Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

  • Title: Why We Broke Up
  • Author: Daniel Handler
  • Illustrator: Maira Kalman
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0316127256
  • List Price: $19.99
  • Page Count: 368
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Daniel Handler has written books for all age ranges, notably the A Series of Unfortunate Events series under the pen name Lemony Snickett. He has a website at lemonysnicket.com, but the link did not appear to be working when I checked. The Steven Barclay Agency has a biography about Handler and talks about his early life as well as his current projects. NPR’s Fresh Air did an interview with Handler, in which he discussed his use of big words in his books, saying: “You see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often, and it’s often because once you reach a certain age you’re kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don’t know what it means. And then you just start using it however it feels right. … I think children are less embarrassed to go look up the truth.” He also discusses his interest in the music world and his musical influences during this interview.

Reviews: This book received favorable reviews from Booklist, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly. Each of these reviews comment on the fact that this novel is a typical teenage heartbreak story that is written in a fresh style with a compelling narrative voice. Booklist admits in the first sentence of the review that even though this is a well-known story, what makes this novel special is “all in the delivery”. The reviews also recognize the authenticity of the book and how well Handler captures the emotion of first love and first heartbreak.

Readers annotation: Min Green and Ed Slaterton broke up, and Min wants him to know why.

Summary: Min and Ed are from completely different high school social circles—she’s an opinionated movie buff and he’s a popular basketball star, but they fall in love anyway. She chronicles their entire relationship, from meeting at her best friend’s birthday party, to their first date seeing an old movie he had never heard of, to a big Halloween bonfire where she feels very out of place. Ultimately Min loses her virginity to him, against the advice of her friends. After that happens, Min discovers that Ed has been cheating on her for the majority of their relationship, and Min has her heart broken. Min’s narrative takes the form of a letter written to Ed that she dropped on his doorstep along with a box of objects she collected throughout their relationship. Each object corresponds to an important moment for the two of them and explains why they dated and why they broke up.

Evaluation: Min and Ed aren’t perfectly sympathetic characters–Min is a know-it-all and overly dramatic and self-absorbed, and Ed is clueless and sneaky and also self-absorbed. Although these flaws may bother some readers, they are also what makes the novel feel true. While reading the book, I was reminded of how urgent those feelings of first love can be, and I think Handler conveyed this beautifully through his characters. Min and Ed resonate with readers because they are honest portrayals of the intensity of teenage emotions and the complexities of young relationships. Arranging the narrative around objects enhances the immediacy of the story and allows readers a real glimpse into Min’s world.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  This book takes a subject matter that could easily be eye-rollingly, cloyingly trite and infuses it with energy and honesty, making it a true depiction of what it means to fall in love for the first time. Some of Min’s ramblings go on for too long and sometimes the characters make the reader want to throw something, but that’s the beauty of the characters–they feel real.
  • Popularity3/5  Although this is not a standard love story and Handler’s treatment of the subject matter makes it a book that both boys and girls could enjoy, this title probably will not appeal to a male audience just based on its plot. Readers, male and female, who do give it a chance will find a unique story about love and heartbreak that will resonate.
  • Appeal factors: witty narrators, unusual storytelling format, romance, break-ups.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers who like unconventional love stories, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars may be a good fit. Like Min, Green’s narrator Hazel is a smart, self-aware, teenage girl who finds love in an unlikely situation. By the end of the novel, Hazel has to cope with losing her first love and learns a lot about herself in the process.

Book talk ideas: One of the strengths of the novel is its storytelling format and how the book is set up so that objects in Min’s break-up box introduce the  next segment of the story. Ask readers to think about (or maybe share) an object that has importance to them and what stories they have that are associated with that object. Discuss how we as humans connect our feelings to objects, and then talk about how Handler has based his book on these significant artifacts of a relationship, and each one furthers the narration to its inevitable climax.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Min and Al are best friends, but by the end of the book it seems that they might be something more. Do you think this is a good idea? Are Min and Al a good fit?
  2. Do you think Min is a good narrator? Is she a believable character?
  3. How do you feel the pictures enhanced the story?

Reason for reading: I’ve read a lot of Daniel Handler’s work for different age groups (early readers, middle readers, adults), and I love his voice. This seemed like a natural book to read for this project because I wasn’t aware that he also wrote YA and I was curious to see how it would compare to his books for younger and older readers.

Additional relevant information: Daniel Handler created a blog called The Why We Broke Up ProjectThis site, based on the book, is a forum in which people can share their own break-up stories, which Handler will occassionally comment on. There is also a section devoted to celebrity break-up stories, including stories from Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, Neil Gaiman, and David Levithan.

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