Why I loved “What to Say Next”

A couple weeks ago, I finished Julie Buxbaum’s second YA novel, What to Say Next. I’m so glad she decided to write another book, because with each new release, she just gets better and better.

We meet one of our protagonists, David Drucker, in the first chapter: told from his point of view, we get a description of the high school cafeteria, of where he stands in the social strata, and a description of autism, Aspberger’s syndrome, and the DSM in his own words. I really loved that Buxbaum let David tell us about his atypicality himself. We didn’t get a description of autism through someone else’s judging eyes. Instead, we learn about David’s autism through his voice, slowly, as he reveals himself to the reader. And of course, in that first chapter, we are introduced to Kit Lowell, our second protagonist.

Kit has been struggling with the death of her father for the past few weeks, losing interesting in school and her friends. When she sits down at David’s table, it’s to take a break from the mind-numbing every day conversations of the typical high schooler, because David tends to eat quietly with his headphones and his DSM-IV. They strike up an unlikely friendship from the very beginning, as David is genuinely surprised someone like Kit would want to sit with him, and Kit is appreciative of David’s blunt honesty, tired of people walking on eggshells around her. She begins to lean heavily on him to process her father’s death, and as they get closer, there’s a definite spark between them.

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Image found here.

In addition to letting David’s character speak for himself in terms of his autism, I liked that there was no fetishization or tokenizing of David’s character, and even Kit’s Indian heritage. I loved that these aspects of the protagonists’ identities were simply a part of them and the storyline. Towards the end, David says to Kit, “If you meet someone with autism, you’ve met that one person, not their diagnosis.” Buxbaum stayed close to this in writing David’s character- there were no blanket generalizations about autism made. We got to know David and his feelings about whether or not he had autism, and that’s it.

The book is written in alternating chapters told from Kit and David’s POV. We get to know both of their families and struggles: Kit’s helplessness and rage as she feels her family falling apart, and David’s acceptance with being neuro-atypical and the resulting social quirks. I was happy to find that I related to several aspects of Kit’s character, most of which had to do with her South Asian heritage. It didn’t play a central role in the story, but that’s okay- it was a part of who she is, and Buxbaum made that clear, and it was really cool to see that represented in such a casual way. In her author’s note, she writes that she wanted her children to be able to see themselves in a book, and that’s a struggle I relate to so much.

In terms of emotional reaction, however, I have to say it was David’s story that hit me the most. The bullying he goes through, past and present, is heartbreaking. Equally frustrating is the principal’s refusal to properly protect him, wanting instead to send him to a school “better equipped for kids like him.” His emotions and thoughts towards Kit are so genuine and pure that my heart broke before anything even happened.

I don’t know if I can go into more detail without giving too much away, so I’ll stop here. If you can’t tell by now: this book is wonderful. Read it.

~Sim

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