Most of Daniel Handler’s books have a fantasy element, but as dark as his Snicket books can get, Maira Kalman’s often go the opposite way; from her children’s books about Max the dog poet to her genuine and enthusiastic editorials for The New York Times about American History, Kalman’s work is often so filled with light and joy that the reader could float away. Both writers excel at using fantastic and surreal elements to convey something honest and sincere, which is a large part of why they’re both are so good at appealing to both kids and adults.
On the Tumblr created to promote the book, Handler refers to the two of them working on the book by discussing their worst break-ups, so even though Kalman is only credited with the artwork, the names of the fictional films, old tyme actors, and even diners favored by the book’s narrator seem like her inventions. The illustrations are glorious and crucial; the book is one long letter from high schooler Min Green to the boy who broke her heart, given to him as she returns a box of everything important they exchanged during their relationship. Kalman’s drawings of these items makes them, and the narrator’s heartbreak, even more palpable.
Unlike most of the YA I read, Why We Broke Up isn’t fantasy or sci fi, at least not in the traditional sense of witches and/or outer space. It is, on the other hand, fantastic: Min is the kind of teenage girl who likes those strange old movies and vintage clothes. First love, too, always has an element of the fantastic to it, at least in the minds of teens as they experience it, and this book captures that feeling so perfectly, as well as the agony of the heartbreak that follows. I wonder if this book is better for adults than teens since having more distance from those experiences can make revisiting them in a relatable way more enjoyable and nostalgic than sad.
Why We Broke Up reminds me a lot of Ghost World, except that book/film’s protagonist, Edith Coleslaw, reminded me of teens like me at our worst, and Min is us at our best. The book describes first love, both as it should be and as it often turns out to be, and if you think you’re too dead inside to enjoy reading about teenagers, give this book an afternoon to prove you wrong.