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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Thriller meant to entertain.
Eventually the truth will come out.
Positive Role Models
A few students show genuine concern about questionable behavior. Some students try to do the right thing. Others try ot cover up a murder. The cast is diverse, with two Chinese American teen girls as main characters, and other classmates who are Chinese American, Korean American, and Indian American.
The main character is a straight, Asian American teen girl. Other characters are Chinese American, Korean American, and Indian American, although not much is made about their races. Aside from one brief scene of racist behavior toward Asians (a student suggests that an Asian student is "naturally" smarter at math), race, sexuality, and gender do not figure in the story. Socioeconomic class differences do appear, but not much is discussed beyond how the few students who are on scholarship are from immigrant families and/or "poor" families. There are a few mentions of the main character's parents wanting her to succeed because of how hard they worked to be able to send her to such a prestigious school.
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Violence & Scariness
A few teen suicide stories are mentioned. A teen's "murder" is mysteriously referred to throughout the entire book. A teen catches on fire and dies. Another teen mentions her past experiences with self-harming.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A teen girl has an inappropriate relationship with a student teacher who's 20-years-old. No sex is described, but "hooking up," making out, and "staying over" are mentioned. Some boys are rumored to have visited strip clubs and slept with sex workers. Teen girls rank teen boys' hotness.
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One use of "s--t."
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Products & Purchases
Mention of Fortnite, Barbie.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A teen has an Adderall addiction and also sells it to others.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Katie Zhao's How We Fall Apart is a young adult novel for older teens. Parts mystery, thriller, and dark academia, this high school drama contains depictions of teen suicide, self-harm, violence, panic attacks, drug use, and an inappropriate student-teacher relationship (he's 20, she's 16). While the older man turns out to be unreliable, there's no commentary or regret shown by the teen girl about the nature of the relationship, only that she's disappointed that he didn't back her up when she needed him to. The main characters also spend the majority of the novel trying to coverup a possible murder, and their actions prioritize their ill deeds not being found out, which also include drug use and selling, academic cheating and plagiarizing, and abusing/displaying bullying behavior toward others. Teen girls rank boys' hotness, teen relationships are gossiped about and dramatized, and teens make out and "hook up."
Is It Any Good?
The structure of this thriller provides a decent platform for revealing secrets, but most of the thrills are shallow. And the mystery Gossip Girl-like social media plot driver seems a bit too familiar. The character development in How We Fall Apart is thin, too. The cast is diverse, but there's no theme or thread that involves race, gender, sexuality, or class on a deep level. There's just one very brief scene of someone confronting racist behavior.
Most troubling, however, is how the novel depicts the inappropriate student-teacher relationship between Nancy and Peter. Every time Peter is mentioned, thought about, or remembered, Nancy slips into a kind of, "well, he's so hot, so it is all justified" trance. There are no consequences or self-awareness on the part of Nancy, and the only reason she stops being involved with Peter is because he doesn't come through when she needs him, not because the nature of the relationship is inappropriate for many reasons or because Peter is a creepy older man trying to have an illegal sexual relationship with a 16-year-old.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
Suggest an Update
Our Editors Recommend
Books with Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Characters
Thriller Books for Teens
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.See how we rate