Book Mini-Review: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
“‘So you’re saying that on Friday night I have an equal chance of getting vomited on as I do of getting kissed?’ ‘Welcome to high school.’”
What to Say Next is Julie Buxbaum’s latest YA novel. I read her novel Tell Me Three Things earlier this summer and absolutely loved it. I was really excited to read this next one. What to Say Next is about the unlikely friendship between cool girl Kit Lowell and weird loner guy David Drucker. Kit is on the newspaper staff and is on the periphery of the popular crowd. David keeps to himself, has no friends, and falls on the autism spectrum. In high school, these two should never cross paths. But when Kit’s dad dies in a car accident, she walks around school in a funk. Through her grieving, she sits down at David’s lunch table one day. And thus begins the story of Kit and David.
David’s only friend is his older sister Lauren, who he calls Miney. When Lauren was in school, she was the most popular girl and basically threatened anyone who bothered David. So David basically flies under the radar for most of high school. He sits alone at his lunch table and wears headphones while walking to class, so he can avoid talking to others. David most likely has Asperger’s Syndrome, so he struggles with basic social interactions. He keeps a notebook with his observations and notes to help him get through daily life. Under Kit’s name, he has a few notes, lists a few of their notable interactions, and thinks that she is the prettiest girl in school. But no one else knows about the notebook. When Kit sits down next to David at lunch, he is forced to start real social interactions with people other than his teachers and family and has to rely on his notes on how to actually talk to others.
Kit is understandably devastated by her father’s death, and she keeps going through the motions of school and life until one day she just can’t, so she goes to sit down at David’s table. She doesn’t expect anything from him other than that she assumes he would not talk to her. His brutal honesty endears him to her, and she finds that she actually needs David’s view on life to help her get through the grief. As they begin a tentative friendship, Kit asks him to look into her father’s car accident and see if it could have been avoided. Thus the Accident Project is born.
I have some conflicting feelings about What to Say Next. It is one of the only books, if not the only one, that I have read with a major character on the autism spectrum. I applaud Julie Buxbaum for writing a character like David and normalizing those who are not generally represented in literature. I enjoyed reading about David and Kit’s unlikely friendship, but I felt like this one hit a few too many of the typical clichés in YA novels. One of the main characters grieving a parent’s recent death? Check. An unlikely relationship between the two characters? Check. High school party scene? Check. One character has a mini-makeover and is suddenly really attractive? Check. Now I enjoy these clichés as much as the next reader, but combined with what Buxbaum was trying to do with an autistic character just felt a little overkill. I think the book would have been so much stronger if there had been one or two fewer YA tropes. I still enjoyed the book, but after adoring Tell Me Three Things, I felt a little let down by What to Say Next. Nonetheless, I am glad there are more stories with underrepresented characters and look forward to reading more diverse books. I give What to Say Next 3.5 stars.
Let me know of other good books with traditionally underrepresented characters.