not black and have never been a part of a community like the one When We Was Fierce is meant to represent, because they are professional reviewers. Because the reviews they’ve written, and the publications they’ve written for, have guided my reading and collection development well in the past.

Then my Twitter feed, which is filled with thought-provoking conversations by people like Justina IrelandEdi Campbell, and Zetta Elliot, exploded with concerns about this book. I read reviews by POC readers pointing out that Charlton-Trujillo’s “new vernacular” (in the author’s words) was broken and insulting, that the characters felt like stereotypes, that the book is an inaccurate and damaging representation of black communities. I haven’t read When We Was Fierce yet, but reading the excerpts in these reviews (which I realize were chosen as the most offensive examples), I was deeply concerned. Is this how the readers who gave this book starred reviews really see black communities? The language in those excerpts has no linguistic foundation, and presents black vernacular as broken and uneducated speech. I’m horrified by the thought of handing a book with this language to a black teen, as though saying, “this is how I see you.”

This is not how I see you.

I know my views are impacted by my own experiences and my own privilege, which is why it’s so important to have diverse reviewers evaluating diverse books. We need more #ownvoices books, but at the very least we need #ownvoices writers and readers consulted about books that are meant to reflect their experiences. If you haven’t read Zetta Elliott’s post, “Black Voices Matter,” or KT Horning’s post about “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews,” I highly recommend doing so. We need diverse books, yes, but we also need diverse critics who can speak to the authenticity of these books.

Review: Rite of Rejection

Rite of RejectionI’ve gotten a lot of great advice about author marketing from Sarah Negovetich’s blog (some of which I’ve used when handling library publicity), so I was thrilled to see she was self-publishing her debut YA novel, Rite of Rejection. I was equally excited to read about why Sarah decided to self-publish, and how she has been preparing for the book’s debut on December 4. Before I dive into my review (thanks, NetGalley, for the advanced copy; I’ve already ordered a copy for my library), I want to plug the blog as a great resource for writers regardless of what publication path you choose.

Now, back to the book.

Blurb (from Goodreads):

“Before you stands the future.”

Straight-laced, sixteen-year-old Rebecca can’t wait for her Acceptance. A fancy ball, eligible bachelors, and her debut as an official member of society. Instead, the Machine rejects Rebecca. Labeled as a future criminal, she’s shipped off to a life sentence in a lawless penal colony.

A life behind barbed-wire fences with the world’s most dangerous people terrifies Rebecca. She reluctantly joins a band of misfit teens in a risky escape plan, complete with an accidental fiancé she’s almost certain she can learn to love.

But freedom comes with a price. To escape a doomed future and prove her innocence, Rebecca must embrace the criminal within.

My thoughts:

This book is coming at a time when the YA market is saturated with dystopia, but I was intrigued enough by Rebecca to keep reading. She starts as someone so naive and weak that I had trouble liking her, but I could tell she was going to grow into someone I would respect. Elizabeth provides a nice contrast to Rebecca’s damsel-in-distress, so readers can still have a strong female character to root for throughout. I loved the setting and descriptions, and would have liked to learn more about how the Territories evolved into this rigid, structured society. Recommended for readers looking for a darker version of Keira Cass’s Selection trilogy.

Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds. I haven’t read a book by Scott Westerfeld that I didn’t like, and his latest does not disappoint. I chose this week to highlight Afterworlds because in addition to being a great novel, it mentions NaNoWriMo quite a bit. Hopefully it’ll inspire all of you out there who are doing NaNoWriMo! (And as a bonus, if you’re worried about reading cutting into your writing time, Afterworlds is also a fantastic audiobook read by Sheetal Sheth and Heather Lind. So you can read while driving to work, making dinner, washing dishes, working out, and plenty of other non-writing activities.)

First, the summary from Goodreads:

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she’s made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved – and terrifying – stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

Now my own thoughts. This book really spoke to me as a writer who is just starting to immerse herself in the world of publishing (no book deals, but I know all about conferences, and I’ve worked on the librarian side of library visits). Reading about Darcy’s first YA Drinks Night and her dreams of YA Heaven had me thinking, over and over, “these are my people!” It’s so great to read a book that I can really see myself in.

Which brings me to the next awesome part of this book: it fits well with the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Darcy is an Indian-American who comes from a Hindu family. The love interest in her novel is a Hindu death god. And there’s plenty of other diversity in this book, but I don’t want any spoilers. (And even having to describe a book as “diverse” makes me cringe, because I wish books were just books and we didn’t need to classify stories that reflect the real world as anything unique.)

But Westerfeld takes We Need Diverse Books a step further. While discussing her book with another writer, Darcy says that the male love interest is Indian (his appearance based off of a Bollywood actor) but the female protagonist is white because she didn’t want it to be like she was crushing on the actor, but like the world was crushing on him. (I’d give the exact quote, but the downside to audiobooks is there’s no way to go back and look that up. And all our print copies of Afterworlds are checked out right now.) So basically, Darcy is saying an Indian protagonist would be seen as representing her, but a white protagonist can represent any girl. I think this scene proves exactly why we need diverse books — Darcy has grown up in a world where she can’t see non-white characters as representing a large portion of the general population. I don’t know whether Westerfeld intended to do this or not, but I think it makes a brilliant point about the need for diversity in a deftly subtle way.

So, write on, Wrimos, and give Afterworlds a read (or listen)!

Have you read any books that really resonated with you lately? Any great NaNoWriMo books? What about books that address diversity? Please share in the comments!

Reflections on Reviews

Two stars. Most writers look forward to their first reviews with a mix of excitement and dread. Will they be glowing? Scathing? Seasoned authors caution never to read reviews of one’s own work — even the good ones. But how many people can really resist that temptation?

As a writer, I understand the desire for good reviews, and how devastating the bad ones can be. I understand the frustration of reading a one- or two-star review by someone who clearly hasn’t even read the book. I understand that there are some reviewers out there who are mean-spirited, who will say terrible things about wonderful books.

But.

I think there is still a place for negative reviews. Not the kind that insult the author, but the kind that offer constructive feedback and start conversations that we need to be having. A blogger on Teen Librarian Toolbox addressed this more eloquently than I could ever hope to, so I’ll let you read her thoughts on it first.

Now for my own two cents. If a book glosses over a subject like rape or abuse, or if it fails to address these topics when they occur, I think reviewers can and should point this out. Especially if these books are written for teens, who may see those characters as role models. When characters don’t really consent to something, or when there’s confusion over whether consent is given, we need to address this. Following Teen Librarian Toolbox’s #SVYALit Project (whose tagline is “using young adult literature to talk with teens about violence and consent”) has made me more aware of how these topics are presented in the books I read. I don’t think getting something wrong makes a book terrible — in fact, I’ve read and enjoyed some of the books mentioned in the TLT post — but I think it’s important to be aware of that and able to talk about it with teen (and adult) readers.

The same thing goes for reviews about books with diverse characters. If a reviewer doesn’t like the way a minority is represented, I think he has a right to *respectfully* point this out. I don’t mean he has a right to attack the author or the book (I’m all for free speech, but I’m also a big fan of respect and common decency); but if the review mentions why the reader didn’t connect with the characters or the book, I see nothing wrong with that. Not every book is right for every reader.

And if writers only get good reviews, how will they know they mis-represented Hindu culture or depicted a less-than-healthy sexual relationship in a positive light? It’s easy for us to miss our own mistakes — that’s why critique partners are so wonderful. When our books are out there in the real world, they are affecting real people. We write to tell stories, and start conversations. Some of those conversations may be difficult to have, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.

Again, I’m not championing Goodreads bullies or mean-spirited reviewers. But I do think people can — and should — say when something about a book upsets or doesn’t resonate with them. A negative review doesn’t mean I won’t read a book; sometimes I’ll read the reviewer’s thoughts and recognize that the things she didn’t like are exactly what I’m looking for in a story.

So, yes, those one- and two-star reviews hurt. But if we eliminated all negative reviews, we’d eliminate the chance for readers and writers to have some important and thought-provoking conversations.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews?