Title: Friend is not a Verb

Author: Daniel Ehrenhaft

Genre: Contemporary YA

Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: May 4 2010
Hardcover: 256 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand Alone

You know things are bad when your dreams come with a washed-up ’80s soundtrack

Henry “Hen” Birnbaum’s sister, Sarah, missing for over a year, has come home unexpectedly, with no explanation at all. But he can’t leave well enough alone; Hen needs to figure out why she disappeared, even if she won’t tell him. It’s not like he has anything better to do. His girlfriend just dumped him and kicked him out of their band. He can’t play the bass worth crap anyway. His social life consists of night after night of VH1 marathons with his best friend and next-door neighbor, the neurotic Emma Wood.

Hen’s sure the answers to Sarah’s lost year lie with Gabriel Stern – Sarah’s friend from college who also happens to be a twenty-two-year-old fugitive from the law and Hen’s bass teacher . . . too bad he can’t play bass worth crap either. A month into his quest, Hen has had countless consultations with Emma, watched approximately fifty-three reruns of Behind the Music, and made one new Facebook friend. Unfortunately, he’s no closer to any revelations about his sister. The thing is, he’s too distracted to notice it, but while Hen’s been looking for all the answers, something mind-blowing happened: He got a life.

How did I get this book: Got me a signed copy at BEA!

Why did I read this book: I just really liked the cover, the blurb. Sounded like a good Contemporary novel…..

Review:

I am very, very conflicted about this book. This review – or perhaps I should say, attempt at discussion – is going to be long and will probably contain (minor) spoilers. But it can’t be any other way in order to adequately express how I felt about the book.

In one level Friend Is Not A Verb is a pretty cool novel. It is quirky, witty and peculiarly executed. Henry Birnbaum, Hen for short, is a rock-star in the make, a bass player for PETRA, the band led by his girlfriend of the same name. The book opens as Petra ditches/fires him on the same day that his sister Sarah comes back after disappearing for one year and it basically explores his relationships:

with his parents and how they know why Sarah left but won’t tell him;

with Sarah, who was always his friend and ally against their parents’ neurosis and how her leaving left a hole in his life and his feelings of betrayal when she returns and still won’t tell him;

with Sarah’s friend Gabriel, also a bass-player who becomes his teacher and sort of an Obi Wan Kenobi figure;

with Petra and the band PETRA;

with his best friend Emma Wood who he might have non-friendly feelings for.

The quirkiness comes from Hen’s decision to embrace the craziness of his life by deciding that the answer to all his problems is to become a rock star. When this is done, he starts to have visions of his future, and part of his narrative reads as a VH1 Classic’ documentary as though Jim Forbes, the narrator of Behind the Music is telling his story. Very subtly though, the writer shows us that this is nothing but escapism. For example, Hen wants to be a rock star but doesn’t like practising because it hurt his fingers and he also is very much in denial about his feelings for Emma; His interactions with Gabriel were definitely interesting and there is even a Fantasy sub-thread in which some of his and Emma’s dreams becomes reality (I am not too sure how well these work though).

I enjoyed the story, the set-up and I liked the friends-to-lovers romance between Hen and Emma, which is always a plus. Hen reads like a real teenage boy, with his dreams of grandeur and terribly awkward moments. And I REALLY liked the writing too with some excellent turn of phrases and I would definitely like to read another one of Daniel Ehrenhaft’s books.

However.

My reading experience was hindered by many things.

First: even though the book is supposed to be funny and light, it touches some really serious issues but without really delving into them. Many times, I thought we were THIS close from an excellent book when the story tapped on these but we were pulled back in the last minute. A couple of examples: it was clear that Emma’s dad had a drinking problem. This certainly added a level of depth to her character, and could have made for interesting inner conflict but it was never really explored. This is ok though, partly because Emma is not the main character, partly because we don’t get her point of view. But there is one sequence in the book, towards the ending where Emma does a stint as a groupie for the band and when she does that, she drinks, a lot and feels as though she is about to become a drunk like her father. Hen thinks about that but only en passant and then she quits being a roadie and the subject is simply dropped as though it never happened. In fact, we learn about the reasons behind the roadie-drinking thing in a letter addressed to PETRA that HEN reads without PERMISSION (I am not even going to go there, because this review is already long and I still have a lot to say) and that’s how certain things are solved – they never get to talk about it. Case closed.

Another serious issue is the reason why Sarah disappeared. We are talking about fleeing the country with a group of friends, becoming fugitives in the Dominican Republic thinking they would NEVER EVER were going to be able to return, with the FBI searching for them. Sarah and Gabriel come back to try and fix things but they are still very much in hiding. Yet, there is very little that SHOWS me the seriousness of this situation. At one point it becomes ludicrous when Hen’s parents and Sarah insists that Hen takes bass lessons with Gabriel whilst at the same time saying something like: “just be careful because the FBI might just burst in“. The ending and the resolution of the mystery can only be described with one word: inane. Why they did what they did, how they did what they did, and how they eventually got out of it: inane .

But what really proved to be the most problematic for me, and what seems to be the crux of my conflict, the source of my problems with the novel is how certain things are said and done and thought by Hen and others which I am not sure what to make of.

Like for example, when Sarah and her friends who are all in their early twenties and when they are living in the Dominican Republic, their neighbour is a 84 year old former NAZI whom they become friends with and one of the girls starts a sexual relationship with. I am not going to say anything about the age difference because she is a 22 year old adult capable of making her own decisions. BUT the guy is a former KNOWN NAZI escaped from Germany and I just don’t see how anyone can just be ok with it. This is definitely an attempt of being “quirky” that is taken to the extreme. Since the subject of his possible redemption was never truly explored or addressed and he is just a minor character, I fail to see how this is interesting and to me, there is nothing remotely quirky or funny about associating with a former Nazi.

And then, there are sentences that are sparingly peppered throughout the text which made me stop and think about what I was reading:

Sarah was once worried that I didn’t have enough “guy friends”. After assuring her that I wasn’t gay, I reminded her that if Emma were a guy, I would have had a “guy friend”. Emma just happened to be female.

Hummmm.

Then, Hen walks into a “strange black man” standing in the living room of Petra’s apartment (whom he knows to be halfAfrican-American) but he thinks the guy is a robber.

My jaw dropped, “You’re her dad? I gasped.
He giggled again. “Yeah, but don’t worry. Black people make me nervous, too.”

About having sex with Emma:

“what is this, porn? The morning was too pure and wondrous to be cheapened by gratuitous sex. We’re saving that for later”

When going to a Journey concert and about those in attendance:

“why are all these retirement-age people showing him the love?”

“fat bald man and gray-haired women “

Now, you might say I am taking things too seriously. Yes, it is fiction. Yes, we are talking teenagers here and we all know teens can be cruel and clueless. I am also not advocating that all books must address “issues” or that we, adults, don’t have our ugly moments or aren’t politically incorrect; but just like the Nazi neighbour, these sentences tap on important issues: racism, homophobia, teenage sex and how to address your elders and to me they come with a lot of weight when expressed in that manner, with what I see as negative connotations.

Now, the way I see it, these assertions made their way into the book either on “purpose” or by “accident”.

The former, would be a form of addressing them with sarcasm as a way of emphasising their wrongness. This view can be supported by for example how Hen thinks about the racist incident:

“the fact that he was black had made me nervous. I was a terrible human being”.

But this is the only instance of self-awareness as far as I can tell unless you think those quotes are meant to be sarcastic themselves – I am not entirely convinced.

The latter, it’s obviously the most problematic one. They are not meant to be taken seriously or in any negative way, they are just jokes, but when these things make their way,” innocently”, into books and people don’t think twice about them, that only helps perpetuating stupid stereotypes, bigotry and racism.

These are my own opinions drawn from the book which provoked these very specific reactions in ME. And I would love to discuss all this – if you read the book, let me know your views!

Notable Quotes/Parts:Gabriel was once in a band called Friends. I liked this part:

“The Band was more than a tribute to the show,” he said. “It was a tribute to the word itself. When we were little kids, ‘friend’ wasn’t a verb. You didn’t ‘friend’ someone. You had friends. It was only a noun. It didn’t multitask.” He sighed dramatically. “It was a simpler time, Hen.”

Verdict: Friend Is Not A Verb starts with a lot of potential especially considering the author’s prose and the quirkiness of the story. But there can such a thing as quirky-in- extreme and potentially inflammatory issues that are never truly, explored hindered the experience for me.

Rating: NO IDEA. I am so conflicted about the book, I honestly don’t know how to rate it.

Reading Next: The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea Campbell.

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49 Responses to BEA Appreciation Week – Book Review: Friend Is Not A Verb by Daniel Ehrenhaft

  1. Daniel Ehrenhaft says:

    Hi there,
    Thanks for the very thoughtful review. I agree that the mystery is glossed over to some extent, and perhaps the book should have been longer than it is to delve into the intracies and motivations behind the mystery. I do think that you indeed might be reading the lines you mentioned a little too seriously. This is not an “issues” book. It’s a farce at its heart. Those lines are meant to reflect the honest feelings of the characters in a humorous light. But I certainly understand your concerns. Thanks!

  2. KMont says:

    I don’t blame you for wondering about the things mentioned above, and I don’t see the problem with discussing them. Sometimes when humor is intended, it might not be funny to some, and it might be funny to others. I just read two UF books where all I’ve heard about them is how witty the characters are, funny, etc. I didn’t find one thing funny in either book. The things mentioned in your review may not come off as “issues” to some, but obviously they do to you and maybe others – so I say discuss!

    Personally, I don’t care for the tone they offer up. I’m not seeing anything that funny about the quotes. But that’s just me!

  3. Aja says:

    okay, i just have to say that i feel like my reading experiences are hindered SO OFTEN by issues like these. so often I can’t focus on the story the author wants to tell because the meta of the story is delivering some other message that is driving me crazy, like (for example) the way the metatext of certain YA romances insist that stalking, threats of violence, and mind-rape are A+ sexy traits!

    or like the book I’m reading now, where I can’t quite relax and enjoy the plot because I’m too busy asking myself why all the women are bitter betrayers and why “girls who wear makeup” is a shorthand characterization marker for “treacherous slut.”

    i just feel this sense of frustration constantly when I read YA, and part of the time i’m blaming myself for not being able to turn off my brain; because, sure, why shouldn’t a book that’s written to be fluffy light entertainment get to be taken on its own terms?

    but that attitude helps excuse actual harmful things that perpetuate harmful thinking and behavior in our society. and, honestly, instead of the *reader* having to juggle guilt for their own gut reactions to skeevy moments in the books they read, wouldn’t it be a heck of a lot easier for authors just to not write problematic elements into their storytelling?

    i can already tell you just from reading the sentences you quoted in your review, this would be one of those books that would make me feel extremely uncomfortable. If a teenage girl is having sex with an 84-year-old and the power differential there isn’t explored at all, that by itself would really bother me; if you introduce a character who’s a NAZI and then never ever deal with any type of fallout of introducing a character with such an extremely racially charged background, then it just seems like the author is handwaving the entire fact of his background, like “Nazi” is just another trait like “84 years old” or “balding.” That is not really okay.

    Those two things together would make me feel like the author is trying to be ~edgy~ and doing so using very real, very harmful sociocultural experiences that should never be handwaved or written off. And the rest of the quotes you mention all seem to confirm that. That the “Black people make me nervous too” line is being played for laughs is appallingly an example of hipster racism, and the fact that an acclaimed writer like Ehrenhaft isn’t aware of that (or worse, *is* aware of it but chooses to do it anyway) is something that really bothers me.

    Because, pardon me, but I feel like the response after a thoughtful, reflective and balanced review like this shouldn’t be “yeah, you were taking it too seriously.” That should NEVER be the response because, again, that kind of attitude just perpetuates the handwaving of icky things. It should be, “holy crap, if these things made you feel uncomfortable, then I didn’t do my job well enough.

    thank you for your review. :) *sits on hands*

  4. KMont says:

    Oh, Aja. WELL SAID. I needed to finish my coffee and contemplate this all more first, but you just did a superb job. I’d get up and clap, but I still need that coffee first lol. I will applaud sitting at my keyboard. ;)

  5. Ana says:

    @ Daniel – Hi, thanks for leaving a comment. Although I appreciate and obviously, respect your point of view, I believe that even a non-issues book can and should be discussed. I guess it is impossible to predict how a book will affect anyone, regardless of which genre (comedy, tragedy) it belongs to.

  6. Ana says:

    @ Kenda – Thanks for another well-reasoned comment – I agree with you of course. and dude, I too so want to applaud Aja. You should check our her livejournal (I am such a fangirl) – if you haven’t already – at Bookshop

  7. Ana says:

    @ Aja.

    Thank you, Thank you for leaving such an awesome comment and joining the discussion.

    I am always and forever battling with myself when I think I am reading too much into something and then telling my brain to STFU already. But you are right, totally right, these things need to noted and said. Yes, it means that the majority of books I read I end up having issues with BUT it also means that when a book is truly excellent, it is even more awesome.

    Re the Nazi thing, this is exactly what I told my part. It is as though having a “nazi neighbor” would be the same thing as having a “guitar player neighbor” which you know, it is not.

  8. Daniel,

    The notion that casual racism/homophobia is okay because it’s not intended seriously really, really bothers me. I’m a woman, and a minority (depending on how you slice the bread), and I can’t tell you the number of times people have told sexist and racist jokes to my face, and then are shocked! shocked! that I get offended. How can I be offended, they wonder. It’s funny!

    I have a rich sense of humor. I laugh at a lot of things. Heck, I write books that have funny elements. I love funny books. I’m not a humorless, cruel crone.

    But you know what isn’t funny? People who do/say “funny” things that are racist/heterosexist/ageist/et cetera somehow never manage to tell jokes that subvert stereotypes instead.

  9. katiebabs says:

    *blinks eyes* did you really say that their a 22 yr old has a sexual relationship with a neighbor that is 84?!? OMG that takes the cake for me. How in anyway is that… no words. How is this important to the plot? And why would anyone think of writing such a thing?

    If someone has the insight to explain such a thing, please do so.

  10. [...] (one of my favorite blogs) reviewed Daniel Ehrenhaft’s book “Friend Is Not a Verb” and because of a multitude of issues, Ana was not able to grade the book, but the review and [...]

  11. Keri says:

    Racism and homophobia are never funny. I think the author needs to do some soul searching on how he really feels about these issues. Joking about an issue says that it’s okay to feel that way. Frankly, it’s not okay to be racist or a homophobe, and it’s not okay to tell teenagers that it is okay.

    It’s really too bad, as this book sounded like something I might have read.

  12. Daniel Ehrenhaft says:

    Wow. The way the conversation seems to be going, I feel that I’m coming off as a racist homophobe. Or that I condone a sexual relationship between a geriatric Nazi and a teenage girl. I am giggling at te absurdity. The book is a farce. Please: if you’re going to discuss the book, read it first. Then judge it on its literary merits–as Ana has done. (Though I do feel she’s missed a few crucial points, and has let the conversation slide away from something potentially productive.) It has lots of problems yes–plot-wise, etc. I would love to discuss those. Otherwise, to be frank, the conversation is digressing to a grab-the-mic platform where people are being self-congratulatory about things that every person with half a brain naturally condemns. Sorry to ask an obvious question…but why would you discuss a book you haven’t read? :D

  13. Lori says:

    I haven’t read the book and came over here via the link on Dear Author. But I’m very curious as to why the issues in a YA book are taken into this extreme in the same way they would be in a book aimed at an adult audience.

    Its been a long time since I was a teenager and I have a pre-teen daughter but I do know that in the teenage world there is only one star and that is self. So a book about a teenage boy wouldn’t necessarily delve into the ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefor’s’ if the character is a self involved teenager.

    I’m not really a YA reader because as an adult I prefer content that matches my interests and my life. But a YA book is to match the ideas and life of a ‘not yet adult’, yes? So within that context did the book match the teenage protagonist’s idea of self and self-involvement?

  14. Daniel Ehrenhaft says:

    I am sorry–I am bowing out of this conversation. I’m getting upset, and I know I shouldn’t. Ana, I’m sorry you didn’t like the book and were troubled by its content. I implore you all to read YA–not my books, but books by fabulous authors such as Libba Bray, Natalie Standiford, David Levithan, Coe Booth, Maureen Johnson, John Green, E. Lockhart, Rachel Cohn, and future books from Sourcebooks Fire authors…the list goes on and on and on. And Ana, thanks for reading; I sincerely mean that!

  15. “Sorry to ask an obvious question…but why would you discuss a book you haven’t read?”

    Daniel, I was responding to your attitude, not the book. “Lighten up, it’s a farce” is not a response to the issues that Ana raised.

    Why do people have to read your book to call you on that?

  16. Akin says:

    I see where Ana is coming from. But I also see where Daniel is coming from. I don’t think implying racism or homophobia or any of that was his intention, nor do I think this is a situation of “hipster racism”, but yeah, I see how some of the stuff in his book could perpetuate these things.

    Thing is I’ve heard worse jokes on television, radio and from people, and sometimes I’ve laughed at them. Black people make jokes about white people being nervous around black people. Mexicans make jokes about Mexicans. Gay people make jokes about gay people. Indians make jokes about Indians. I had a Jewish friend crack a hilarious joke about Nazis the other day. And all these jokes could have some form of “implied” racism/homophobia in them if you look carefully.

    That’s one of the reason why the whole “hipster racism” thing reads “bullshit” to me (yes, I AM black, by the way), and why I’m not all that bothered with Daniel’s book. Honestly there’s a ridiculous double standard with respect to “jokes” or implied messages.

    Take this for example: according to Twilight and its immense success, as well as the successes of other copycat books like Hush Hush, most women and girls are ok with stalker-ish, domineering boyfriends, and also find being weak, clumsy, and idiotic acceptable as long as there’s a bad boy around to wrap them up in his big, strong arms. If I mentioned this to any Twilight or Hush Hush fangirl, their response would be: “It’s a book. You’re taking this way too seriously.”

    Yet, at the same time, I know if Twilight were written by a man, the situation would be reverse: a whole lot of women would be pissed off at the books and accusing the male writer as sexist and abusive.

    The same way black person would accuse a white person of racism if the white person told a joke that people would have laughed at had Chris Rock said it.

    The same way gay people would cry homophobia if the joke about the gay guy wasn’t said by a gay guy but a straight guy.

    South Park tells jokes about a kid wanting to kill a whole bunch of Jews. One of the writers is Jewish. Imagine if he was black or white instead. The Boondocks satires black people to the core. Imagine if the dude writing it was a white dude.

    And so on.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s OK to perpetuate racism, sexism or homophobia in anyway. I’m just saying while you may see those things in the book as wrong (and they are), from what I witness in entertainment as a whole – books, music, movies, and TV, (a) it carries little weight (b) it shouldn’t be used against Daniel.

    What I see here above all is a case of a joke gone wrong. If this were an “issue” book or a book that was supposed to tackle these serious topics in some way or form, then I’d take offence. Daniel said it isn’t, and it does look like a farce book.

    If “The Hangover 2” came out and we saw a fat woman sleeping with a 90 ex-Nazi a lot of people would laugh. Hell, Tropic Thunder had a “dude disguised as a dude playing another dude” AKA Kirk Lazarus, who’s basically a white guy dressed as a black guy and talking like a black guy. I’m black and I laughed my ass off. But I know if that were to be a real issue, say some white guy ACTUALLY decided to do that for real, it’d become some kind of race thing.

    It’s wrong, I know. But I’m not going to point my finger at Daniel when there are worse offenders out there.

  17. KMont says:

    The points of some people’s reviews is to discuss the book, the reactions it gets and sometimes even to help decide if others want to even read the book. That goes for people that haven’t already read the book as well.

    Telling other people not to discuss a book they haven’t yet read? Good way to get them NOT to read it. Personally, I feel the best way to make others feel welcome in reading a book is to welcome them into a discussion, whether they’ve read the book or not. I don’t see book discussions as an exclusive club where it’s frowned on if a person hasn’t read the book in question. If they’re curious enough to come here and talk about issues the reviews bring up – whether serious issues or not – then it is encouraging all around. I’m disappointed whenever I see people who haven’t read the book yet being shunned, or when people encourage them not to show interest in book discussions. It’s counterproductive, IMO.

  18. Akin says:

    @ KMont

    But Daniel does have a point. Any liberal minded person who sees this discussion would think this book is a book that grossly offends gay people, black people and jews. And it’s not. Ana read the book. She understands everything about the book, and she chose to expose and discuss a small part of the book, and rightly so.

    But if someone else who hasn’t read the book comes on here and starts saying, “Oh my god, racism this, racism that,” when really, this is a case of, “He told a joke and we didn’t find it funny, kinda like how Chris Rock told the SAME joke but we found it funny,” I think he does have a right to question why someone would, you know, jump into conclusions about the book as a whole when they haven’t read it.

    You never know, maybe that person might read the book and these so called “issues” wouldn’t bother them. I’ve seen other reviews of this book online and there’s no mention of Nazis or racism. This is Ana’s opinion, and she has a right to make that opinion, especially when she’s read the book. But for someone who hasn’t, c’mon, I think it’s a bit unfair to jump into conclusions, is all.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Okay–I’m being disingenuous here and leaping back in for one final comment. :-)
    1) Agree completely that people should feel free to discuss any issue they like, regardless of forum.
    2) Thank you, Akin, for providing a different perspective.
    3) There’s a passage that Ana left out of the review, which describes Hen’s feeling of guilt and shame over his reaction to the misidentification of Hen’s father–specifically in regards to racism. A discussion of that passage is something I’d love to see, though I won’t participate. It goes: “He was right: the fact that he was black had made me nervous. I was a horrible human being.” Again, taken out of its context within the scene skews it in a different light.
    But it’s important when discussing a work of fiction–and the issues therein–to look at the work as a whole. The more informed a discussion, the better.
    That’s all. It’s something I’ve always stressed to my teen students (regardless of their ethnicity or sexual orientation, for the record). And thanks to every one of you for caring about YA literature and literacy in general (even those with whom I disagree)…that’s neither farce nor fiction.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I meant Petra’s father–not Hen’s father.

  21. KMont says:

    Akin, I wrote out a long post yet again on why I feel it is my right as a reader looking for information in book reviews and subsequent discussions to actually participate, but you’re mind seems firmly made up. I won’t waste any more of my time. I’ll only be repeating what I feel.

  22. John J. says:

    Daniel,

    As a teenage reader, book blogger/reviewer, AND as a person who is struggling to accept his sexuality in a world that doesn’t admit to the truth of the matter yet – I CONSIDER THIS A BIG DEAL.

    While I’m fine with things being glossed over in YA, like romances seen in Twilight and Hush,Hush, those are different for me. I think people take the extreme of some of the behaviors of the romance, but ultimately the books explore how teenage sexuality is THERE and will not go away because you consider them to be non-adults. That’s another matter entirely. But skimming over homophobia and Nazism and … and … frankly, I can’t see how you would do that.

    I’m gay. I’ll admit it right now, so of course I’m going to take homophobia as offensive. BECAUSE IT IS. I don’t care if you meant it to be light and funny, it’s still offensive. In fact, the idea that you thought it would be okay to just take as a joke makes it all the more so! Would you like it if I felt that a heterosexual relationship was only worthy of being made the butt of some sarcastic joke? No, I doubt you would. I understand that you want your characters and their actions to be considered a stab at comedy and not seriousness, but it’s just not something to joke about.

    And I don’t mean to be rude to you because of this. I don’t care if you are straight or gay, black or white, Jewish or Christian. Making a joke at the expense of a minority is offensive. I never understood why people would think it’s okay to do, even if someone of the minority cracked the joke – it makes the situation less tense, true, but it’s still a situation. My main issue is that you are giving teens something to read that says, ‘Hey, having these issues is funny and not serious.’ Because it’s not. I was going to read your book, but I would rather have a book sending the message ‘It’s not nice or okay to have these feelings,’ rather than making them seem like a farce. Because being under the butt of those feelings is not a farce in any way, and while I don’t expect you to understand it, I expect you to respect it as both an author and a person.

  23. Akin says:

    @KMont

    Please don’t take it the wrong. I didn’t mean to offend. I was simply trying to put you in Daniel’s shows.

    The anonymous person above just wrote that the character, Hen, did reflect upon his assumption of Petra’s father as black and therefore capable of making him nervous. Hen describes himself as a “horrible human being.” That in effect completely cancels out the belief that Hen or the author is flippant about racism. But a lot of people who haven’t read the book wouldn’t know that. They would assume the worst, which is bad publicity for the author.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t discuss a book when it’s reviewed even if you haven’t read it. By all means do.

    I’m only saying, put yourself in the author’s shoes for one second. This is a book about friendship. You have a character who’s been dumped by his girlfriend and is having feelings for his best friend. And later on, you have another character who says this: “When we were little kids, ‘friend’ wasn’t a verb. You didn’t ‘friend’ someone. You had friends. It was only a noun. It didn’t multitask.” (and this is so true, but that’s an entirely different discussion lol).

    Now after the author has worked hard on the book, he releases it, people pick it up, and suddenly it’s about racism and homophobia. And the problem with these topics is it spreads like wild fire. Ana had the best intentions at heart, trust me. But Ana can’t control what other people think or say. If they come in here without reading the book they could get the wrong message, which is why Daniel made that statement.

    Again, I didn’t mean to offend you. I read all your replies before writing that reply.

    My hope is that people don’t blow this out of proportion. The book isn’t about racism or homobia or any of that, and it’s not an offensive take on these issues in MY opinion. Doesn’t mean you cant have a different opinion, but then to really have a well founded opinion about the book you have to READ it as a WHOLE book and not LOOK at snippets.

  24. Mo says:

    I dropped by after having seen a blurb about this on another site. I was curious about the book and the review given that it was a book that ended up with no grade.

    Admittedly, I have not read the book and I am new to Ana’s reviews, so I am coming in blind.

    My thoughts on the book (as reviewed by Ana) and this discussion follow:

    1. The book may be YA and in the words of the author, “not an issue book”, but it does raise issues for some people. In a way, then, while unintended, it does open the door for discussions to take place. It’s clear that people are now thinking about and talking about the implied feelings about these issues.

    2. On the issues themselves: We all agree that racism, homophobia, Nazism are bad things, or do we? There are plenty of people in this world who disagree that they are bad. So again, discussion is good. If a non-issues book portrays these things as neutral – or even good – to some of its characters, is it not simply echoing real life?

    3. On the comment about using humor to illustrate negative things, um? Well, in that case, let’s get rid of all political cartoons and satire. I assure you there are plenty of people who are offended by that as well. Humor/satire is one of the best ways to open dialogue about difficult issues. Even the Greeks knew this, based on their plays, and “A Modest Proposal” cannot be read with anything but the understanding that Jonathan Swift is in complete opposition to the very ideas he is putting forward.

    5. Why on earth would an author “just [to] not write problematic elements into their storytelling”? First, there is always someone who will disagree with something, so that is not possible and second that would make stories so bland as to be useless, even as escapism. Addressing things that make you uncomfortable makes you learn and grow and that is a very good thing.

    In the end, without meaning to, the author has facilitated a lively discussion about these issues and I, for one, think that is a good thing.

  25. Brent Taylor says:

    Hi all,

    Okay. If you follow my blog, you know I’m gay, and you know that I do all that I can to suppor the LGBT community. Me being such the advocate that I am, I don’t support homophobia or racism.

    I don’t see the author as being racist OR homophobic or wrong in any way. If you all who are commenting are writers or readers, you know that the character of a novel is completely different than the author his or herself. Characters I write are COMPLETELY different than me. They have different religious views, and different opinions. Same goes for those that I read.

    Sorry to break it to you, sweety’s, but this is 2010 America. We have a thing called “Freedom of Speech.” Daniel may write WHATEVER he wants. And so what if he’s racist or homophobic? He has a right to be, as an American. I’m not saying that I support being racist or homophobic. I’m saying has a right to believe in what he wants. AND to voice his opinion.

    As a gay book blogger, I’d be mad if someone told me, “You’re such a gay person. You think straight people suck. Stop blogging.”

    So how about you guys stop accusing Daniel of things?

    Xoxo,

    Brent a completely GAY PERSON

  26. katiebabs says:

    Daniel is more than welcome to write whatever he wants, but some subject matter should be taken into consideration by an agent, editor or publisher, especially when releasing such a book that maybe picked up by children and teens.

    Again, if someone can explain to me how a 22 yr old girl having a sexual relationship with an 84 yr old former Nazi can further the plot and make some sort of awareness to the reader, I am all ears.

  27. Sorry to break it to you, sweety’s, but this is 2010 America. We have a thing called “Freedom of Speech.” Daniel may write WHATEVER he wants. And so what if he’s racist or homophobic? He has a right to be, as an American.

    This is a discussion, not a censorship. None of us are exercising governmental power. Freedom of Speech means that you engage in the marketplace of ideas. Sometimes that means that people say that they don’t like your ideas.

    Freedom of Speech does not mean, and has never meant, freedom from criticism.

    It is completely ironic when people throw up freedom of speech as an argument to shut down discussion. Dude, that is not how free speech works.

  28. Akin says:

    @Katibabs:
    I don’t quite understand this question: “Again, if someone can explain to me how a 22 yr old girl having a sexual relationship with an 84 yr old former Nazi can further the plot and make some sort of awareness to the reader, I am all ears.”

  29. katiebabs says:

    Having a 22 yr old girl have sex with an 84 year old seems to me, to be more for shocks. By writing this plot, how does it move along the overall story?

  30. Ana says:

    Hi all, thanks for all the comments so far.

    I need to address two of them before going back and replying to all.

    First the anonymous comment: – I believe this is the author who probably just forgot to fill the details before posting

    There’s a passage that Ana left out of the review, which describes Hen’s feeling of guilt and shame over his reaction to the misidentification of Hen’s father–specifically in regards to racism. A discussion of that passage is something I’d love to see, though I won’t participate. It goes: “He was right: the fact that he was black had made me nervous. I was a horrible human being.” Again, taken out of its context within the scene skews it in a different light.
    But it’s important when discussing a work of fiction–and the issues therein–to look at the work as a whole. The more informed a discussion, the better.

    And Akin’s:

    The anonymous person above just wrote that the character, Hen, did reflect upon his assumption of Petra’s father as black and therefore capable of making him nervous. Hen describes himself as a “horrible human being.” That in effect completely cancels out the belief that Hen or the author is flippant about racism. But a lot of people who haven’t read the book wouldn’t know that. They would assume the worst, which is bad publicity for the author

    In my attempt to be completely fair about the book, I actually DID include the above passage, and even examine it – I quote, from the review :

    Now, the way I see it, these assertions made their way into the book either on “purpose” or by “accident”.
    The former, would be a form of addressing them with sarcasm as a way of emphasising their wrongness. This view can be supported by for example how Hen thinks about the racist incident: “the fact that he was black had made me nervous. I was a terrible human being”. But this is the only instance of self-awareness as far as I can tell unless you think those quotes are meant to be sarcastic themselves – I am not entirely convinced.
    The latter, it’s obviously the most problematic one. They are not meant to be taken seriously or in any negative way, they are just jokes, but when these things make their way,” innocently”, into books and people don’t think twice about them, that only helps perpetuating stupid stereotypes, bigotry and racism.

    I guess I should have put that into blockquotes as well and I will go back and edit to make it clear. But I think this illustrates beautifully the subject at hand. Two different commenters – including the author – did not read the review that carefully and still come here to discuss.
    I find that very ironic given how one of the subjects of this comment thread, brought up by the author – is how people should read the book first to then comment.

    Daniel Ehrenhaft also says:

    she’s missed a few crucial points, and has let the conversation slide away from something potentially productive

    I think this has been said ad nauseam all over the place but it bears repeating. What an author feels or think is “crucial” might not be what a reader perceives as “crucial”. Once your book has been published, it is out there to be discussed, dissected, argued over, etc and there is no telling what a reader will get from a book – or not. The same goes for reviews, I think and I didn’t “let the conversation slide away”, the conversation took shape and form on its own because people think and feel and react in different ways and I can’t regulate or expect or direct a discussion (well, I guess I could shut down the thread, but what would be the point of that?) any more than an author can tell me what is crucial or not.

    I hope I was fair when examining the book. I think I was, and I never intended to discuss the author (no accusations were made here by me or any of the commenters as far as I can tell) but to discuss the book. Which is what reviews are all about.

  31. Mo says:

    @katiebabs:

    You asked so I will try to answer the best way I know how. Have you or a friend ever wondered what it would like to be bad? Bad, like Bonnie and Clyde, bad like Dillinger? Ever wondered what it would be like to touch “bad” history, to meet a killer, to look them in the eye? Maybe you haven’t, but there are people out there who have, both adults and more importantly, teens.

    The fantasy of the forbidden is a very strong one. Here was this man, and she could indulge in the fantasy of the forbidden. And, if I am getting any idea of the plot, on top of that, it didn’t really matter since she could never go home anyway. Why not go completely to the bad side?

    This illustrates a further loss of “moral compass” as she has already done something or been party to something so awful as to never be able to go home again. She says to herself “Well, I’ve already made a mess of things, can’t make it any more worse. Why not find out what this is like? I already think so little of myself that it doesn’t really matter anymore anyway.”

    This is a fairly typical response, btw, of troubled teens.

    Maybe that helps a bit.

  32. Ana says:

    Lori says:

    I haven’t read the book and came over here via the link on Dear Author. But I’m very curious as to why the issues in a YA book are taken into this extreme in the same way they would be in a book aimed at an adult audience.

    Its been a long time since I was a teenager and I have a pre-teen daughter but I do know that in the teenage world there is only one star and that is self. So a book about a teenage boy wouldn’t necessarily delve into the ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefor’s’ if the character is a self involved teenager.

    I’m not really a YA reader because as an adult I prefer content that matches my interests and my life. But a YA book is to match the ideas and life of a ‘not yet adult’, yes? So within that context did the book match the teenage protagonist’s idea of self and self-involvement?

    Lori, I don’t know about other reviewers or readers but I read YA and Adult books the same way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. I think to discuss issues is important regardless of the age group a book is intended to. In fact I would argue it would be MORE important to discuss these issues when it comes to YA books.

    I am not sure that idea of self and self-involvement is a valid parameter to assess a book. I know many teens and YA who are very self-aware and aware of OTHERS (I was one of them) and I also know many adults who are much more self-involved than teenagers.

  33. Ana says:

    Akin – I am not sure people are pointing fingers at Daniel as much as we are pointing fingers at his book. I think this needs to be made very, very clear.

    Also, just because something is everywhere and all around, does not mean that we can’t discuss them. To me your comment reads as “it’s wrong , but it is all over the place, what can we do about it”. Perhaps it is ALL over the place because people will not discuss when these issues appear where they shouldn’t.

    Also, fact that the book is intended to be written as a farce does not mean that it has succeeced.

  34. Aja says:

    @ Akin,

    None of us get to pull out the “well *I* think it’s funny and therefore it’s okay” line with regard to potentially offensive material, be it regarding something within your own experience (eg racism) or something that falls outside it (eg homophobia). The reason is that the more people find these kind of jokes genuinely funny, the more people are taught and encouraged to think that real issues of racism and socio-cultural privilege aren’t important. It also encourages people to be insensitive to their own privilege. All of these things influence the development of a more racist and intolerant society.

    It’s important to talk about that. It’s even more important for the book blogging community to be willing & open to discussion about these elements in the book we read, because this is our community and our literary space, and the least we can do is try to improve them and make them safer & more welcoming for more people.

    It’s also important for YA authors to be aware that when they write fiction, they’re writing in a genre that *drastically* under-represents minorities, a genre where less than 2% of books have non-white faces on the cover.

    It’s especially important that *when* minorities are represented in fiction, it’s done in ways that don’t undermine them, whitewash them, appropriate them, or erase them.

    No one is saying that non-issue books *can’t* deal with or explore problematic elements, or portray flawed characters who have racist or privileged tendencies. But somewhere either the narrative or the metatext or *both* have to send the message that a flawed characterization is separate from the cultural representation of the whole book. If a book *doesn’t* do that, then at the very least it’s okay to say “this book could have dealt with this issue more effectively.” And at worst, it’s also a valid reaction to say “I don’t want to go near that writer, because this thing offended me and was not handled with sensitivity.”

    @ Mr. Ehrenhaft: Actually, Ana’s review did point out that the narrative character had a moment of remorse and self-awareness regarding his own privilege. She also pointed out that one moment of self-awareness did not really work to balance out the rest of the book’s privilege and casual hipster offensiveness.

    Also, I’d just like to add that treating the character’s moment of racism in blatantly hyperbolic terms (“I had a racist thought; ergo I AM A HORRIBLE HUMAN BEING”) is another kind of dismissal of hipster -ism. By *having* the character acknowledge it, you admit to the level of potential offensiveness; then you brush it off as not a big deal.

    You ask why we’re commenting on a book we haven’t read yet. Apart from the fact that the reviewer *asked* for feedback, the purpose of in part to help readers gauge whether or not they will enjoy a book. Well, I’m queer; I’m fat; I’m a woman. And none of the excerpts quoted in Ana’s review make me feel like any of these experiences are *safe* in your hands. I feel instead like your book will pelt me with snide sideswipes about my identity until I feel excluded from both the story and your intended audience.

    And yes, I *could* read your book and judge for myself whether Ana’s claims are enough to ruin the book or whether they’re born out by the book’s charm and narrative. But honestly, why? What’s in it for me? Why would I want to provide an audience for yet another book that might well dismiss me and my experiences as a reader, when I could be seeking out and reading books written by people who are actively subverting and writing actually progressive stories instead?

    *wanders off to buy a book by Courtney Milan*

  35. Mo says:

    @Aja:

    I fundamentally disagree with your comment that

    “It’s also important for YA authors to be aware that when they write fiction, they’re writing in a genre that *drastically* under-represents minorities, a genre where less than 2% of books have non-white faces on the cover.

    It’s especially important that *when* minorities are represented in fiction, it’s done in ways that don’t undermine them, whitewash them, appropriate them, or erase them.”

    In my opinion, what you are saying is that all YA authors should espouse specific ideals that *you* happen to agree with. What if they are more interested in an audience that does not include those things? What if they, for example, want an all white audience?

    In short, an author tells a compelling story best when they just write a story, and don’t necessarily think that they need an Asian person and an African-American person and a gay or lesbian person. Sometimes, that is just what the book needs and sometimes it isn’t; it just depends on the story.

    Just something to think about.

  36. Mo says:

    Darn! It occurred to me after I hit “Post Comment” that I should have added a caveat. I randomly chose minority groups as examples. There is no intent to show bias by having picked specific groups.

    Often in tv shows or books, there is the token non-white person. That is just as insulting, imo.

  37. Aja says:

    @Mo:

    your comment sounds really scarily as if you’re saying that the best stories only happen to white people.

    “non-white people should be more equally represented in media” is not really an *ideal* that I believe. non-white people exist. non-straight people exist. wanting them to be fairly represented isn’t some sort of political belief, it’s wanting my literature to reflect reality.

  38. Mo says:

    I take serious issue with what you just said. What I said was “What if the author isn’t choosing to write for that demographic and the author is only writing for white people or straight people?” If that is the case, it is not incumbent upon them to include minorities.

    Literature, and fiction in particular, may or may not reflect reality. That is the point to fiction: it’s not real.

  39. Mo says:

    Sorry, kind of answering piecemeal here.

    As for “the best stories only happen to white people”, precisely how do you manage to get that from my comment?

    Akeelah and the Bee is just one example of a great story that happens to happen to an African-American girl.

    What I said was that authors should not write people into stories because they feel that they “have to represent a diverse group of people”. African-American authors, for example, should not be mindful of adding white characters to their books because there are white people in the world. They should write what makes sense to their “book world” and if what makes sense is no white people, then so be it.

  40. Aja says:

    What I said was, “What if the author isn’t choosing to write for that demographic and the author is only writing for white people or straight people?”

    Then I would say the author can’t choose their audience. Just as Ana said, once the book is published, the author has NO CONTROL over reader reaction, or over who reads their books.

    And if an author *actually exists* who doesn’t earnestly want as many people as possible to read and enjoy their books, and connect to them, then they probably won’t care about the people they inadvertently offend.

    But for those of us who are offended, it is completely within our right to talk about *why*, both so that we can avoid buying books that offend, and so maybe we can educate ourselves on how not to write potentially offensive things, or be insensitive people.

    Ana i will stop spamming your comment page now. <3

  41. Mo says:

    @Aja:

    I most certainly agree that we should discuss why a book is offensive to us. That is part and parcel of reviewing and discussing a book.

    I think that one of the great gifts the world can give us is the ability to discuss differing views. To that end, I often find myself willing to be offended for the sake of learning about other people, how they think, and why they think that way. I don’t believe there is a book out there that isn’t in some way offensive to someone somewhere. And sometimes, being offensive is the best way to get a discussion going about divisive subjects. Otherwise, we all sit and agree and never learn anything about ourselves or others.

  42. Akin says:

    @ Aja and Ana,

    I never said people shouldn’t discuss the book. That’s the whole point of reviews: so people can discuss the book afterwards.

    I only stated my opinion, which is that I don’t find the things Ana pointed too insulting, and that there is a danger of people miscontruing the book’s purpose or plot – a boy who struggles with the secret his family is keeping from him and his growing romantic feelings for his best friend – and seeing it as an racist, homophobic piece of trash., when it really isn’t. I’m not saying that’s what people see it as, I’m just saying there is a danger of people seeing it that way.

    With respect to representation of minorities, yes, YA authors should be mindful. However, that doesn’t mean they should sell away their creative licence. Hen says he’s not gay when his sister asks him why he doesn’t have guy friends. That’s very accurate. A lot of guys would say that. It has nothing to do with being homophobic, and I’m sorry if that’s how you see it, or if any gay person sees it, but that’s just how it is. If someone asked me why I’m not watching Sex and the city, I’d say because I’m not a girl. I’m not sexist; I just feel girls love Sex and The City more than guys, and the subject matter of the movie isn’t really my thing as a guy.

    Should YA authors avoid writing guy characters in a certain way because some people might find it offensive? Well, I guess that’s up for discussion.

    The only thing in the book I could look at and say, “ok that offends me,” is the black guy thing. But then it’s been pointed out in the review that Hen reflects on his behaviour. Maybe the author should have spent one paragraph on the issue, instead of one line, but I really don’t think, giving that the book is a farce book, that Hen could go on and on and on, page after page, thinking about how he shouldn’t treat black people bad, when the book really isn’t about that.

    Again, just my respectful opinion. Anyone’s free to disagree.

  43. Brent Taylor says:

    Courtney Milan-

    Then you misunderstood me. I mean, people should not be telling Daniel what he can or can’t write. As said, he can write what he wants!

    I’m sorry that your opinion of Freedom of Speech is different than mine, and that you can’t even try to consider being in Daniel’s position.

  44. danielle says:

    Okay, speaking as a teenager–yes, we’re cruel bastards. Yes, we laugh at really insulting things and we can be kind of racist (depending on what region we’re from), and we’re shallow and there are a great many things wrong with us. And I have no doubt plenty of people in the age group will find this book hilarious. But I, as this book’s target audience, find it kind of insulting that someone would portray young adults as ignorant vehicles for Nazi quirks (or whatever). In fact, this happens quite a lot. Kids are underestimated and treated in books like they literally know nothing about anything, that is something major happens we can just sit there and except it or throw a fit about how unfair life is. I haven’t read this book, but the way Ana describes it its striking me as kind of ridiculous.

    Sorry if that made no sense o.O

  45. I’m sorry that your opinion of Freedom of Speech is different than mine, and that you can’t even try to consider being in Daniel’s position.

    Some things are questions of opinion–like, do you prefer Twitter or Facebook? Chocolate or vanilla?

    The question of what free speech means in this country is, however, not a matter of opinion, but one of fact.

    This is what freedom of speech really means: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

    Justice Brandeis, concurring in Whitney v. California (Brandeis’s standards were subsequently adopted by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio).

    This is not my opinion. It is the law of the land.

    You think you know what free speech means? Go read Brandenburg v. Ohio and look at the conduct that the Supreme Court rules is protected by freedom of speech. Some of the things that are said in that case are so hateful I can’t bring myself to repeat them. It is hard to even think them in my own head. Read them. Read them twice. Read them three times.

    And then ask yourself if freedom of speech will ever protect you from having someone spew homophobia on your blog.

    Free speech is not pretty. It doesn’t make you safe. It doesn’t keep you from getting your feelings hurt. Free speech is a nasty, dangerous, double-edged sword, and the only remedy that we have as a people to wrong and dangerous speech is not to shut down speech that we disagree with, but to counteract it with more speech.

    You have every right to disagree with me, and good for you for speaking up. You’ll notice that nobody–not one person–told you to shut up. Nobody told Daniel Ehrenhaft that they would force him to write a different book on pain of death.

    Some people criticized the book that he wrote. Others said, “I don’t want to read this kind of book.” That is an exercise of freedom of speech.

  46. Daniel Ehrenhaft says:

    Hi everyone: I think I owe you all an apology. This is the first time I’ve ever argued with a review, and upon looking at my posts with fresh eyes this morning, I realize I come off as sounding at best defensive, and at worst, stupid. I’ve certainly learned my lesson! Although I am grateful that FRIEND IS NOT A VERB has sparked such an interesting discussion…I had no idea it ever would lead a review could lead to contemplation of issues of freedom of speech. I’m sad that some of you feel the need to boycott my books, but maybe one day you’ll reconsider and take a look at them. Thanks again!

  47. Margie Johnson says:

    Courtney Milan, You are coming off as very, very close-minded and RUDE. While yes, Free Speech IS a law, not an opinion, it means different things to different people. It can be interpreted in many different ways. I have no clue why you feel the need to single Brent out. He was stating his views of Free Speech, and you tried to say, “No, you’re wrong. My views are correct.” I can assure you that I will NEVER pick up one of your novels, and that I’ll tell my friends to stay away from them. I don’t rad authors who think they know everything.

  48. orangehands says:

    Aja & Courtney Milan & Ana: Just wanted to say I loved your responses.

  49. Anonymous says:

    I really liked this book, but then again, I took it very lightly. I didn’t read into it too much because of what you said, they are teenagers and it was all meant to be quirky. Does that excuse some of the things you brought up… nope. BTW, thanks for the in depth insight. I like seeing things from another POV. It really opens up the mind. :D

    P.S. Yeah, the whole reason of leaving and the why of it was insane! As were Hen’s parents.

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