The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (9780062866417)
Rahul just wants to be the best at something, anything. But he’s skinny and the target of Brent, one of the biggest bullies at school. He’s also carrying the secret that he’s gay. Brent taunts Rahul into trying out for the football team, which ends up with Rahul not making the team and nursing a hurt ankle. Meanwhile, Brent has figured out Rahul’s secret when Rahul looks a bit too long at Justine in class. Rahul’s best friend Chelsea tries to get Rahul to understand how amazing he is, even if he’s not the best at something. As Rahul searches for his niche, he finds himself getting more anxious and his nightly rituals are less soothing. Whatever Rahul discovers about himself he also realizes that his Indian-American family and his friends will be there to cheer him on, no matter who he is.
Pancholy, an Indian-American actor, has written a compelling and heart-wrenching middle grade novel that deserves applause. He captures the angst of a kid who is different from the straight white kids in his school and who is trying desperately to fit in with them. Pancholy grapples in this book with many large themes, all of which fit with Rahul’s story. There is the bullying of LGBTQIA+ children at school. He addresses racism in casting and racism towards anyone brown-skinned or non-white. He takes these issues on directly, showing how standing up to bullies and racism is the best course of action.
Rahul is a great protagonist. He has support from an extended family as well as a best friend. It is a joy to see a middle grade book with a gay protagonist who is supported and loved by his family and friends. In fact, the book shows that sometimes it is the child who is torn up about coming out while their family and friends may have known for some time.
A great read from a multi-talented debut middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala by Meenal Patel (9781643439556)
Priya lives with her family in the United States. Her’s is the only house in her neighborhood where an Indian family lives. Priya loves to help her grandmother make rotli for dinner when she gets home. As they make the flatbread, her Babi Ba tells her about India’s spice markets, the architecture, the noises of the traffic, and the monsoon rains. Their house has marigolds strung over the door just like those in India. Priya longs to see India for herself. When winter comes, Babi Ba doesn’t hang marigolds outside any more. Priya has an idea and soon her entire class is helping her make paper marigolds as she tells them about India.
Patel, who is Indian-American, tells a story that focuses on a family’s continued connection to their heritage while living in the United States. Priya is proud of her Indian heritage, loving to hear stories about India and its sounds and sights. Still, there is a sense of distance between her own heritage and the society around her, one that can be bridged by sharing stories. The art in the book is rich will the colors of spices. Deep greens and warm pinks add to the color palette too.
A celebration of Indian heritage and the strength of family. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed (9781616958473)
Maya is a young documentary-film maker who longs to go to NYU for college, but her traditional Indian parents want her to go to college much closer to home, even better if she can live at home while she attends school. As a senior in high school, Maya spends her time making short documentary films and hanging out with her best friend, Violet. She has a crush on a boy at school, Phil, someone whom her parents would never approve of. When she meets a very appropriate boy though, the spark just isn’t there. Meanwhile, something awful is about to happen and when it does, Maya finds her family and herself a target of hate crimes and Islamophobia. Maya will have to find a way to make her plans for her future come true at the same time she stands up to others who would silence her.
This teen novel is wonderfully readable. It invites readers into Maya’s world, demonstrating the way that she sees her experiences through the lens of films. Readers will also learn about Indian culture, but the focus is on Maya as an individual. She struggles with parental expectations and the hate crimes of modern America. Though at times it has the feel of a Bollywood romance, there is no softening of the hate that is aimed at Maya and her family, much to the author’s credit.
The book reads at first as a pure romance, with a bit too much blushing and twinkling eyes. It really gains strength when the suicide bombing happens and Maya’s family is targeted due to their last name. The pace at this point turns from dreamy romance to drama and tension. The violence towards Maya and her family has repercussions deep into Maya’s future plans that force her to make a very difficult decision. While the book eventually returns to a more romantic tone, the tension never truly disappears again.
Deftly plotted and well written, this book is an important look at diversity in America. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Soho Teen.
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (9780374304904)
Mothers and daughters fill the pages of this novel for teens that focuses on three generations of a Bengali family. Tara and Sonia are sisters born in India and who are moving to the United States from England with their parents. The two girls are very different from one another. Tara loves to act and works to figure out who she can pretend to be in this new environment. Sonia enjoys debate and falls for a boy whom her mother cannot accept. When their father dies unexpectedly, their family fractures even farther. As both sisters find men to love them for the modern women they are, they too have daughters. Chantal is a skilled dancer and athlete, who falls for a wealthy all-American boy. Anna grew up in India primarily, and finds herself in high school in America. She is like her Aunt Sonia and always willing to debate. As the women in this family come to accept one another and their life choices, Ranee grows older but still remains involved in everyone’s life even as she becomes more American herself.
This book is simply stellar. Nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this novel is exceptional in many ways. First, there is the writing by Perkins. It is writing of strength and knowledge, but amazingly unobtrusive too, allowing the story to unfold naturally for the reader. She ties repeating themes into the book: music and dance, diversity and romance. Perkins allows her characters to be racist and yet to learn, to change over the course of time, and to have their opinions and values change as well. This is a difficult thing to accomplish in a novel, giving characters a way forward rather than being villains or one-dimensional.
The five female characters are exceptionally well drawn. Readers will be enthralled with all of their stories, the tale of Ranee herself tying the entire book together in the end. The characteristics of family members are celebrated: passion, intelligence, caring and more. These create a wholeness for the family, a feeling of generations being different but also alike despite clothes, life styles and decisions they make. There is a solidity to this family, one that reads with clarity and honesty and feels like home.
A triumph of a novel for teens that celebrates family, diversity and love. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
(Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)