The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartUpdated March 7, 2023 to add: The Words We Keep won the 2023 Schneider Family Book Award from ALA. The award is “given to an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” If you keep reading, you’ll see I don’t dispute that Stewart does an excellent job portraying Lily’s anxiety disorder. But doing one thing well doesn’t mean a book does everything well nor does it excuse problematic elements.

Three months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t.

Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including casual transphobic-leaning comments from characters and numerous spoilers:

I want to start by saying that problematic elements in a book in no way imply that the author shares these beliefs or is pushing a similar agenda. That said, I found enough concerns that The Words We Keep is not a book I would recommend to anyone without explaining the flaws in the story–things that I felt even more important to point out as the book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from professional review sources.

In a note at the end of the novel Stewart talks about a lot of Lily’s anxiety disorder and how its portrayal comes directly from Stewart’s own lived experience. Assuming best intentions on the part of the author, my guess is that in translating her own history with anxiety as a teen, Stewart failed to factor in changes to best practices for dealing with mental illness, changing attitudes toward mental health, or how either of those things would be handled in a modern school setting. Not to mention changing social norms therein.

The book opens with Lily finding her older sister, Alice, in the bathroom after Alice has tried to kill herself. Alice is sent away to a mental health center for treatment where she is diagnosed as bipolar. Alice is in college at the time although she had come home during her first semester needing “a break.” After all of this the family tells no one and claims Alice is taking time off from college. No one at Lily’s school knows about the trauma. There is no aspect of counseling or therapy for the family–not even Lily who found her sister before their father rushed Alice to the hospital.

Three months after the incident Alice comes home early from treatment. There is no visible support or guidance from the mental health facility or Alice’s medical team except vague comments that she is on an assortment of medications and going to therapy (something she wants to stop when it is not working which becomes a subplot of the book). Alice’s father and step-mother have no guidance for themselves or for Lily and younger sister Margot on how to handle the situation and best support Alice while she re-adjusts.

Lily and her classmates have intense stigmas attached to mental illness. When Micah, who eventually becomes Lily’s love interest, is first introduced the classroom gossip mill starts spreading rumors about him almost immediately as everyone knows he spent time at a mental health facility. Everyone, including Lily at first, refers to him as “Manic Micah” and constantly wonder if he will “lose it” and freak out on classmates. Lily is further concerned that Micah will reveal the secret that Alice as at the same facility. This thread is interrogated a bit as Lily gets to know Micah but it takes half the book for that to start to happen or for Lily to realize she is part of the problem.

A lot of these themes with mental health are developed and explored as Alice finds a treatment plan that works. Lily’s anxiety is diagnosed and she begins her own therapy and learning better ways to cope than self-harm which is her main coping strategy for much of the book often in the form of scratching herself until she bleeds.

I’d be willing to chalk a lot of the above up to writerly choices but the book, unfortunately, repeatedly features casual transphobia.

Lily makes a point of describing Alice pre-Night-on-the-Bathroom-Floor as loud and exuberant with big, long hair and a penchant for bright colors. When Alice comes home Lily is distressed to find that Alice has changed leading to the remark that “Her hair is short. Boy short.” which (I hope) is intended as an offhand descriptor but is also extremely heteronormative and falls into a distressing pattern of transphobic comments from the characters as even the possibility of nonbinary or trans identities is erased or dismissed without interrogation from any of the main characters.

Lily’s younger sister Margot is ten-years-old and currently obsessed with Harry Potter. She is reading their mother’s old books that she found storage and deep enough in the fandom to dress in wizard robes and also wonder if Alice is dealing with her own figurative Dementors (trying to suck out of her joy). Consequently references to Harry Potter are an undercurrent throughout the story that feels unnecessary–particularly in 2022 with more and more examples of JKR’s political leanings as deeply transphobic. (Read more about my current feelings on Harry Potter here: We need to talk about J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and why it’s time to say goodbye to both.) Aside from that, Harry Potter is twenty years old making it a dated reference that, again, points to a lack of attention to modern teen life.

The book’s main plot involves Lily and Micah working together as “guerrilla poets” leaving affirming poetry around their school and neighborhood anonymously. Lily gets the idea for the project after she pastes a collage poem on the back of a stall in one of the girls’ restrooms at her school which leads to what I could only interpret as a transphobic conversation between Lily and her academic rival, Kali, who is trying to discern the identity of the anonymous poet. When Micah asks how Kali knows the poet is a girl her immediate reply is “Because it’s in the girls’ bathroom.” Intentions aside, I can’t see any way to read this as anything but alarmingly unaware of recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and, again, transphobic. Honestly, when there are literal bills about bathrooms (read more about them here: 4 Big Problems With Anti-Trans Bathroom Bills – and How You Can Help) I’m not sure how this conversation even made it to print.

Readers familiar with YA literature might recognize the similarities in plot (and cover and title) to Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone from 2015. Main character Samantha is dealing with OCD rather than the anxiety that Lily learns to manage but the plot and theme of finding solace in poetry remain similar for readers looking for a comparable title that requires fewer caveats.

Possible Pairings: Madness by Zac Brewer, Off the Record by Camryn Garrett, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Baby & Solo by Lisabeth Posthuma, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration.

2 thoughts on “The Words We Keep: A Review

  1. this is good to know — thanks for sharing! i wasn’t planning to read because it’s not really what i’m interested in right now, but i appreciate your well thought out review in case i do ever come across it.

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