Published by Delacorte Press on May 7, 2019
Pages: 311 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Abbi Hope Goldstein is like every other teenager, with a few smallish exceptions: her famous alter ego, Baby Hope, is the subject of internet memes, she has asthma, and sometimes people spontaneously burst into tears when they recognize her. Abbi has lived almost her entire life in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of September 11. On that fateful day, she was captured in what became an iconic photograph: in the picture, Abbi (aka "Baby Hope") wears a birthday crown and grasps a red balloon; just behind her, the South Tower of the World Trade Center is collapsing.
Now, fifteen years later, Abbi is desperate for anonymity and decides to spend the summer before her seventeenth birthday incognito as a counselor at Knights Day Camp two towns away. She's psyched for eight weeks in the company of four-year-olds, none of whom have ever heard of Baby Hope.
Too bad Noah Stern, whose own world was irrevocably shattered on that terrible day, has a similar summer plan. Noah believes his meeting Baby Hope is fate. Abbi is sure it's a disaster. Soon, though, the two team up to ask difficult questions about the history behind the Baby Hope photo. But is either of them ready to hear the answers?
How often do we think or speak about 9/11? For an event that was so traumatic and formative, it honestly baffles me how little it came up in my US public school education. Yet I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out about 9/11, even though it was 18 years ago: I was in elementary school, eating breakfast and waiting for my ride to school when my parents frantically called our house landline asking if me, my brother and our babysitter were OK. I remember being confused, I was so young I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was or why my parents were so upset since we were all the way on the other side of the country from New York. However, as the day progressed and our teachers played the news coverage on tv and talked to us as best they could about the gravity of the situation, it became clearer and clearer to myself and my peers that what had happened was really, really scary.
When I saw some bloggers talking about Hope and Other Punch Lines, I was honestly surprised to find out it not only centered around 9/11, but about the modern day responses to and ramifications of it, exploring how (fictional) survivors are doing today and how it still shapes communities and relationships. I think it was brave of Buxbaum to tackle the topic so many years later and explore it in the YA medium, as many teens may not have been born when it happened or were very young and may not remember it. I appreciated reading Buxbaum’s story that was handled with care while still thoroughly exploring the topic.
Hope and Other Punch Lines focuses on protagonist Abbi, who unintentionally became internet famous after she was captured in an iconic 9/11 photo as a 1 year old when she survived the falling of one of the towers. Though she tries to keep a low profile years later, when folks find out she’s “Baby Hope” from the photo, they treat her almost as a sacred figure, expelling their grief, thanks, etc. onto her and she has to become a stoic yet comforting presence for them. No doubt this would take an exhausting emotional toll on anyone, especially a teenager. Abbi is also dealing with her own issues from 9/11 (keeping it vague to avoid spoilers) and wants to spend the summer as a camp counselor outside of her home town so she can be anonymous and not have to deal with her internet fame.
Of course, there’s a male protagonist who comes in and is the inevitable romantic interest. Noah has an obsession with some questions from 9/11 and when he meets Abbi working at the same camp as him, he thinks it’s meant to be so she can help him on his quest. Noah becomes a POV character and is supposed to be a quirky/goofball/aspiring comedian kind of guy, but I honestly did not like him and it’s one of this reason this book only gets a 4 star rating from me. I don’t like the way he treated Abbi despite what his motivations were, and again I tire of the need to always insert a romance into YA contemporary novels (when this one really could have stood on its own sans romance). While it was interesting to the plot to see Noah and Abbi team up and investigate some open ends from 9/11 and learn about both of their grief and how they’ve dealt (or not dealt) with it, I wish it would have stayed as an unlikely pair of quirky acquaintances.
Hope and Other Punch Lines was my first read by Buxbaum and I was really pleased with how well she managed to flesh out the supporting cast of secondary characters in this novel. Abbi’s parents were a real treat to read about and it was great seeing a YA protagonist who had such a good relationship with her (divorced) parents and her grandmother as well. It’s often hard to get a true sense of a character’s family dynamic in just one book but I really felt like I knew the Goldsteins after this story. It was also interesting to see how their family dynamic shifted and changed after 9/11, even though everyone in their family survived the attack. Noah’s BFF Jack was also a great character and just the right balance of snarky and supportive, and I loved how respectful he was of Abbi rather than being a bro-y YA love interest’s friend.
Though Hope and Other Punch Lines has its moments full of heart and humor, it’s evident that Buxbaum did her research and there are definitely haunting elements as well. From the discussion around the scary health effects that are now plaguing 9/11 survivors to the fact that along with all of the jet fuel chemicals, survivors of the attack were breathing in human ash and human bone, to Abbi ruminating on the jumpers, the ones we “aren’t supposed to talk about,” I appreciated Buxbaum being honest about how very traumatic 9/11 was, especially those who were front and center and experienced it first hand.
Overall: I really enjoyed my first Buxbaum novel and appreciated her tackling a very traumatic moment in US history with research and care, and focusing on the aftermath for the survivors today. While I wasn’t a fan of all of the relationships in the book, I still think this was a super important and needed addition to YA and will definitely be checking out other books by Buxbaum.