‘The How and The Why’

A YA Novel About an Adopted Teen and her Birth Mother, Seeking Answers

Cynthia Hand pens paranormal-themed New York Times bestsellers like the Unearthly trilogy and The Afterlife of Holly Chase.

But her heartfelt newest novel, The How and The Why, is all about real life.

It alternates lenses between Cass, adopted at birth and on the hunt for the teen mom who gave her up, and Cass’s birth mother, who we see through the letters she wrote Cass while pregnant.

In a letter of her own to readers, Hand explains how, like Cass, she was adopted. Her novel isn’t autobiographical, but she’s incorporated some true-to-life details, such as Idaho’s former program encouraging birth mothers to write letters for their soon-to-be-adopted babies to read at 18.

“I don’t think anybody is exactly qualified to be a mother at sixteen,” Cass’s birth mother writes, surrounded by other pregnant teens at the school where she’s living until she delivers. “I’m trying not to be judgmental, but the girls around here, the ones who are keeping their babies and who look at me like I’m some kind of monster because I’m not keeping mine, they think it’s going to be sharing clothes and braiding each other’s hair. But that’s not the real world. …

“So here I am, hiding out like it’s the fifties.”

Cass is hiding too. The high-school senior has just turned 18. She’s wondering where she’ll get into college, how her parents are going to pay for it, and, most troubling, whether her hospital-bound mother will come off the transplant list.

What better distraction than hunting for her birth mother?

While The How and The Why is about adoption and the search for answers, it’s also the story of two teens finding their path and purpose in life in very different ways.

Cass’ birth mother, unnamed for most of the novel, slowly warms to the letter-writing task. Her letters serve as journal entries, detailing how she met Cass’s father at a concert, entranced by the college student’s interest in her and their shared taste in music. She admits how hard it is to pore over statements from prospective adoptive parents and figure out which deserve a chance: “I realize I’m being overly critical. I’m looking for reasons to say no. … I wish I could see not only their beautiful little dreams of a family, but their fears, too. Their flaws, instead of only their strengths. The truth.”

Her letters alternate with the present-day adventures of Cass. In addition to worrying about her adoptive mother’s health, she’s jealous of her best friend and fellow drama student Nyla’s skill on the stage.

Hand spotlights the many emotions, not all savory, that make up real teens. Cass adores Nyla, but does her well-off friend have to also win the scholarship that would mean Cass could go to the college she dreams of, rather than the only one her parents can afford?

When Cass lashes out at African-born Nyla after the scholarship announcement, it’s both a powerful lesson in ingrained racism and how to make amends. The plot thread exemplifies how literature can provide wise guidance in not just marquee-level life events like finding a birth mother, but in everyday interactions.

After all, “none of us really get to have our own, separate lives,” Cass thinks, musing after a difficult conversation with her father. “Our lives are always all horribly tangled up with the people around us. The people we love.”

(HarperTeen/HarperCollins, Nov. 5, 2019)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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