Some bumps in the resulting book, How to Be a Family, surface early as both a function of some less-than-stellar writing and a set of quotes and bits of history and news that aim to situate us ... Thankfully, Kois quickly recovers, returning to the kind of scene-based detail that animated his work from the Iceland trip that inspired the whole saga ... The book doesn’t just amusingly collect magazine-length anecdotes; it’s in Holland that the most important goals of the book begin to coalesce. This book shows how one family works, as a way of helping us all ask ourselves: How might (and ought) our own families best function? ... The family ends up in Kansas, which feels anticlimactic, but magically, these pages are the book’s best, featuring reporting and personal reflection and a section on faith that might be the start of a next big project ... This is, and the author owns up to it, a deeply upper-middle-class, white and East Coast book. Readers of a Los Angeles-based newspaper, for example, might have mixed feelings to learn that one apparent solution to the family’s problems might be … moving to California ... It’s hard to imagine it not being a fun project to discuss this book with people you care about, who also care about you. Because, spoiler: What matters most to the Kois/Smith clan, even more than ambition and being part of the national conversation? Friends and family.
Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is 'flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.' Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read.
The book can sometimes veer into cultural generalization, but it does so with a knowingness that deflects any criticism; [Kois] wasn’t going to really know the culture a few months, and he knows it ... Kois is a self-aware, menschy, and amusing guide to this adventure, picking apart what you can leave behind, what you can pick up along the way, and what will follow you wherever you are.
The book doesn’t have much of a thesis, but its slightly melancholy ending might remind cinema-minded readers of the end of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero. There are a few set pieces and clichés but also some nicely tuned-in observations befitting a keen-eyed journalist ... refreshingly, Kois doesn’t hammer too hard on politics even though it’s clear where his views lie. Overall, the book is a minor contribution to the literature of family (and travel, for that matter), but it’s a pleasant narrative that makes few demands on readers ... Slack moments aside, this memoir of travel with a family in need of change has its pleasures.
... delightful ... [Kois] fills his narrative with both ironic, self-deprecating humor and earnest soul-searching as he comes to the realization that 'you can’t actually change your kids but your kids change nonetheless.' This 'foolhardy jaunt' into experimental family life–hacking consistently pleases and surprises.