Who Put This Song On is an honest exploration of the intersection of mental illness and Blackness circa 2008 that probably shouldn’t have been a novel.
Trapped in sunny, stifling, small-town suburbia, seventeen-year-old Morgan knows why she’s in therapy. She can’t count the number of times she’s been the only non-white person at the sleepover, been teased for her “weird” outfits, and been told she’s not “really” black. Also, she’s spent most of her summer crying in bed. So there’s that, too.
Lately, it feels like the whole world is listening to the same terrible track on repeat—and it’s telling them how to feel, who to vote for, what to believe. Morgan wonders, when can she turn this song off and begin living for herself?
Life may be a never-ending hamster wheel of agony, but Morgan finds her crew of fellow outcasts, blasts music like there’s no tomorrow, discovers what being black means to her, and finally puts her mental health first. She decides that, no matter what, she will always be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious. After all, darkness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Darkness is just real.
Well… there you have it.
Usually, if the synopsis from the jacket copy gives away too much of the plot of a book, I won’t include it and provide a brief description myself. The synopsis for Who Put This Song On? essentially summarizes the entire book, but I’m leaving it in
It’s the sort of book where the details of the plot are purely incidental–
I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. When a book is digging so deep into the headspace of serious struggle, it can be a good choice to keep the story simple and foreground voice. Yes, the book is predictable–very little happens, and what does sticks to tried-and-true after-school-special formulas. But this is a book about hope, about
Who Put This Song On? succeeds at drilling that message home.
Morgan’s mind is an unpleasant place to be. Her depression has triggered a vicious spiral: the more pain she’s feeling, the more self-absorbed she becomes, the more unkind and alienated she is, the more depressed she becomes, and so on. That central tension reminded me of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which also addressed (more pointedly) the fact that mental illness can make it easy to be a bad friend, and that isn’t completely the person’s fault… but it is a problem for them to handle.
That’s a worthwhile and under-examined focus for YA. Who Put This Song On? doesn’t spend as much time on that theme as Turtles does, but there’s still lots of payoff for the time the reader spends immersed in Morgan’s thoughts. It’s only because we deeply understand where Morgan is coming from that moments of emotional impact hit as hard as they do. The dismissive comments and racial microaggressions might not have much of an impact in third person, but because we’re so tuned-in to what they mean to Morgan, they get the weight they deserve.
At times, The Who Put This Song On? becomes preachy and condescending. Even by the end, Morgan’s perspective is still largely black-and-white and self-focused, but I can forgive it for
There’s a clear reason that Morgan’s character feels so fleshed-out and honest. Morgan the character is Morgan Parker, the author. The longer version of the publisher synopsis ends with this sentence:
Loosely based on her own teenage life and diaries, this incredible debut by award-winning poet Morgan Parker will make readers stand up and cheer for a girl brave enough to live life on her own terms–and for themselves.”
That said… the marketing for this book keeps touting the fact that it is based on the author’s girlhood diaries as a good thing, but I’m not convinced that’s always something to brag about.
Novelization is the wrong form for this story.
Who Put This Song On? is Morgan Parker’s YA debut and prose fiction debut. She’s entering the YA fiction space after establishing a career as a poet with critically-acclaimed works like There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce.
Jumping to a new target audience and an entirely different form at the same time is difficult, and I’m not convinced that Parker pulls it off. I think this story would have been much more successful as a short story or
More importantly, I don’t think the strange in-between blend of narrative nonfiction and fiction serves Morgan Parker well here.
Semi-autobiographical YA fiction often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If it’s not done exceedingly well, it just feels cheap to me. Other recent Young Adult novels like Me Myself & Him and Rebel Girls try to repackage an adult’s reminiscences of teenagehood as a novel, but neglect storytelling essentials in favor of self-satisfaction.
The impulse to novelize episodes from one’s own teenage years is dangerous for YA writers. It can help authors new to writing for teens to connect with that age group, sure, but it also invites a deadly bias. Everyone feels that their thoughts are fascinating and their experiences are powerful. (Offrrom my 1-star review of Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan
coursethey are when they happen to you!) But that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good novel as-is.”
Lifting quotes from an old diary for a YA novel might sound like a good idea–after all, what’s going to be more authentic for a teen voice that an actual teens voice? But diaries and novels are starkly different modes. Parker is working from
There’s one big exception to that impression. Parker ends the book with a heartfelt message to teens in need of help and actually discusses in useful detail how to begin. I hope teens that need this book find it.
Thanks to Delacorte Press for providing me with an advance review copy of this title at no charge in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.