What Happens Next

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
What Happens Next Book Poster Image
Anorexia, ballet, and sisterhood meld in uneven tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows potential effects of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, the dangers and treatment. Abby loves stargazing and knows a good amount about constellations, the names of which are mentioned, and some details about what they look like are laid out, along with a few facts like "Saturn would float if you put it in water." Dr. Leo Lacamoire is an astronomer who teaches Abby a little about what he knows, but he's more focused on seeing how Abby can help him. Abby spends a lot of time in the library. Ballets "Giselle," "The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake," "Coppelia" are mentioned.

Positive Messages

The heart hopes. Having sisters can be hard, but it's worth the effort and pain.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Abby and her family present as White. Harriett the librarian, who's Black, is kind to Abby. Mention of "The Lord," going to Mass, and quotes from the local pastor are peppered throughout the text.

Violence

Teen is in a car accident because she fainted from hunger while driving. Details are not given.

Sex
Language

"Crap," "pissed," "suck."

Consumerism

Harry Styles, Google Earth. Star Wars and its many spin-offs, Joffrey Ballet, NASA, Banana Boat, iPhone, Misty Copeland, iPads, Skype, The Beatles, Instagram, BuzzFeed, Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Goodnight Moon, Number the Stars, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, Cheetos, Cheez-Its, MIT, Twilight, Macy's, Rockefeller tree, Band Aid, National Geographic, Weather Channel, History Channel, Time magazine, Coke, Mountain Dew, TED talk, Netflix, White House, Thomas the Tank Engine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, Voldemort, Hallmark Channel, Museum of Science and Industry, Barbie doll, Cocoa Puffs, Honey Nut Cheerios, Yale, Pretty Little Liars, Enegizer Bunny, Target, Walmart, Icees, Starbucks, Dolly Parton, CNN, Twitter, Sour Patch Kids, Macbeth, King Lear, Happy Meal.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

References to drunken college kids on vacation. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that in Claire Swinarski's What Happens Next, 12-year-old Abby McCourt lives in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, in a very small town named Moose Junction. Her oldest sister, Blair, 18, is a topic of conversation for the small town, first because her trajectory as a ballet dancer was admired, and later because her eating disorder changed the way she acted and the way she looked. Blair suffers from anorexia nervosa, and her struggle is outlined in detail, with many scenes of Blair and her mom fighting and crying over food. Abby meets a visitor at one of their family's rental cabins named Dr. Leo Lacamoire, an MIT professor and NASA astronomer, who, along with his assistant, Simone, ask -- and later force -- Abby to do something illegal. She feels as if she can't get out of it, and ends up breaking the law under pressure from two adults who are essentially strangers. Strong language is limited to "crap," "pissed," "suck."

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What's the story?

In WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, Abby McCourt is excited for the solar eclipse that's putting her small town in northern Wisconsin on the map. As an avid stargazer, Abby is thrilled that she'll be front and center for the big event. But her sister, Blair, has a "freak out" over a cupcake in front of the whole town during the Memorial Day event, which leads their parents to send Blair to an eating disorder treatment center. Blair's obsession with ballet has taken her to the brink -- she feels she can't just be great, she has to "be the best." In Blair's mind, being the best means being super skinny and nailing every audition. The intensity of her obsession and her eating disorder are affecting the whole family. Meanwhile, a famous astronomer rents a cabin in the family's resort, and Abby is asked to do something that could get her into real trouble. Will she act on her moral principle, or is she too concerned with rewards that might come her way? 

Is it any good?

Focused on explaining, rather than showing, this effort to confront the effects of eating disorders on a family is poorly constructed. Moving back and forth through time, What Happens Next  has some good moments, but lots of head scratchers. Blair's obsession and her disease seep into everything she touches, and her family walk on eggshells around her. This is true to life, and her youngest sister, Abby, is genuinely concerned. However, the timeline jumps back and forth in a way that feels stagey, and the story lacks the subtleties of developed characters.

Most disconcerting is the fact that Abby admits late in the book -- spoiler alert -- that she's a liar and chastises the reader for believing her story so far. "I am a liar, remember? I told you that, way back on page one. It's not my fault you didn't listen, you should trust people when they tell you what they are," she scolds. This revelation feels more like a bizarre excuse than an exciting reveal. Also, when Abby is physically and mentally coerced by adults to dig up a time capsule, her compliance feels strange and wrong. If the focus remained on the pain and healing that needs to happen in her family, and less on her own lies and the confusing subplot, this story could have had a bigger impact. As it is, it feels pieced together.    

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how an eating disorder is portrayed in What Happens Next. Does it seem realistic? How are healthy relationships to food portrayed in movies and TV?  Which shows help you learn more about being healthy? Which shows emphasize an unhealthy relationship with food?

  • Abby's sister, Blair, is obsessed with ballet. She bleeds, bends, contorts, and pushes herself until she literally collapses. When does a fun or exciting activity become an obsession? How can perfectionism be damaging?

  • Are there any other books that you can think of where the narrator is untrustworthy? Does it make a difference to how the reader feels if the narrator is telling the truth or not?

Book details

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