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Review of Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up
by Daniel Handler; illus. by Maira Kalman
High School    Little, Brown    355 pp.
12/11    978-0-316-12725-7    $19.99

Min and Ed’s differences are profound — most obviously, she’s a quirky aspiring filmmaker and he’s a popular jock. Readers see immediately, though, that it’s not simply these practical differences that caused their breakup, the event on which this unique novel, posed as a letter Min is writing to Ed, is centered. In addition to this letter, Min is planning to drop off on Ed’s doorstep a box of items, tiny tokens of their relationship (some with obvious sentimentality, others seemingly random, like a protractor). Though tightly focused and always tethered to its format as a denunciative breakup note explaining the physical memorabilia, Handler’s text continually makes the reader forget this narrow structure: the imagistic, affecting stories that Min tells about each object are completely engrossing and provide insight into their young and flawed love. Min’s thoughts on the significance of each item (and the moment or memory it’s tied to) are mature beyond her age but authentically fit her introspective and intelligent character. The poetic eloquence and honesty of Min’s narration; the clarity with which each idiosyncratic character is drawn; the distinctive premise that gives direction to but does not limit plot: these factors combine to help us comprehend both why they broke up, and why that outcome is not what matters most in this story. A stylish book design, thick glossy pages that make the book satisfyingly hefty, and Kalman’s spare illustrations of the objects heighten the overall enjoyment and perfectly complement Handler’s accomplished prose.

From the January/February 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Katrina Hedeen About Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is managing editor of The Horn Book Guide.



  1. Dear Ms. Hedeen,


    I truly loved this book, and agree with everything you so eloquently said.
    I fell head-over-heels into this journey with Min, and my heart melted, pounded, broke, and strengthened right along with her, at every beat.

    Part of the promotional campaign for this book, included completing the sentence “We broke up because____________.”
    And the answers are diverse and hilarious.
    That’s what makes me think this book really appeals to a lot of ages beyond YA.
    We all have stories.
    We all have boxes.
    Be they literal or metaphorical.
    And no handles it like Handler.

    Finally, as a former English major and eternal lit-nerd, I must ask if anyone else read too much into this:

    Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown fell in love in college and are now married.
    Min has the last name Green, much like Lisa has Brown.
    The name “Al” can be found not only in “DAnieL” but also in “HAndLer.”
    Or classic Lemony layering?

    Thanks again for the great review!

    Everyone has a “We broke up because__________” blank-to-be-filled-in.
    Everyone has a box like Min’s, containing significant, meaningful items from relationships.

  2. Katrina Hedeen says:

    Thank you very much for your feedback!

    From one former English major (with similar curiosity and tendency to seek out traces of autobiography in fiction) to another, your final speculation is very interesting. For me, though, it’s not the real-life Handler, or any shred of him, that I love and connect with in this book, it is the characters; it’s their voices that resonated with me, their personality that I fell for, and their story that captivated me. What about you? Would that change what you take away from the book, and from Min and Al specifically?

    Regardless, deeper reading like that sure is fun for us lit-nerds.

  3. Oh yes, I am with you 100%.
    It is indeed the characters and the story that make this such a wonderful book.
    They stay with you, like real people who existed, and you remember them like people from your own past.

    Maira Kalman’s excellent illustrations, as well, help hit it home so hard for me:
    Here it is. Here is “The Thing.”
    “The Thing” behind “This Story.”
    “This story,” part of the bigger story of Why We Broke Up.
    Such a powerful device.

    Even if I wasn’t over-thinking and over-analyzing the auto-biographical connections, and even if I didn’t already think the author and illustrator were brilliant, I would have loved this book.

    But I DO love Daniel Handler’s writing, too, as a total lit-nerd with a full library shelf devoted to his work (in alphabetical & series chronological order, of course) I will read anything he ever writes. Seeing him speak in person, has taken my admiration and respect to new levels, and next time I go, I will bring him a Martini.
    He’s made the joke too many times for no one to realize it’s a request.

    Then I say we toast.
    Maybe to Min and Al…
    But mostly because this book is really good.

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