Cover of Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum

About the Book

Title: Hope And Other Punchlines
Published: 2019
Swoonworthy Scale: 4

Cover Story: What Else Can You Do?
BFF Charm: Let Me Love You x2
Talky Talk: We’ll Never Forget
Bonus Factors: Comedy In Grief
Relationship Status: Hug It Out

Cover Story: What Else Can You Do?

The watercolor background is pretty. It feels like it has nothing to do with this book unless those paints got smeared because of someone crying all over them. I imagine this was probably a tough one to craft, because there’s so many things that could end up being way too treacly for the subject matter. Perhaps a blurred recreation of the Baby Hope photo from the book? A red balloon? I’m starting to see why they went with watercolors…

The Deal:

Her name is Abbi Goldstein, but if you were to see her on the street, you’d probably feel compelled to call her by her world-famous moniker: Baby Hope. An image of Abbi was captured on September 11, right in front of the World Trade Center, her holding on to a red balloon as she was carried to safety by her caregiver. There are other survivors in the photo, but the public latched on to that specific image of Abbi’s childlike innocence and resilience as something to rally around. Even now, almost sixteen years later, Abbi, who lives in one of the hardest hit towns in New Jersey, is regularly stopped in grocery aisles and department stores to give out hugs and listen patiently as people sob into her shoulder while they tell her where they were that day. It’s a weighty responsibility to be a symbol of hope for such a horrific act.

So this summer, Abbi wants out. She takes a job at a kid’s camp a few towns over where hopefully no one knows who she is, where she can simply be Abbi, teenage girl, full stop. Because this may be her last summer to really live—especially if that persistent cough that’s developed is what she thinks it is. Her time as that symbol of hope may be coming to an abrupt end. But then, to her horror, someone at camp does recognizes her: Noah, a guy from her high school, with some secrets of his own. Before he thinks over what he’s doing, he’s blackmailing her into helping him with a project about 9/11 in exchange for keeping Abbi’s identity a secret. You know, sometimes life? It really isn’t fair.

BFF Charm: Let Me Love You x2

BFF charm with teary eyes hugging a heart

All things considered, Abbi’s turned out pretty normal. She’s tired of being recognized, but to her credit, she is always gracious when it happens. What isn’t exactly copasetic is how often she’s had to think about death in her life. She thinks she’s super okay with getting an extra fifteen years, like all that time has just been on loan since September 11, 2001, so what’s a few more months of not telling her parents about her bad cough that will almost certainly kill her? Uh, it could mean life or death, bebe!! Go to a doctor! I understood her bone-headed decision even though I totally could not support it.

BFF charm with teary eyes hugging a heart

Noah, on the other hand, vastly needs some open family discussion and a lot of therapy. The poor boy is convinced that one of the men in the Baby Hope photo is his father, and since everyone else in that photo lived, then that must mean his dad didn’t die at the World Trade Center either. So instead…he decided to abandon his wife and newborn and let everyone think he died? I definitely don’t believe Noah’s really examined all the possibilities. He is a fifteen-year-old boy, though, and he’s got some time to figure it all out. 

And an honorary BFF charm for Noah’s best friend, Jordan, for being an amazing friend. <3 you, boo.

Swoonworthy Scale: 4

Abbi and Noah are some character rarities from YA fiction who come across as their actual ages. Both read pretty young, so their burgeoning relationship felt like you were along for the ride as two newbies get a crash course in first love. It was sweet, but not swoony. There’s also a lot of heavy stuff happening in and around their relationship, and it was tough sometimes to switch gears from sad to making out.

Talky Talk: We’ll Never Forget

I am a bit emotionally wrung out. Reading this book during September, during the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, well, it was a timely move, if not my smartest. I am grateful that I personally did not lose anyone close to me, but as a human I still grieve for everyone lost and everyone who had to be there that day. This book can feel a bit crazy to an Old like me, because the main characters don’t remember the day, September 11, 2001. Abbi was a year old and Noah only days old, and while they’ve grown up with the direct effects of the attack, they come at it with a very different perspective than I do. At one point, Noah ruminates about the 9/11 Memorial Museum and how he finds the whole thing kind of tawdry and voyeuristic. I kind of wonder if he’d feel the same if he went to, say, a memorial for Pearl Harbor, another event that launched us into an unimaginable war. At some point, the visceral present becomes long-distance history, but isn’t it important to preserve those memories to inform future generations and, hopefully, help them choose different paths?

That insight from Noah came closer to the beginning of the book, and between that and Abbi’s exhaustion about being Baby Hope, I really wasn’t connecting to these characters right away. Certain plot points like Noah’s passion project weren’t well explained, as I don’t think it was supposed to be a secret from the reader—the fact that he thought one of the survivors was his dad—for as long as it felt. Some other plot lines heavily relied on people keeping important info from one another, and I was getting frustrated with said people.

It wasn’t until Abbi and Noah began interviewing the other people in the Baby hope photograph that I started to feel emotionally punched by this book, and then I pretty much sobbed my way through Noah’s mom’s grief and Abbi’s parents’ PTSD. I can’t say this was the best book on grief that I’ve read, but it is one of the first YA novels I’ve read that has focused on the aftermath of September 11. I doubt it’s going to be the last as we continue to process this moment of history and try to parse through the awful emotions that came from it. 

Bonus Factor: Comedy In Grief

Fleabag in the street with mascara running down her face

Noah loves comedy. It’s his comfort when he doesn’t know what to say or he’s overwhelmed with how he feels. He’s striving to be the first comedian to make a genuinely funny 9/11 joke (because there’s always comedy in tragedy, but…that’s gonna have to be one amazingly crafted joke, dude). Laughing can be the body’s reaction to shock, to when you don’t know what to say, and sometimes, no matter where the laugh comes from, just being able to crack a smile and/or cry at the same time can be cathartic.

Relationship Status: Hug It Out

We may have started off strangers, Book, but you opened up and showed me your deepest hurts. I think you could use a hug or five, and, hey, let me get you the name of a really nice therapist.

Literary Matchmaking

My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece

If you want a well-done book about grief and moving on after a terrorist act that will put you through the emotional wringer, Annabel Pitcher’s novel My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece is simply superb.

The Beginning of After

Jennifer Castle’s The Beginning of After also made me sob like nobody’s business, and it featured

Letters to the Lost (Letters to the Lost #1)

Declan and Juliet have a swoony You’ve Got Mail-esque romance and emotionally-wrought home lives in Brigid Kemmerer’s fantastic Letters to the Lost (which also made me cry. That is the theme of this Literary Matchmaking, if you haven’t gotten that by now).

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Delacorte Press. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. Hope and Other Punch Lines is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.