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When Good Authors Go Bad

Ok, I confess: the title of this post is mostly clickbait. I’m too much of a libra (and librarian) to be able to call these books anything as absolute as “bad.” The less clickbait, more classic title could be: In which the reader is disappointed in not one but two four-star books, by authors she has previously loved, and is left wondering if the fault is hers or the authors’.

UnbecomingUnbecoming, Jenny Downham
David Fickling Books, February 2016
Reviewed from ARC

There’s actually a ton here to like: intergenerational family story, good pacing, appealing characters, and a fast read. All round win, really. Certainly I gobbled it up and handed it to students as a perfect beach read.

Except that there’s a lot that doesn’t work.

Chris’s “general” delay struck me as a bit hand wavy special needs. Is it ASD? (He counts and rocks, both of which are typically associated with ASD.) It’s never named, and the rest of his behavior comes across as immature, so maybe we’re meant to think developmental delay? Or possibly Munchausen by Proxy, because it almost seems made up as a way to keep him as the baby? Mostly it read like lazy writing, and if that’s not what it is, then the text isn’t supporting the author’s work.

Likewise the other major medical issue, Mary’s Alzheimer’s. Let’s call this an accuracy flaw compounded by using Alzheimer’s as a vehicle for some messaging about the wonder of, well, wonder. The mental deterioration itself comes across as well researched and believable. But the ceaseless charming, childlike whimsy? The way Mary on page is almost always chipper and delightful and weirdly wise? No. There are, in fairness, references to her crying at night, but what’s on the actual page is Alzheimer’s as vehicle for Katie’s growth, which is both lazy writing and somewhat offensive.

It’s easy to pick a book apart, and as I said at the start, there’s a ton here to enjoy as well — which perhaps is what all those stars are about. But in the award contender conversation, this falls far short of the mark.

character, driven hc.inddCharacter, Driven, David Lubar
Tor Teen, March 2016
Reviewed from final e-copy

So, I’d like to start with the good, but actually I am really unhappy with this book.

I think — and I’m going to ruffle feathers and upset the many fans of Lubar in general and this book in particular — that this is a deeply problematic novel.

Here’s what people like about it: it’s funny (although, it’s pretty damn gallows humor and a lot of cheap puns, but rarely is it actually funny, more smirky and smart ass-y). It has a great first sex scene (which, fair enough, but I’ll talk about the problems surrounding that scene in a minute). It’s super meta and plays with the fourth wall and breaks a lot of “rules” and it’s voicey as hell, although also inconsistent (it gets weirdly flowery at the end).

So, okay, sounds great. What’s wrong with this book?

It’s really deeply steeped in the pervasive attitudes that we often point to when we talk about rape culture.

Cliff thinks about sex all the time. This may be accurate, at least for some teen males, but it’s also perpetuating the idea that girls are objects. And then he GETS REWARDED for it. He stares at Jillian’s breasts, makes some small talk (in fairness, he handles it well when she unleashes her terrible tales of woe on him — and they are terrible, and also maybe too much, a criticism Lubar tries to sidestep by saying they are too much, the same trick he uses to excuse racist and homophobic flashes — if I acknowledge this, it doesn’t count, both Cliff and Lubar seem to say — but I don’t know that it works that way). And then she says she’ll have sex with him because it’s the only way to free up his attention for the emotional stuff. WHAT? Also they don’t use a condom because she’s on the pill, and how is that okay? It takes two to tango and it takes two to agree to make it safe and this is not healthy and also why is all the responsibility on the girls shoulders? Also on the problematic gender and sex end of things Cliff’s household is basically super 1950s: mom cooks and cleans, and Cliff helps and dad is a jerk who does nothing. It does turn out that it’s a really unhealthy household (in a twist that was so clearly telegraphed it was a lot like those fists were hitting me over the head), but the gender division is never addressed, even at the end.

There are some other flaws: Jimby is a device, and — much like Mary, above — it’s not really ideal when a secondary character’s struggle and reality are only there to serve the ends of the main character; it’s even worse here, when it’s a disabled character serving as a vehicle for a non-disabled character’s growth. Butch and Robert are stereotypes, especially Robert (also the only character of color). (All the diversity seems to be tokenism and designed to make Cliff look good, actually). The plotting, especially the too neat repeats of girlfriends past with Jillian, is hokey and unbelievable. The boys have a fight (an occurrence which is made out to be normal, because apparently boys fight and girls choose presents well; see above paragraph) and suddenly Cliff is a hero? I know he’s an unreliable narrator, but still. None of these flaws are my biggest beef, but the thing I find most troubling about this book might not be easy to quantify and discuss at the table if this gets that far; these smaller issues, on the other hand, fall more clearly within the criteria.

And yet — Cliff is a pretty engaging narrator, even as he perpetuates terrible things. For all the underlying sexism, Cliff tries really hard to do right by Jillian. And the puns are punny indeed. People will read this. The literary and meta elements scream award winner; I hope the RealCommittee recognizes the flaws as well as the good stuff.

So there you have it: two of my biggest disappointments of the 2016 season.

Anyone want to try to argue for the other side?

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. Brenda Martin says

    I loved UNBECOMING and I think your two medically-based arguments against it are a bit flimsy. Chris’s unannounced developmental disorder doesn’t need explaining. Surely we all know or have encountered people of this nature, who don’t require labeling. Might it have helped the story and the reader to get a name for his condition? Possibly. Possibly not.

    The same goes for Mary’s Alzheimer’s. That hideous disease manifests itself in so many ways that I’m very hesitant to ever claim that an author gets it right or wrong. I will concede that for the sake of the novel, her difficulties with it are facile and occasionally veer into plot device, but in no worse ways than many other books using disease as vehicle.

    I don’t think this is a flawless book by any means, and the is-this-book-actually-for-teens? question looms large over it (though doesn’t affect its eligibility, of course). But I can’t discount this one simply based on conjecture of Downham’s proper or improper characterization.

  2. Normally, I would never respond to a review. And I’m fine with people not liking my book. But accusing me of perpetuating rape culture seems a bit over the top. Actually, it seems horribly over the top. I’ve appended one brief scene that speaks to the issue and, I believe, shows that the core values of the book are quite the opposite. (Beyond that, I’ll be staying out of any discussion.) Here, a fellow student Cliff asks advice from speaks to the issue:

    “Oh, and one more thing. You might want to find better ways to describe romantic encounters. Getting laid makes it sound like you just want to use this girl as a moist substitute for your hand. She’s not just an object, is she?”
    “No,” I said. “She’s awesome. She’s amazing.” I’d never considered myself to be crude, like the Thug Nuts, or a jerk about girls, but I guess he had a point. I really did sound like a sexist jerk when I talked that way. Damn, another thing to watch out for. Life was like a minefield of words.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      David, thank you for this additional textual example. I want to clarify that in no way am I accusing you, the author, of deliberately perpetuating rape culture. I recognize all the ways you, through Cliff, overtly pushed back on many of the problematic attitudes and beliefs that are part of the problem. However, my ultimate read is that the pivotal scene with Jillian undercuts many of the more overt textual moments of push back.

  3. Completely disagree on Unbecoming. I feel that if there is anything to criticize in it, it is Katie’s relationship with her girlfriend which I thought could have been written… a little better somehow. Both Mary’s and Chris’s conditions felt real to me and not manipulative, as such issues often are in YA, although I am no expert on neither Alzheimer’s nor ASD.

    In fact even though it’s been many months since I read it, this story still stays with me, maybe more than other this year. Really loved how Downham weaved past and present here.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      I liked the past and present weaving too — as I said, I liked a lot about this! What did you think about the situation with Esme, the former best friend? It felt a little dated to me, but then I thought maybe it’s just because I work and live in NYC.

      Regardless of the accuracy of the conditions, I did read both as existing to propel Katie’s story. Brenda mentioned “improper characterization” of the conditions as my criticism, but really I just thought it was weak characterization, although in Mary’s case she’s very strong in the past scenes. I don’t think this is a broken book, just one that didn’t strike me as making the grade for Printz, largely based on my read of the secondary characters as plot devices rather than actualized characters.

      • The Esme situation didn’t strike me as dated. Objectively, maybe it is, but it happened in a small UK town, so what do I know really about social norms there? I am sure there are millions of teens in this world who would still be freaked out by what went on in that particular situation, even though a lot of us are much more progressive nowadays.

        Your reaction reminded me of when one of my UK friends read Sara Zarr’s “Story of a Girl” and she just couldn’t understand what the big deal was with the main conflict – a 13-year old girl having sex with an older guy and being caught in the action by her father. In her opinion, it wouldn’t be an issue in UK. We all judge books through the prism of our own life experiences.

        To your opinion that the secondary characters were only plot devices, I will just have to strongly disagree with that and also with this book being characterized as “bad,” and leave it at that. It’s a matter of personal opinion and I doubt we would be able to convince each other to change our minds on how we perceive this story.

        • Karyn Silverman says

          I am not saying it’s a bad book! Clickbait title, as I said 🙂 Flawed, yes, and in my reading not in the running for Printz, but that’s true of most books.

  4. An Educator says

    You ask at the outset whether it is the books or you. In the case of Character, Driven, I have to say it’s you. There are reviews that say more about the social and political stance of the reviewer than they do about the book being discussed. Your review is one of them.

    Anyone who comes away from Character, Driven with the sense that “It’s really deeply steeped in the pervasive attitudes that we often point to when we talk about rape culture” is reading something into the text that is not there. Lubar is, above all, an authentic writer who writes authentic characters. He presents characters warts and all, “bad” thoughts and all, complexities and all. Readers know the difference between a character steeped in the pervasive attitudes that are at the heart of rape culture, and a character like Cliff. Readers know that their subconscious minds and thoughts are not all gauzy, beautiful, and correct. Cliff’s triumph in his press toward maturity is a mirror to their triumph in the same press toward maturity. Which is why Character, Driven is a such a triumph of a novel.

  5. I read both of these book this past summer and I liked them both.

    I am crazy about Character, Driven. Here is part of my review:
    “David Lubar plays with his readers using all kinds of literary techniques. First take a look at the title: Character, Driven. It is an obvious play on the writing style “character-driven,” as compared to “plot-driven” narratives. With the comma instead of the dash, we are led to understand that there is a character and he is driven, but we also suspect, correctly, that the novel will revolve around its characters and we will be a witness to their evolutions, decisions, and attitudes. Cliff, as our narrator and the author of what we are reading uses word play, foreshadowing, and symbolism. When the plot twist comes he reminds us of all of these and what we probably missed along the way. Since I did miss them, I was glad for the help.”
    I think the literary techniques are noteworthy. Plus I love it that this book is a boy book. Heaven knows we need more boy books in our libraries! This book is part of our Mock Printz list.

    As I reread my review of Unbecoming I am surprised we didn’t add it to our Mock Printz list. I said in my review that it was the best LGBT book I’ve ever read that wasn’t specifically a LGBT book. Here’s a little of my review: “The maiden, mother, and crone archetype representing the three phases of womanhood, or the triple goddess who provides opposing balance to the male essence. Perhaps we are on to something here. We have a multi-generational mystery involving three women and until it is solved, their combined power or essence won’t be actualized. Each woman separately is “unbecoming”, but together they are “becoming.”

    I think both books will get and deserve a look from the real committee.

  6. Karyn, I completely agree with you about Character Driven. IT’S NOT JUST YOU! The occasional moments where Cliff seems to push back on the problematic attitudes felt quite didactic and unnatural to me and seemed almost too little too late since the majority of the time these attitudes (particularly the gender stereotypes) are reinforced by the text. I also agree about the cheap, smart ass humor–coupled with all the meta wall-breaking, it just made the whole thing seem gimmicky.

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