Book Review: What Things Mean

“I like the idea of jam. It is comforting knowing that even the sourest things can be honeyed in some way, knowing that some joys can be bottled up and reached out for on days when you need just a little bit of sweetness. I hold on to that feeling for as long as I can.”


Awkward yet lovable, vulnerable yet strong – meet Olive Guerrero. Just like most fourteen-year-old girls, Olive is slowly discovering who she is, why she is the way she is, and at the same time, trying to make sense of the world around her. Lee’s interpretation of adolescent life through the eyes of a Filipino middle-class girl could be relatable to many young people.

One of the things I loved about this book is that each chapter starts with a word. And just like what the title reveals, a word is never just a word. It can mean many things – an action, a noun, a sound, a metaphor. As I began each chapter, I was quite excited to find out how the words captured the memories and experiences of Olive. It was like putting the pieces of her life together and slowly figuring out “what things meant” for her.

Why Kids Should Read This

Reading this book was like taking a trip down memory lane. All of a sudden, I felt like my thirteen-year-old self. These were the days when I drowned myself with Judy Blume, Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley. As an adolescent, I spent part of my time getting to know myself through the characters I’ve read. 

Young Filipino readers today are quite lucky that more local authors are publishing their stories. When I was younger, the teens I identified with lived in places I’ve never been to, said words I don’t hear at home, and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom that wasn’t quite familiar to me. Lee’s What Things Mean could’ve easily been one of my go-to books in my early teens. Just like what Olivia said in the book, it could be the type of book that I’d pull out from my shelf whenever I’d need that bottle of joy or sunshine on dark days.

For Teachers

What Things Mean is worth adding to your reading list! I recommend this for students in the upper grades or junior high. Lee’s writing reminds me of Jerry Spinelli’s style – simple yet authentic. The honesty of the character’s voice cuts through your heart and will make you wish you listened to your students more. 


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