What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter
Overview: Kels is a popular teen blogger. On One True Pastry (OTP) she pairs cute cupcakes with her YA reviews. Over the years, she's gained the attention of the book world being featured in media articles and hosting major cover reveals. She's also found a community with her fellow teen book lovers and met her best friend, Nash. Sure, her IRL social life is close to nonexistent because she moves so often, but that doesn't matter as much. The only problem? Her latest move to Middleton, Connecticut puts her face to face with Nash. Her Nash- who doesn't know that he's staring at his best friend and crush because Kels is a pseudonym. Nash is meeting Halle for the first time. Will Halle be able to connect her two worlds before they destroy each other, or will she be too scared of being left to tell the truth? Overall: 5
(Get ready for this review cause it's going to be loooong. I have way too many thoughts on this book)
Characters: 5 From page one, this book scared me a little. I related to Halle in far too many ways. I don't think I've ever shared so much with a book character. First off, we're both YA book bloggers, and Halle voices her love, frustration, and conflicted feelings about the book community that spoke directly to my feelings in a way I've never experienced. She also wants to go to NYU more than anything. I had that dream for a long time. She struggles with her SAT score and the stupid math section. I did too.
I also connected with her on a deeper level. She's moved a ton because her parents are famous documentary film makers. We don't share that, but I did change schools a ton, so we both never ended up with a core group of IRL friends it seems like every YA character has. And Halle has an anxiety or insecurity throughout the book that made me realize I do the same thing. Every time Nash's friend group or Nash himself tries to get close to her, she thinks of a million stupid reasons they probably hate her or that she's not good enough. She has a hard time accepting that people could like the regular old Halle outside of the internet. I think it comes from not growing up with that core group of friends that are always there to remind you that you're likable and loved. At a certain point, it starts to feel impossible.
And then there's the added pressure that Kels does have friends and a community and people who value what she has to say. Kels also exists without the anxiety that Halle has in her daily life. There's a security in getting to be Kels. It's all the bold, self-assured, confident parts of herself manifested without the downsides. How can a real person live up to that?
I completely get where she was coming from. I use my real name on all my profiles, and I don't hide it here, but I do also get to be the person I want to be on here. Very few of the people who know me in real life know about my blog or even my personal Twitter. There's a freedom in that to be the person you want to be. Even if we're not beauty or travel influencers that flaunt a perfect life, we do all still craft our personas to be the people we want to be. We can be more passionate, bold, and exact with our words. I honestly couldn't blame Halle for feeling intimidated about living up to the person that she created. But, at the end of the day, Kels came from Halle and is a part of Halle. They could never exit separately.
What I don't have that Halle does is an IRL Nash, and I'm honestly more than a little upset about that. Nash is a graphic novel reviewer and creator of web-comic, REX. He's smart and funny and caring. He alway knows what to tell Kels as they stress about making the Book Con blogger panel and NYU acceptances. They talk about book world drama and vague happenings in their off screen lives. They've been friends for years. When Nash meets Halle, he does his best to include her in his friend group and make her feel comfortable in her new town, even as she gives him the cold shoulder. Nash is a great character, the perfect mix of a good soul with a fair share of flaws.
What I loved most about Halle and Nash's relationship was that it proved how real and powerful the friends and connections we make online are. He never drops Kels for Halle. He never thinks of his real life friends as more of his friend than Kels. For a lot of the book, Kels is the most important person in his life, and he doesn't let other people's opinions get in the way of that.
Then there's her friends, both online and off, who make the world that Halle lives in so much richer. We start by getting to know her online friends who keep an active group chat and support each other as they work through high school and college and on their own dreams to become published authors, win photo contests, or make the Book Con panel. I loved reading the scenes with their messages. As Halle gets more sucked into real life Nash's world, she also becomes part of Le Crew which she's not totally comfortable with. It seems like she's alway waiting for the moment they abandon her. But they love Halle too much to do that. I really loved Molly in particular. She's competitive and bold and focused. She doesn't let Halle get too far in her head, but she also keeps it real.
Molly also represents a really good other look the teen experience to Nash and Halle. While they're focused on their art and brand, Molly has taken an absurd number of APs and is valedictorian. But she still struggles with reaching the impossibly perfect SAT score that Ivy's demand. And when they all get their results, (possible spoiler) Molly represents a lot of teens. The ones who worked incredibly hard for their dreams only to not have it delivered. It feels like if you work hard enough, destiny has to deliver on your deepest hope. And then it doesn't. I liked that this moment was included because it was one of the tiny details that made the book feel real. And everything in the book felt so real.
I also liked that the book broke the trope of taking sides between friends. They want to hear Halle out when the Halle/Kels drama inevitably comes to a head. They are the proof she needs that not everyone is going to leave when she messes up.
Finally, there's Ollie and Gramps. Ollie is her fifteen year old brother, and they're super close from having moved around a ton. I really enjoyed their relationship. I feel like there aren't enough older sister-younger brother relationships in YA. I also liked the arch with her grandfather who is still grieving the loss of her grandmother. They start out as sorta awkward strangers, but over the course of the book, the little gestures build until they've reconnected and found a really beautiful place of understanding and healing together.
It still amazes me how this book managed to develop all the characters so fully and deliver satisfying outcomes on three complete stories of romance, friendship, and family. There's also a small thread about Halle learning more about Judaism and connecting more with her faith from a community aspect that is done super well. She doesn't have a spiritual awakening so much as an understanding of a new place willing to accept her into their fabric. I'd say more about it, but this is super long as is.
Plot: 5 There's a lot of plot threads here to go with the character archs, but I'll try to keep this briefer. The main one is this whole Halle-Nash-Kels strangest love triangle of all time. As Halle points out once, it's a love triangle where she's on both sides. I thought that this aspect was going to frustrate me to no end. Usually, these kinds of things do. It could be solved so simply if you just opened your mouth the first time, but here, I didn't have those thoughts. The approach to it was so nuanced and developed, I fully understood why Halle fought so hard to keep her Halle and Kels life separate. As it got increasingly messy, I couldn't be mad or frustrated. I just felt sad for her and where it was probably going. It all was justified, and that really impressed me. The confusion and the intense identity questions that were intrinsically tied into it were some of the best parts of the book.
There's also a thread about what it means to be a teen blogger and what that entails. Though Kels is far more popular than I'll ever be, I recognized a lot of her struggles to be taken seriously in the wider publishing world and how validating her little successes were on the way to bigger goals. I understand her fears and thrills and the ups and downs of it all. I loved watching her journey, and it was an incredibly realistic portrayal, probably due to the author's past.
Writing: 5 The thing about What I Like About You is that I didn't think about the writing at all as I read it. I was so firmly situated in Halle's head that it just felt like I was living her life. Nothing about the way that translated to the page took me out of the story or made me feel like these were approximations of teens. It hit all the right notes, including the remarkably real DM conversations that are peppered throughout the book. I just felt seen and understood and incredibly invested the entire time. It's a book that's clearly for teens very intentionally.
Most of the negative reviews I saw on GoodReads for this book are angry that the characters talk about how YA isn't for adults. This made me really hesitant going into it because I'm not generally a fan of people policing what others can and can't read. Here's the thing, though. There's one off handed comment that one teen makes that YA isn't for adults that's a little sharp, but it's also part of a major conversation about teen's place in their own community. She's rightfully upset because adults are dictating the market and placing their voices above the teens in the community. And, what she said isn't wrong. YA should be for teens before it's for anyone else. I love it when adults read YA, but it's not for them. They should interact as observers looking into a world instead of experts or people that stories about teens should be created for.
This is especially important to emphasize in light of a major dilemma in the book. Halle's favorite author makes a ton of insensitive statements about how she writes about teens instead of for teens and that she deserves to be taken seriously because of it. YA should be taken seriously as important work because it already is. Teens liking something shouldn't make it inherently bad or less than something for adults, and you shouldn't have to devalue your readership in the hopes of wider recognition. It's very nuanced how Halle deals with basically being rejected by the creator of the book that made her blog what it is today, that she's put so much time and energy into promoting.
Teens have less of a voice in the space as it is, and it's particularly painful when we're ignored in one of the few places that should be for us. It happens far too often. Like I said, adult readers are a great part of YA and contribute to the genre, but teen voices, teen opinions, and teen reviewers should be centered in discussions about YA and the books made for the category. I don't think it's a bad thing that these teens felt a bit resentful about being erased or that Kanter gave a voice to that on a major platform. There's a lot of awareness in the way that Kanter addresses the issue of teens place in YA, and I don't think that should be ignored.
I particularly like what Halle has to say at the end when she has to answer a question about what her place in YA will be when she's no longer a teen. It's exactly how I feel, and I think makes it pretty clear that the author isn't against adult readers.
"I'll always read and love YA. But it won't always be for me, you know? So then I have to make sure to advocate for the teens it is for."
This book meant a lot to me. It's definitely earned its place in my permanent collection and is definitely worth a read.
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