THE HALF-ORPHAN'S HANDBOOK Book Review by Auriane Desombre

The Half-Orphans Handbook

by Joan F. Smith

For fans of John Green and Emily X.R. Pan, The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is a coming-of-age story and an empathetic, authentic exploration of grief with a sharp sense of humor and a big heart.

It’s been three months since Lila lost her father to suicide. Since then, she’s learned to protect herself from pain by following two unbreakable rules:

1. The only people who can truly hurt you are the ones you love. Therefore, love no one.

2. Stay away from liars. Liars are the worst.

But when Lila’s mother sends her to a summer-long grief camp, it’s suddenly harder for Lila to follow these rules. Potential new friends and an unexpected crush threaten to drag her back into life for the first time since her dad’s death.

On top of everything, there’s more about what happened that Lila doesn’t know, and facing the truth about her family will be the hardest part of learning how a broken heart can love again.

About the Author

Joan F. Smith lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she works as an associate dean, a creative writing professor, and a dance instructor. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, and has written articles for The Washington Post and Thought Catalog on destigmatizing discussions around mental health and suicide prevention. The Half-Orphan's Handbook is her first novel. ​ Twitter: @jf_smit

Auriene's Review

Joan F. Smith’s The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is a profound and heartfelt story that follows sixteen year old Lila, who lost her father to suicide three months ago. In the wake of her grief, Lila has put up walls in the form of a handbook, rules that guide her to ensure she doesn’t have to go through this pain again. The first two are simple: love no one, since only those you love can truly hurt you, and stay away from liars.

The rules work, until her mom sends her to a grief camp, where she’s forced to spend the summer with other teens who have experienced loss. Lila doesn’t want to go, but she finds herself making new friends, and even runs into an unexpected crush in the form of Noah, a fellow camper Lila falls for over the course of the summer.

Smith’s prose is lyrical and gorgeous, perfectly lending weight and grace to Lila’s internality as she guides us through her world. In part because of the stunning writing, and because of her wit and sensibility, I fell in love with Lila as soon as I met her. She’s navigating a mess of emotions after losing her father in such a painful way, and Smith handles Lila’s grief, anger, and sadness with deft skill.

Lila’s emotional journey is heart wrenching but laced with hope, and I have no doubt that her path to healing and finding a way to return to living and laughing without guilt is sure to move and help all readers. I loved how Smith didn’t shy away from the messiness of Lila’s feelings, showing the difficulty and hard work that goes into working through grief and tackling loss.

In a story tackling such heavy emotions, Smith brings Lila help in the form of new friendships and connections, filling Lila’s world with a vibrant and diverse supporting cast. Through the summer-long grief camp, Lila connects with other teens who, like her, are living in the aftermath of an unthinkable loss. Watching the found family that grew out of their shared mourning was my favorite part of the book, and I loved seeing the friendships that gave Lila the strength to face her own grief head on. Noah was a wonderful love interest, and the depth of the blossoming relationship between him and Lila was such a joyous and heartfelt thread in the book.

In her stunning debut, Smith presents an important, moving story and unforgettable cast of characters that are sure to resonate with readers. I give it a wholehearted five stars!

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Auriane Desombre is the author of I Think I Love You, and currently works as a sixth grade teacher. She holds an MA in English Literature from NYU and an MFA Creative Writing for Children & Young Adults from The New School. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Sammy, who is a certified bad boy. ​ Twitter: @aurianedesombre