Navigating the Unthinkable in How to Make Friends with the Dark

Kathleen Glasgow’s books read to me like classic YA, richly detailed character studies that don’t shy away from dark topics, similar to beloved reads like Nina LaCour’s Hold Still and Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca. I devoured Glasgow’s debut, Girl In Pieces, in a day, and knew that How To Make Friends with the Dark was going to devastate me just as completely. And I was absolutely right: How To Make Friends is a searing sophomore novel, with Glasgow‘s lyrical writing at the forefront of a story you‘ll need tissues to read.

In the beginning is Tiger and her mother. It’s always been just the two of them, together against the world. Tiger and her wild, unpredictable mother, who drives a book bus and has strong opinions about what Tiger is and isn’t allowed to do—like go to a dance with the boy she likes, for example. Tiger, desperately trying to assert her own independence, insists to her mother that she’s going, regardless of what her mother thinks.

That fight? It’s bad. The fight that comes later, when Tiger’s mother tries to atone by buying a dress for the dance that Tiger thinks is hideous? Even worse. But Tiger doesn’t think about the fight, not in that moment. She only thinks about Kai, the boy she likes, the boy she wants to kiss. Does kiss. And then, the unthinkable happens. Tiger’s mother dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, their final fight still sizzling between them.

First, there was Tiger and her mother. Now there’s just Tiger, alone. She finds herself thrust into a whirlwind of a life she’s not prepared for, moving among different foster homes, different sort-of families. The boy she was kissing when her mother died? Gone. She still has her best friend, Cake, who’s a bright spot in her life. But besides Cake, the only people left are the people she didn’t want around in the first place. Like Lupe Hidalgo at school, who’s always tortured Tiger, or odd Mae-Lynn, whom Tiger wants nothing to do with. Until she goes to the school’s Grief Group and realizes they all have something in common, that they’ve all lost someone.

Mae-Lynn calls grief “the Big Suck,” and to Tiger, and to anyone who’s lost someone, that phrase is searingly accurate. Tiger’s grief is palpable on the page, and Glasgow’s deft use of second person to fully capture Tiger’s guilt over her mother’s death is incredibly well done. As she moves from a foster home with padlocks on every cabinet, to the foster home that begins to feel like a true home, Tiger carries her grief with her, refusing to take off the dress her mother bought her, the dress they fought about before her mother died.

Tiger assumes she has no one. After all, her mother never talked about her father, and would clam up whenever Tiger tried to ask. But, as she discovers, she does have surviving family, including someone who wants to connect Tiger to a life she didn’t even know she had. Who gives Tiger a gift she never expected, and begins to show her how to rebuild her life, until Tiger begins to realize she’s not as alone as she thought.

With How To Make Friends, Glasgow has asserted herself again as a master of complex emotions and richly drawn teenage characters. Tiger, her mother, the girls at school; these are all people who could seamlessly fit into our own world—which is what makes this story so truly heartbreaking.

How To Make Friends with the Dark is on sale now.

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