Book Review: 500 Words or Less

Juleah Del Rosario, 500 Words or Less
Simon & Schuster: Simon Pulse 2018
384 pages, hardback, $19.00

LIKE NIC CHEN, I only have 500 words or less to convince you why you should read the novel 500 Words or Less. This seemingly difficult task is one that the narrator, Nic, perfects over the course of Juleah Del Rosario’s debut coming of age novel that explores the unavoidably stressful hurdle of first semester of senior: college applications. For Nic, high school is full of students whose biggest concern is whether they receive either the infamous “I regret to inform you…” or “I am pleased to inform you…” letters from their top choice Ivy League school. And while for most students, the stress that accompanies writing college essays is enough to spark countless mental breakdowns, for Nic writing others’ college essays on top of her own is her escape.

But Del Rosario makes Nic’s unusual desire to dig deep into the utmost personal aspects of her peer’s lives not as odd as it seems. Following the trauma of being abandoned by her alcoholic mom and labeled as the school “whore” for cheating on her loved-by-everyone boyfriend one drunken night, Nic would do anything to escape her own chaotic life. Nic carries this attitude into her senior year by emphasizing that her “life was more than a series of letters scrawled on a locker, vying to break me.” Like this snippet, the novel emphasizes that there is much beyond what is just written on the pages. Although the premise of 500 Words or Less may seem predictable, it takes these stereotypical teenage issues and depicts them in a way that launches the reader into their own self exploratory thoughts.

Uncommon for such young adult novels, 500 Words or Less is written in verse, a series of poems that narrate the story. Each of these poems only span roughly two or three pages. Through interviews, Del Rosario has elaborated that she takes on this stylistic challenge in order to reflect much of what she writes within the novel. The, at times, vague verse enables the reader to interpret meanings of the phrases in a more personal way rather than having a set perspective given by the author. The novel’s unique style sets it apart from others that share similar topics, making it worth the read.

Through the novel’s verse, Del Rosario wrestles with many issues that her teen aged audience most likely is facing: heartbreak, forgiveness, academic stress, death, and self-discovery. While many other novels within the young adult category cover these topics, Del Rosario sets her novel apart by adding a dramatic twist through her short, punchy verse that’s simple to comprehend but also makes the novel more relatable to many people’s own high school experiences.

Choosing 500 Words or Less as your next read certainly won’t disappoint. Readers not only get to experience a slice of Nic’s grueling experiences but also get to wonder what if I were in her situation. The novel forces readers to do their own self exploring alongside Nic, which lends for many interesting interpretations. This not too heavy of a read definitely will provide you with the kind of escape you want from any book along with instilling you with its underlying, thought provoking message of self-discovery and the mistakes you make along the way.  

−Stephanie Hull ‘19

Book Review: A Key to Treehouse Living

Elliot Reed, A Key to Treehouse Living
Tin House Books 2018
144 pages, paperback, $19.95


This is a coming of age index.


It seems like the literary scene is full of coming of age novels with plucky protagonists facing my terrifying coming of age index. While the the characters in said novels are more diverse than ever, the stories themselves consistently revolve around my handy coming of age index. Luckily, Elliot Reed has produced a version of this familiar tale told like no other in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living.


In A Key to Treehouse Living, Reed tells the coming of age of William Tyce, an orphan who is “raised” by his uncle- raised is a strong word for the role his uncle plays in his life. William is your everyday curious, adolescent boy. He loves exploring nature and takes a river voyage similar to Huckleberry Finn’s. He has a greater fascination with treehouses than most boys, but that’s not what sets his story apart. The form, an index, separates his evolution from the pile of other coming of age novels on your nightstand. Through an alphabetized index, William shares his knowledge on everything he meets whilst raising himself from DADDIES (58) to REVELATION (174) to SANITY (183).


Character development is as vital to Reed’s novel as it is to any other. William’s nonlinear journey of self-discovery reveals a boy with a limitless thirst for knowledge and a no-nonsense world view. He maintains the naivety of a child with self-awareness and wisdom beyond his youth. Through index form, essential to William’s naive-wisdom complex, Reed invites us inside William’s thoughts, where the majority of the novel is spent.


As many reviewers have noted, the generic backdrop of a plot makes this book boring at surface value. I’m not in a hurry to uncover William’s fate. Also, the index form is repetitive, forcing the reader to pick apart each entry to discover the significance or relevance to the story. Taking more time with the entries forced me to look deeper into the themes William explores. He touches on some lofty moral and existential topics like the PHILOSOPHY OF NIHILISM, stating, “Nihilism is a perfectly logical response to an overwhelming and confusing world.” (169) On the other hand, he daydreams of a GYPSY PARACHUTE HOUSE, which “feels like you’re in the middle of a bowl of jelly beans.” (74). Reed’s choice to juxtapose the thought-provoking with the child-like in William’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his life makes even the predictable plot forgivable.


Thanks to the unusual style of A Key to Treehouse Living, this coming of age story is an endearing read. Although the plot is dry in terms of excitement, there is plenty of complex characterization to flood the reader with more than enough of William’s journey to think, laugh, and wonder about.

-Peyton Miller ’20