Review: How to Excavate a Heart

How to Excavate a Heart

by Jake Maia Arlow

HarperTeen (imprint of HarperCollins), 2022

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Dena Bach

Buy at

After a bad breakup with her now ex-girlfriend, all Shani wants to do is escape to Washington DC during winter break for her dream internship: studying prehistoric fish at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. As Shani heads to DC with her mother behind the wheel, things go from bad to worse. She and her mother spend the drive arguing. That is, until their argument is silenced by a terrible snowstorm. When they leave the highway in the blizzard to head to the house where Shani will be staying during her internship, they start arguing again. Distracted, Shani’s mother doesn’t see a girl crossing the road, and hits her with the car. After making sure that the girl is not hurt, Shani can’t help noticing that she’s also very cute. Literally running into May becomes Shani and May’s, “meet cute” in this Jewish, queer, YA “Hallmark Holiday Romance.” Jake Maia Arlow's “How to Excavate a Heart” has charm, humor, and after a few conflicts and misunderstandings between the two, the required happy ending.

Since the story begins after Chanukah, little of the narrative focuses specifically on Jewish religion or culture other than a few references to Jewish mothers and Jewish guilt. What is does focus on are the complicated emotions that the Jewish protagonists, and a few other non-Christian characters, face during the winter holidays in response to the “Christian hegemony.” Throughout the narrative, there are many examples of how the characters engage with, and also try to escape from, all the Christmas cheer around them. At their first actual meeting, May and Shani have an interesting back and forth about whether it is a good thing that Chanukah has become the Jewish response to Christmas. This well-crafted story gives authentic Jewish points-of-view on the yearly dilemma that Jews face of being outside the culture of the world around them. Jewish readers who enjoy holiday romances will appreciate seeing themselves in the characters. And maybe the book will spark discussions similar to those of the protagonists about how readers themselves deal with the winter holiday season.

Are you interested in reviewing books for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze? Click here!

Reviewer Dena Bach studied Illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and has an MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons University. She has worked as a fine artist, calligrapher, illustrator, art director, writer, bookkeeper, bookseller, and a teacher of children from ages 2 to14. No matter how many children’s books she reads a day, the magical pile of books on her bedside table never seems to get any smaller.