Tag Archives: Indian American

Review for Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

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My Summary: Sam (short for Samar) doesn’t think much about her Punjabi Sikh identity because her mother raised her in a secular environment away from her extended family. However, when her long-estranged uncle appears on their doorstep in the aftermath of 9/11, she begins to explore her heritage and culture.

Review:

This book was published in 2009, but it remains relevant as Islamophobic sentiment remains pervasive in the U.S. and other places. Muslims aren’t the only group targeted, anyone who is perceived as Muslim is also implicated. Sikhs fall into this category.

Sam’s uncle Sandeep wears a turban, so racists target him for hate speech and hate crimes. Sam is in the car with him when some boys from her school throw and yell things at him. As a result, she is forced to confront the bigotry of people around her.

It’s during this same time that Sam starts researching and reconnecting with her Punjabi and Sikh culture and heritage and tries to find her place as a South Asian/Indian in U.S. disapora. It’s a very polarizing experience, to put it lightly. On the one hand, white kids have always made fun of her for being brown. On the other, a fellow Indian American calls her a “coconut,” meaning brown on the outside, white on the inside. This type of labeling is familiar to me, as East Asians have our own variant, “banana”/”Twinkie,” for yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The in-group disdain for being too assimilated into white American culture is so real.

Thankfully, Sam has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Her uncle is supportive of her journey, and together they visit a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. There, Sam has a very spiritual moment and finds the joy of connecting with tradition and her roots. At school, she gets recommendations for resources from a Sikh classmate and finds online forums where there are people in her same situation.

These changes in her understanding of herself and her world also affect her other relationships with her mother, her white boyfriend Mike, and her white best friend Molly in various ways. Sam’s desire to connect with her extended family creates tension with her mother, who has bad memories involving her parents, Sam’s grandparents, and rejected their religion and culture as a result. Mike turns out to be garbage who laughs at racist jokes and victim-blames Sam for experiencing a hate crime, and most satisfyingly, the narrative drags him for his crap. Molly doesn’t get it at first and throws around the term “reverse racist” (oh, lord), but she reevaluates her position after witnessing the attacks on Uncle Sandeep in person.

One of the great things about this book is that it pulls in so many relevant and important issues. It touches on Japanese American incarceration during World War II as it relates to present-day Islamophobia (though it uses the word “internment,” which is problematic), criticizes stereotypical media representation like Apu from The Simpsons, and explicitly addresses colorism in Indian and South Asian communities. Notably, it points out that distinguishing between Sikhs and Muslims shouldn’t be done as an attempt to “opt out” of the Islamophobic violence while leaving Muslims to take all the hits.

Although this book has its darker moments and tackles serious issues, it ends on a bright and hopeful note. Most of the major conflicts are resolved, and Sam is moving forward with a sense of empowerment and perspective that she lacked in the beginning. The ending echoes the beginning in a way that brings everything full circle, which is my favorite kind of ending.

A few minor things I was not a fan of: One was use of the words “deranged,” “lunatic,” “crazy,” etc. to describe violent and threatening people. The second was a line where a character claims that having sex is what makes girls women since that’s not only sexist but throws asexual people under the bus. There was also use of the word “slutty” a few times. The last was a dialogue where Molly is spouting a bunch of Orientalist stuff about Indian culture, and the narrative doesn’t really directly call it out for what it is.

Recommendation: Recommended for its heartfelt and honest portrayal of the struggles of being in diaspora and fighting racism.

Review for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami

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My Summary: Dini and her best friend Maddie are major Bollywood fans. Unfortunately, Dini’s plans to attend a Bollywood dance camp with Maddie during the summer are shattered when her parents announce that their family is moving to India–and not even to Bombay, the hub of Bollywood, but a small town named Swapnagiri. Just when Dini has given up hope of seeing her favorite Bollywood star, Dolly Singh, life takes a turn for the unexpected…

Review:

This book was super fun to read. Dini (short for “Nandini”) was an engaging character. Her passion and determination brought a sense of liveliness to the story. Moving such a huge distance to another country is a stressful situation for anyone, but she tries to make the best of it, long-distance communication with a massive time zone difference and all. Her enthusiasm in scheming and executing her plans gets her into a bit of trouble, but ultimately her well-intentioned meddling produces positive results.

Not only does the book tell the story of Dini, it also tells the tale of multiple supporting characters. From the mailman to the baker to the school principal to the van driver, everyone has their own story to be told, their own problems to deal with. Through the perspectives of these different side characters, the book paints a picture of daily life in small town India and shows the mysterious and serendipitous ways in which seemingly separate lives intersect.

The book is part mystery, part adventure, and part Bollywood-esque drama. All of the different threads of the characters and subplots eventually converge and get resolved in a heartfelt happy ending. It’s definitely a feel-good, fairy tale-esque book, but heaven knows we need more of these kinds of books to offset the negativity of the political climate and give us hope for a brighter future.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters to and from characters (rendered in different fonts for different characters), excerpts from Dini’s favorite magazine that supplies the latest buzz on Bollywood and her favorite [fictional] star Dolly Singh, and charming illustrations by illustrator Abigail Halpin. These touches add texture to the story and variety to the reading experience.

As it turns out, there’s a sequel to this book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon.

Recommendation: Recommended for young readers and adult readers wishing to indulge their inner child.

Review for Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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My Summary: Maya flies from the U.S. to Pakistan to attend the funeral for her grandfather. There, she finds out that her family has roots in India through her grandmother, who moved to Pakistan after Partition. In order to complete her grandfather’s final rites, her grandmother wishes to seek out an old family heirloom that was left behind in India. Maya sets off for India with her grandmother and older sister to hunt for this family treasure in a race against time, but unexpected complications result in her tackling the search completely on her own.

My Review:

N.H. Senzai became one of my favorite middle grade writers last year after I read Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner. Having written two books that focused on her husband’s Afghan American heritage, she decided to write one based on her own as an Indian and Pakistani American.

Ticket to India is many things at once. It’s a whirlwind tour of India (both the beautiful and the ugly), brought to life through vivid descriptions. The story cleverly incorporates landmarks into the plot: Maya’s grandmother  uses them to remember the location of her old home and the location of the family treasure. The perspective through which we see these landmarks is different from that of a regular tourist, however, because even as these sights are new to Maya, they are also in a way familiar to her, echoing the landscape of Pakistan.

Other facts are included in the story through the use of epistolary format. Part of the story is excerpts from Maya’s journal for a school assignment. Since she is writing with her teacher as an audience, she lists various facts about Pakistan and India, among other things, thus supplying some of the background for the story. It takes the place of an unnecessary info-dump in the middle of action or dialogue.

Although some neutral facts are stated, the book doesn’t shy away from critiques of British imperialism in the past and rampant political corruption and religious conflict in the present. These views are communicated through Maya’s interactions with various adults as well as her observations of various situations.

Aside from being informative, the book is also a suspenseful adventure. Maya faces many obstacles and setbacks as she makes her way across India. She meets both people who show her kindness and help her and people who have malicious intentions. She also meets people with good intentions who still make her journey difficult because they have their own ideas of where she should go. I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d make it out of trouble spots in one piece and ultimately succeed in her quest.

The book is also about sibling relationships. Maya’s older sister tends to outshine and overshadow her. She’s more assertive and kind of a know-it-all. However, their unintended separation gives Maya a chance to come into herself and develop a sense of independence.

Like Shooting Kabul, Ticket to India tackles complex political issues, this time concerning the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and its continuing aftereffects. Aside from Maya and Zahra’s sisterhood, there is also the “sibling relationship” between India and Pakistan. They share many things, including a common history up until Partition. However, there is also conflict as only siblings can wage against one another, intimate and painful.

The author takes a hopeful and optimistic approach to the question of the two countries’ futures. The similarities between India and Pakistan are emphasized over the differences. Moreover, by making Maya the viewpoint character, she breaks down the idea of India and Pakistan as being in binary opposition to one another. Like the author herself, Maya is both Pakistani and Indian, not just one or the other, and the conflict is not a zero-sum game.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a great middle grade cross-country adventure!

Review for The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

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My Summary: Aliya has a lot of problems typical for a fifth grader: she wants to fit in, she worries about being popular enough for student council, and she has a crush on a cute boy who will probably never notice her, and she’s loaded with homework assignments that she’s not too excited about completing. Unfortunately, on top of that, she faces Islamophobia from people around her, even though she’s not even very strict about observing certain Islamic traditions. Then, a new girl, Marwa, arrives. She’s Moroccan and wears the hijab, which makes her a prime target for bullying. Aliya can choose to avoid association with her, or maybe Marwa has something to teach her about being true to oneself.

Review:

Even within diversity, there is diversity. Although the majority of Indians are Hindu, there are many who are Muslims. I think this is the first book about an Indian Muslim American that I’ve read, and I’m glad I found it because it covers a lot of issues in an way that’s accessible to kids.

Aliya’s family is Indian and Muslim. They speak Urdu at home, and she knows a bit of Arabic for the common prayers and greetings. However, the women in her family don’t wear the hijab, eating halal food isn’t a huge priority for the family, and Aliya hasn’t observed the fast for Ramadan with much success. Throughout the course of the book, she starts to see her faith in a new light and make commitments to observing certain practices.

Aliya is a flawed but still sympathetic protagonist. She wants to do the right thing but feels inhibited by fear and social pressure and doesn’t always know how to respond to difficult situations. Thankfully, she is not alone in her struggles; she has Muslim friends from Sunday School at the local Islamic Center to commiserate over hate incidents and regular tween issues, and her parents, grandmother, and great-grandmother are there to support her as well, offering their wisdom and advice to guide her toward growth.

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of teasing and bullying from kids as school, directed toward Marwa or toward Aliya, she internalizes some of the negative and xenophobic perceptions about people like herself.

It takes two different school projects and then some for Aliya to come to terms with her faith. One is for her Sunday School and takes the form of a series of letters she writes to Allah with the intent of bettering herself. The other is a project for regular school where she works with her best friend Winnie on a display board to showcase their respective cultures and religions.

This book is a celebration of diversity in two ways. One is Aliya’s best friend Winnie, who is biracial Jewish Korean American. Like Aliya, she faces microaggressions from people, even from Aliya’s own grandmother (Aliya tries to correct her), so even though she’s not the main protagonist, her experiences are represented on the page.

The other way is in its portrayal of the differences in how various families and individuals interpret and practice Islam. Marwa wears the hijab with confidence, Aliya’s mother does not and believes it is not necessary to cover up to be modest. One or two of Aliya’s friends from Sunday School wear the hijab, with varying degrees of confidence because of the Islamophobic attacks that happen so frequently to girls who wear it. More importantly, they’re shown as having agency in doing so; it’s a personal choice that they make for themselves.

Aliya’s personal and religious/spiritual journey were a pleasure to follow along with. The book alternates between a typical first-person narration and an epistolary format for Aliya’s letters to Allah. Those letters bring the reader into the intimate relationship she has with Allah, and the change she undergoes is apparent from the progression from mere complaints about what is happening to conscientious self-reflection and constructive action. She may not know all the answers at the end, but she has greater confidence, self-discipline, and wisdom to navigate her future.

The major themes in this book were interesting to me because they approach adversity and Islamophobia/prejudice from a gentler angle than, say, Does My Head Look Big in This?, which has a very different tone, overall. However, the “quieter” methods of dealing with bigotry are not necessarily less powerful or effective.

My one criticism was an instance of ableist language. Aliya nicknames her finnicky and crotchety great-aunt Choti Dahdi “OCD,” which stands for “Old Choti Dahdi.” Her great-aunt isn’t a two-dimensional character defined purely by her neuroticism, but the nickname was an insensitive one.

Recommendation: It’s a great book for young readers that teaches empathy, resilience, and integrity.

Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

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As soon as I found out about the existence of this book and saw who was going to be contributing to it, I hit that “Want to Read” button on Goodreads faster than you can say “gimme”! And then I pre-ordered the book, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I finally got my hands on my copy of it, and it did not disappoint.

In order to do this anthology justice, I’m doing a mini-review for each story. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on the anthology as a whole.

“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña

Summary: In San Diego, a young Mexican American boy from a working-class background finds his place among Black basketball players at the Municipal Gym and learns to navigate the dynamic of a team.

Review:

This story is told in the second-person, which can be pretty hit or miss for me. In this case, it worked. I felt like I was being given a pep talk that guided me through the figurative basketball court of the main character’s life. There’s a certain kind of rhythm to the writing that captures both the vivacity of urban environments and the suspense and maneuvering action of a basketball game. It sucks you in.

At its core, this story is a celebration of urban POC, and it doesn’t hesitate to address the racial tensions that structure the urban social landscape. The narrative references racial profiling and internalized racism as well as inter-POC, specifically Black-Latinx/Mexican, relations. Stereotypes are brought up and then unpacked. The author pays tribute to the artistry that pervades basketball, which is overlooked because it’s a physical exercise that’s not really associated with finesse.

On top of that, the story is also about father-son relationships, and the different ways people choose to express their love and care.

There’s something high energy yet also subtle about this story that leaves you in a good mood and ready for more and makes it a great pick for the first story in the anthology.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin

Summary: Lingsi grows up not expecting much out of her mundane life and the path that is prescribed to her by her lower social status. By luck, she is given the opportunity to learn to read, and this skill, rare for a girl of her station, takes her somewhere she would never have imagined.

Review:

So while I was reading this story, something felt strangely off about it. Then I realized why: there are no illustrations, and I’m used to seeing illustrations in Grace Lin’s work. Illustrations would have made a nice added touch, but the story itself was lovely on its own.

This story had a surprising twist that I wasn’t expecting, but it was a great one. To me, it’s a celebration of words: poetry, stories, and so on. It’s also a story of girls claiming agency and finding their path, as the title suggests. I don’t want to give away anything too major, so you’ll have to read the story to find out the details.

“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

Summary: Merci Suarez comes a working-class Cuban American family. In exchange for waived tuition to the fancy school Seaward Pines, her family will do a paint job for the school building. Unfortunately, this job leads to an unpleasant encounter that teaches her a lesson about a harsh reality of the world.

Review:

Narrated in the first-person, this story delves into the life of a young girl who’s about to enter a new environment. There’s a sharp contrast between the world of her comfort zone and the school she will attend. The burden of the American Dream is on her generation’s shoulders, and the story hints at the conflict once she starts school. It’s a poignant tale of the sacrifices people make to get a leg up in a stratified society.

The story contains English-Spanish code-switching without translations, which was nice to see as someone who’s multilingual and code-switches when talking to my family/ethnic community. I am fairly fluent in Spanish (6 years of study in secondary school plus 6 weeks of study abroad in college), so I understood exactly what was being said, but those who aren’t hispanohablantes should be able to infer through context clues the gist of things.

“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle

Note: I’m using they/them pronouns for the main character because the story is in first-person and doesn’t explicitly mention Sam’s pronouns and they/them seems to be the most fitting pronouns to use for Sam’s gender expression.

Summary: Sam’s class is playing Secret Santa, and they happen to pick the name of the new girl, Blade, who fascinates Sam with her clothes, black-and-white painted nails and wicked shoes, so different from what they’re used to. They want to give Blade the perfect gift, but their mother has other plans in mind.

Review:

Okay, I was not expecting this story be so cute and queer. It’s largely a light-hearted story, but it touches on the policing of gender. Sam is gender-nonconforming but is forced to present femininely and go by “Samantha” because they don’t want to deal with the prejudice that comes with it. They’ve addressed the issue of wanting to be called “Sam” with their mom but getting her to gender them properly is a work in progress.

The story is also about first crushes, and this story is so important because we rarely get to see non-hetero attraction portrayed in middle grade fiction because it’s so often automatically sexualized. Here, the attraction is emotional and age-appropriate and honestly I dare anyone who finds it “scandalous” that a twelve-year-old feminine-presenting gender-nonconforming kid might crush on a girl to fight me.

One of the little things I liked about the book was the inclusion of diverse supporting characters. They weren’t described in detail but you can tell from their names that they’re POC.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist

Summary: Isaiah struggles to keep his family afloat; his single mother has an addiction problem and he’s tasked with taking care of his younger sister even though he’s still a kid himself. He finds solace in the notebooks his dad left behind, which contain stories about a fictional version of himself in larger-than-life situations. These notebooks may just be what he needs for a better future.

Review:

My heart went out to Isaiah and his family because they’re short one person, his dad, and I myself recently experienced a similar loss when my mother passed away last year. However, unlike me, Isaiah doesn’t have the same support system, and he’s still a kid, whereas I’m an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one.

His only escape is the stories his dad wrote, which allow him to see himself empowered while connecting with the memory of his dad. It reminds me of the way I listened to a bunch of cpop and Taiwanese pop songs after my mom passed away because my memories of them were associated with her; those songs came from dramas that I watched with her as a kid.

Although Isaiah situation isn’t looking good, with the help of a caring adult, he’s able to take steps toward healing and hope.

AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is integrated into both dialogue and narration, not as a cheap accessory but to add realism to Isaiah’s character and his voice. Fiction has a tendency to play into the stigma against AAVE as a non-standard English dialect, [mis]using it as a tool to other Black characters and depict them as being uneducated or unintelligent. But in this case, the story normalizes the use of AAVE. It’s familiar and fundamental to Isaiah.

One of the small details I enjoyed about the story was a part where Isaiah mentions watching Bruce Lee movies with his dad. It reminded me of what I read in my Asian American Media Cultures class about Afro-Asian intersections. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon with special significance to Black Americans, particularly Black men, because they empathized with his position as an outsider struggling against a society that devalued and subjugated him.

“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle

Note: The narrator’s gender and pronouns are never specified or described in this story, so I will use they/them pronouns.

Summary: At a large family gathering, the main character, nicknamed “Turtle Kid” by their Uncle Kenneth, listens to their uncle tell a story about Naloosha Chitto, Big Hairy Man, a Choctaw analogue to Bigfoot, against their mother and other relatives’ warnings. Soon, they and their cousins are gathered around Uncle Kenneth for an outrageous tale full of twists and turns.

Review:

The whole giant family gathering scenario isn’t altogether foreign to me. Though it hasn’t happened much in recent years, I can recall a time when I was younger when a large number of my paternal extended family gathered together for meals and celebrations during the summer, when I was free to visit relatives in Taiwan. I have a ton of cousins myself, so Turtle Kid’s situation felt familiar to me, though I was one of the younger ones.

Uncle Kenneth’s way of storytelling is interactive in two senses of the word. One is that he allows for audience reactions to interrupt the story, thus making it more organic in how it takes shape and the plot proceeds. The other way is that he plays with his audiences expectations, throwing red herrings before revealing what really happens, giving the impression that it’s over when there’s still more complications ahead. The result is funny and engaging. And at the end, even if the kids are scared or confused by the tale of Naloosha Chitto, they have fun, and it’s a family tradition that brings them all together.

“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Nicknamed “Treetop,” the white protagonist reflects on her experiences of loss and love. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her best friend, who is Black, has moved away.

Review:

I was surprised that the viewpoint character was white, but as people have said, when a POC writes white characters, it’s different than a white person writing white characters because they have a different perspective on whiteness.

Treetop’s losses are intertwined. Following the loss of her mother, a Black girl named Celeste moves into her neighborhood, and the two become best friends. But eventually, Celeste moves away, leaving Treetop to cope with a new loss.

Family is central to the story. The main character feels pain because of her mother’s illness and then death, and that pain is compounded by her father’s lack of empathy toward her.

Her friendship with Celeste brings to the fore interracial interactions. They each come from very racially homogeneous areas where everyone looks like them. It’s Treetop’s first time meeting a Black girl, and she doesn’t hold much explicit bias. However, her curiosity and entitlement to satisfy it (e.g. touching her hair) cause some friction between her and Celeste. Until she learns to respect Celeste’s boundaries.

Reading this story made me feel a sense of longing for times past that can’t be changed. I have experiences with moving as a child and losing my mother, so the narrative resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani

Summary: Santosh gets dragged on a trip to Europe by his grandmother. He goes in expecting cultural learning expeditions to increase his worldliness and is instead caught in one awkward situation after another. Eventually, his grandmother comes clean about the purpose of the trip, and he gains something completely unexpected from it.

Review:

Usually in anthologies there’s one story with someone from the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and that’s it, token diversity quota met, so I’m happy that there is a second cute and queer story in this anthology. I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything major away, but I was thoroughly entertained.

Santosh’s nerdy awkwardness is so familiar to me since I was That Kid at that age, and in some ways I still am That Kid. More bookish and academic than social, a wallflower, a person who declines social invitations because I don’t think people actually want my company, etc.

His relationship with his grandmother and his grandmother’s quirky personality make for a great deal of comedy. Aside from offering humor, she also offers him some wisdom.

This book’s ending was slightly confusing and hard to categorize, but I’m labeling it magical realism. It shocked me, but at the same time, it was bittersweet.

“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-In-Verse” by Kwame Alexander

Summary: A seventh grader named Monk Oliver is given an assignment to write a memoir about himself. Because he finds his life boring, he decides to exercise creative license and spin a wild story about mindreading and vindication that mixes fact and fiction.

Review:

Unreliable narrators are always interesting because you’re given the task of trying to puzzle out how much of what they say is true and how much is false. The most obvious truth is that Monk is a nerdy type of kid. His detailed knowledge of various subjects pervades his verses, often in the form of figurative language or pointed asides.

When his semi-fictional memoir self acquires mind reading powers, he experiments a little and then sets out to use it to his social advantage, canceling a pop quiz, winning favor with his classmates, and getting revenge on his crush, Angel, who spurns him as a lowlife.

The verses seem to take the mood up a notch with each trial Monk faces in proving his psychic ability. It builds up and up and up in a crescendo until the grand finale, which then slides into a blissfully perfect denouement and an epilogue that leaves you wondering what Monk’s life really looks like, without the hyperbole and supernatural additions. It’s a riot to read.

“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers

Summary: Chris Blair becomes a wheelchair-user due to an accident. His dad, a former pro basketball player, thinks it’s the end of his hopes for Chris to follow in his footsteps. But Chris joins a newly formed wheelchair basketball game, and his dad may just be the key to making the team shine.

Review:

This story echoes the first with its focus on basketball and father-son relationships, thus making it a fitting closing story.

In this case, the main character is disabled, and from my limited knowledge, he seems to be portrayed fairly respectfully. The narrative doesn’t objectify him or reduce him to his wheelchair. Offensive language like “wheelchair-bound” is never used.

Refreshingly, the story does not center on the trauma of losing the use of his legs or any kind of struggle with internalized ableism. Instead, it chronicles Chris’s adaptation to a different kind of movement, a new way of playing a familiar sport. He doesn’t talk about wheelchairs as a hindrance. Instead, he admires some players’ chairs for having specialized features that make them more suitable for the game.

Here, Chris’s father is the one who has to unpack his ableism and learn to see his son’s disability through a new lens. Once he is able to do that, he becomes a more empathetic person and assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team.

Overall Impressions and Miscellaneous Notes:

There were a few places where I noticed problematic language, but it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this was an outstanding anthology, each story with its own appeal and strengths. The order of the stories was arranged well.

My only regret is that there weren’t more stories included. I think it would have benefited from a story showcasing religious diversity, one about a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish character, especially given the recent rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. It would have rounded out the racial, ethnic, gender, attraction/orientation, and disability diversity.

I hope to see more like this from We Need Diverse Books, and I’m eagerly anticipating the YA counterpart, Lift Off, which is coming summer 2018!

Recommendation: Enthusiastically recommended!

Review for Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana

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My Summary: Tara Krishnan is used to being an outcast in her school and is devastated when her best friend decides to spend their junior year studying abroad in Argentina. However, that’s only the beginning of the changes: Tara is suddenly swept into the popular social circle of her high school, and an alternate Earth with the same people but a different history is discovered. The discovery starts to warp the world around her, from her family, to her friends, and nothing in her life will be the same again.

Review:

This book is different from a lot of contemporary YA books. Sure, it has the high school drama, the crush/romance plot, the theme of trying to fit in and make friends, etc., but it also has something more, which is incorporated and explored through the speculative element.

Before I discuss the speculative part, I want to talk a little bit about how race and class are treated in the book. The main character, Tara, is biracial, white and Indian American, but she is not white-passing. She experiences microaggressions all the time, and she’s hyperaware of her difference in her town, where she is the only brown person at school. The book describes the feeling very accurately in this passage:

“I didn’t like the defensive tone in my voice, but I often felt I was walking through a field of landmines in Greenwich. people–teachers, other students, parents–constantly made offhand comments that didn’t mean much to them, but I read something else in their words. A hidden language that told me I was different. Or maybe I was so aware of my own difference that I was just looking to be offended by other people’s words.”

One of the worst things about microaggressions is how small they are and how they’re often unintentional because that smallness, that lack of malicious intentions, is used by other people to excuse them even though the perpetuate bias. And anyone who has experienced a microaggression probably knows the feeling of questioning themselves and feeling like they’re the only one who notices and is affected. Sometimes people of color invalidate their own feelings about experiencing racist microaggressions because they don’t want to be That person who disrupts the peace by speaking up.

Tara tolerates the microaggressions for a while, but eventually she puts her foot down when she knows that she’s being tokenized and exploited through the model minority stereotype. What ensues after she loses her patience is one of the most spectacular call-outs and smackdowns of a racist in the history of YA literature. It was one of my favorite scenes in the book because it was extremely cathartic for me as someone who has been in a similar boat to Tara. I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to say something like that to someone who has authority over me at school.

Not only is Tara Indian American in a school of white people, she’s also a scholarship student at an elite prep school. While a large number of Indian Americans are part of the professional elite as engineers, doctors, etc., not all of them are. Tara’s father is one of those people who fell through the cracks in the system. He wanted to be a physicist, but ended up working as kitchen staff in a restaurant and then opening his own restaurant. Tara’s class background adds a layer to her experience of marginalization.

Tara explicitly mentions it at the beginning:

“In Connecticut, we were all alone, adrift in a sea of whiteness and wealth, and it really did feel like a sea I was drowning in.”

Her feeling of isolation isn’t just mental or emotional, it’s also a byproduct of the physical environment she’s living in, shaped by social class. Before she lived in wealthier, suburban Connecticut, she lived on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment building with twenty-four other people who were like extended family. The physical closeness of these families facilitated their psychological closeness. In the suburbs, things are markedly different, where every house has its own lawn and is set a distance away from the road, usually with a driveway and a long path between the road and the door. This physical separation from her neighbors exacerbates the mental and emotional disconnect she already feels from them.

Now, to discuss the speculative element of the book. Interwoven with Tara’s personal struggles at school and home are the repercussions of the discovery of Terra Nova. It’s an alternate Earth, with almost the same people, but with differences in its history where it deviated notably from Earth’s. The existence of this planet provokes mass curiosity that becomes obsession for many. People are intrigued by the idea that on Terra Nova, there might be another version of themselves. This idea causes people to reevaluate their relationships with the people around them as well as reflect on their own lives. In some cases, it causes them to make drastic changes, throwing off the balance in the lives they touch. Tara’s mother is one of these people, leading to more stress for Tara.

By juxtaposing and interconnecting the global and the local events in Tara’s life, Aditi Khorana introduces deeper themes on how humans deal with the question “what if?” This philosophical bent is what makes the book stand out to me among other contemporary novels.

Beyond the speculative element, the author is great at character development. Tara is initially judgmental of the people in the popular clique she gets roped into, but as the story progresses, we start to see through Tara the complexities of these characters. They have their own secret struggles and ambivalent feelings that create tensions in their relationships with one another.

The one thing I disliked about this book was that there was no definite information on what happened to one of the major characters (won’t spoil who) at the very end. It was really upsetting to me since I like to have closure. But at the same time, I think the author did it for a reason, for the sake of the broader theme of the story, so I’ve made my peace with it.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a hardcore science fiction book, this is not that kind of book. If you want a thought-provoking contemporary novel with speculative elements, read this book.

Review for Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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My Summary: Reshma Kapoor, top ranked student of Alexander Graham Bell High School, will to get into Stanford. Not “wants to,” but “will.” Because she is willing to do anything to make it happen, even if it means bending or breaking the rules, and then some. For her “hook” to make herself stand out among the competition, she decides to write a young adult novel about a fictional version of herself. But the real Reshma Kapoor is a study nerd, without the appeal to the mainstream YA market. To make herself into the perfect YA protagonist, Reshma sets out to do “normal” teenage things and create a plot and character arc for herself. Unfortunately for her, things don’t always go as planned.

Review:

Reading this book was an interesting experience because I was valedictorian of my high school, back in the day (Class of 2011, so not forever ago but still long enough for there to be emotional distance). I didn’t get to the top until my final semester, but I graduated first. And unlike Reshma, it wasn’t because I clawed my way to the top on purpose. It kind of just happened, without me ever planning to make it happen. I can empathize with her struggles. I, too, applied to Stanford (I was ranked 3rd at the time of submitting apps), and I, too, agonized over whether I’d really stand out among the applicants to the various elite universities I was applying to (also applied to Princeton, UPenn, and MIT, which are similar level of competitiveness). In short, Reshma is in a situation very similar to my younger self, but she is a very different kind of person.

She is not likable (actually, I’m not sure I was all that likable, but I had friends, at least). She is not supposed to be likable. She doesn’t have a strong sense of compassion or justice or any of those traits that standard heroines tend to have (more on this later). In fact, her most prominent feature is her absolute ruthlessness. You could say she’s an anti-hero.

And yet, somehow, despite being unlikable, she pulls you in. You can’t help but respect her strength of will, even as it drives her to do ethically questionable or straight up bad things. Part of it is just the fact that the system isn’t fair to begin with. Reshma is fully aware of this and uses her knowledge of how the system works to her advantage. To her, the appearance of success (by a flawed and biased and rigged system’s standards of success) is more important than actual success. Shortcuts, loopholes, blackmail, and lies are fair game to her.

Eventually, all of this starts of catch up to her, and it’s fascinating to watch how she handles these curveballs because she is so relentlessly practical about it all. Assess the damage, find the most efficient solution, move on and keeping working toward her goal. But her solutions are rarely real solutions, they’re more like bandaids on the problem, so things escalate and get worse. But also entertaining.

Another element that I liked about the book was the setting. A lot of contemporary YA novels take place in a general suburban environment that could be anywhere, but Enter Title Here is firmly grounded in the culture of Silicon Valley. And while tech startups are a part of that culture and are referenced in the story, what really makes Enter Title Here a convincing representation of the area is the racial climate, particularly as it relates to academics.

Race is not sidestepped but rather addressed explicitly in various ways throughout the novel. At the very beginning of her novel, Reshma lays out the racial makeup of not only her school but the various cliques or types of students in a very true-to-reality assessment. I didn’t attend high school in the Bay Area, but I attended a school where the upper echelons of the school were dominated by white and Asian students, and I recognize the “study machines, smart slackers, and perfects” in them.

The overall academic environment of Reshma’s school is so relatable and real to me because I lived it. The constant recalculating of gpa and ranking, the strategizing of which courses to take based on gpa considerations, the desperate measures to keep or change your rank, etc. My high school housed a magnet program for the entire school district, and some kid was bitter and wanted the school to exclude the magnet program students from the school’s rankings because they took up most of the top 10% (in Texas, students in the top 10% get automatic admission to Texas public universities…ish; god, Fisher v. Texas just came to mind). He felt they had an unfair advantage (they didn’t). I was not in the magnet program, but I ended up graduating first, so that kind of undermined his argument.

Reshma’s literature teacher Ms. Ratcliffe is the embodiment of the quintessential casually racist white hippie, down the to Chinese tattoo (I rolled my eyes so hard when I saw that, like “oh god, she’s one of Those People”). She is superficially sweet and tries to project an image of open-mindedness, but her questions and statements when speaking to Reshma reveal assumptions and biases based in racist stereotypes. I think every POC has encountered a Ms. Ratcliffe at some point in their life, especially if they’ve lived in a so-called liberal city inhabited by many white liberals (*coughAustincough*).

Although Reshma champions a lawsuit accusing the schools and teachers of racism for self-serving reasons (to protect her grades and first-place rank), she’s onto something when talking about the differential treatment of white students and Asian students. Discrimination against Asians is real, and so is white privilege. White resentment and fear of Asian competition and domination in academics is very real. White flight from Asian-majority areas is a documented phenomenon, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, where the story takes place.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the characterization of Reshma’s parents. While the strict Asian parents are out there, so are the more laid back ones who don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on their kids, and they rarely get acknowledged or represented. In Enter Title Here, Reshma is the one who is obsessed with climbing to the top; her parents are the one concerned that she’s taking it too far. My parents were also in the latter category. When I was in college and having literal panic attacks over academics, my parents told me to not obsess over my grades and focus on my health instead (didn’t really happen, oops).

Aside from breaking stereotypes, her parents make her a more sympathetic character because she genuinely cares about them.

Which brings me to the next point: this book is very meta. A young adult novel about someone writing a young adult novel is a brilliant way to comment on the writing process. Reshma bounces ideas off of her therapist, who’s also writing a novel, and they discuss ways to intensify the drama in the story, among other things. In these discussions and in her document with the “honest” version of her novel, Reshma lays bare all of the essential ingredients to a successful YA novel: a likable, normal American heroine (very much coded as white American); an antagonist; major plot points such as making friends, getting a boyfriend, having sex, etc.; emotional arc; a climax; and so on.

Her quest to manufacture these elements out of her [supposedly] not-very-YA-heroine life creates humor in many situations. She complains to her mother about not being a good protagonist because her “quirks are not lovable”: she is not “clumsy,” “overwhelmed by life,” or “unlucky in love.” I think anyone who has read enough YA will recognize these tropes for what they are. I was especially amused by the “clumsy” one. At one point in my life, I mused that I might be a Mary-Sue because I’m clumsy.

Sometimes the humor is because her attempts at making herself an ideal YA protagonist directly reference or call out the stereotypes that are placed on Asian Americans. For example, in the very beginning, she says,

“I bet you love this, don’t you, Ms. Montrose (her editor)? White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life.

Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll ‘transform’ me.”

And when Reshma hunts for an antagonist for her novel, she tells her mom:

“I’ve got it…You’re the villain. People will really sympathize with a girl who had a crazy tiger mom that forced her to work too hard. You messed me up. That’s my angle.”

Whether the author intended it or not, these bits reminded me of the stories I’ve heard about Asian American authors getting their manuscripts featuring Asian characters rejected because the publisher has an unspoken quota on Asian protagonists, or authors being pressured to change the race of their character from Asian to white. How so? Well, I think Reshma’s comments reveal the way whiteness is valued in the publishing industry (and beyond). Not just white people, but traits that are associated with white people. Even though Reshma isn’t actually a stereotype (she’s definitely not emotionless, for one), the nature of stereotyping is to reduce people to such, so she has to actively debunk and break the stereotype in order to appeal to the white gaze.

And the juxtaposition of her writing herself as less stereotypically Asian to be an ideal protagonist while making her mother more stereotypically Asian to be an ideal antagonist speaks volumes about what the presumed white audience expects and values.

And of course, being who she is, Reshma uses the stereotypes to her advantage. As regrettable as it is that the stereotypes matter to begin with, it’s funny because there’s a “I’ve played you using your own game” kind of vibe.

In other instances, the humor arises from the contrast of Reshma being dead serious about this novel and the sheer absurdity of what she’s about to attempt–or demand from someone who is supposed to be a character in her novel–in order to write it. She is an unwitting character in a comedy.

I think the funniest thing, at least in the “ironic funny” sense, is that even though she pegs herself as not a very good protagonist, the result of her self-aware and self-serving quest to become a better protagonist makes her a good protagonist, just not in the way she intended.

The final thing I wanted to comment on for this review is the formatting of the book, i.e. the epistolary format. It’s written in first-person from Reshma’s point of view and is supposed to be the “honest” version of the novel draft she’s writing, so you get to see everything that happens behind the scenes, her thought processes, etc. There are sections where there are emails or text message exchanges that are formatted to be like the real thing, creating a sense a realism, like you’re seeing the world through Reshma’s eyes as things happen. You’re completely immersed in Reshma’s world. Even when you don’t like her, you’re going along for the ride. And what a ride it is.

Recommendation: Read this book. It’s great.