What I Leave Behind
Genre: Contemporary, Grief, YA
Publication date: May 15th, 2018
by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.
Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.
When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread.
-A copy was provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers for review-
I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected when I started What I Leave Behind and while I haven’t made my mind about the actual content of the book, I was pleasantly surprised by the format?? I am not even sure if there a word to describe the style but the story is told in these short snapshots into Will’s mind that are somehow able to paint a bigger picture even though less words are used.
So. What I Leave Behind is the story of Will. It’s been three years since his father committed suicide and he is still processing the trauma while trying to recreate his father’s infamous cornbread. When his friend is raped, he decides that he needs to do something. His need to do something starts to awaken him from his depressive slumber and he starts responding again to the world around him.
I think part of my issue is that while the book is about Will processing his own trauma, it uses Playa’s–his friend–rape as a crucial point in Will’s narrative. There is this moment where Will’s boss Tom apologizes to Will for what happened and that made me uncomfortable because it wasn’t Will’s trauma. The issue for me wasn’t that it wasn’t Playa’s story but how this traumatic event was used to aid Will’s story arc.
There was an instance where the “wise old Asian lady” trope was employed and the wise old lady spoke in broken English and was a generic Asian which was was cool. By which I mean not cool at all. This happens so frequently in books and media and general and I feel like so many of us have internalized it but I am trying to be better about calling these things out because it is important!
Anyway, moving on. I do think that What We Leave Behind is an impeccable exploration of grief and trauma. It isn’t about getting to the point where everything is okay and there is an HEA. What We Leave Behind places importance on the process of healing and understanding trauma. It’s not about getting to the point where everything is okay, it is about being in the process of being okay someday.
Will’s awakening is about him starting to notice the little things his mom has been doing for the past three years, its about him saying him connecting to the people in his environment like the butterfly man and Superman. What We Leave Behind is also about Will reconnecting to old friends who he kind of cut out of his life after everything went down with his father.
Overall, this book certainly has some good things going for it and a worthy read for younger readers (it reads more Middle Grade than Young Adult) but I also think its worth talking about how Playa’s trauma is used as a way for Will to work towards healing.