The Title: Red, White and Whole
Author: Rajani LaRocca
Publication: 2021 by Quill Tree Books
The Plot: Reha is 13 year old Indian American living in the midwest in 1983. She feels pulled between the American world in which she is growing up and the Indian culture of her parents. Reha’s mom Amma is reluctant to let her daughter participate in youth activities such as the school dance. When Amma becomes ill, Reha feels pressure to be the perfect daughter for her parents, even if that means sacrificing relationships at school
My Take: I though that this book conveyed well the struggle of a young person who is the second generation of a family that has immigrated to the United States. Author Rajani LaRocca’s choice to write in verse allows her to focus on the emotional life of Reha and acquaints the reader with the challenges that the character faces. Those looking for a plot-based page turner will be disappointed, but a reader who wants a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of immigrant families need look no further. Anyone who enjoys Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga will also love this book.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Much of Red, White, and Whole is based on LaRocca’s experiences growing up as an immigrant in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1980’s.
The Plot: Jude is a girl living on the coast of Syria who life becomes increasingly tense as civil war slowly breaks out in her country. To escape the unrest, Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati, Ohio, leaving behind her father and older brother. Jude struggles to adapt to life in a new country all the while hoping to hear good news about the safety of friends and family back in Syria.
My Take: Author Jasmine Warga’s choice to write this story in verse allows her to use a broad brush on much of the plot and setting while honing in on the emotional landscape of Jude. This engages the reader in the anxiety, loneliness, and alienation that Jude feels in her new home. Warga’s verse focuses in on the core of the story which is one girl’s inner experience of dealing with the challenges of immigrating to a new country. As someone unfamiliar with Syrian society, I also appreciated the author’s deft incorporation of elements of Middle Eastern culture. I came away from this story with a much greater appreciation for the struggles of refugees fleeing unrest.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website bio, Warga grew up in Cincinnati and believes that Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream is the most delicious food in the world.
The Plot: Lily, her mom, and older sister are moving to live with their Korean grandmother Halmoni in a small town. Halmoni has always been eccentric, but lately her strangeness has developed into seeing hallucinations and not recognizing familiar faces – all signs of possible dementia. Whatever the cause, Lily has also begun seeing mystical things, specifically a tiger that visits her and demands to hear lost stories from Korea. As Halmoni’s state of mind continues to slip, Lily finds herself engaging with the tiger to rediscover the stories in an effort to save her grandmother.
My Take: After watching the Youth Media Awards, I was eager to read this year’s Newberry Medal winner. After finishing it, I can understand why the committee chose this book. Keller has deftly created a story about the intergenerational strength of women in the face of challenges from immigration, grief, and a country victimized by war. The core theme is a family dealing with the consequences of being second generation immigrants and sorting out what traditions they want to preserve from their home country. Lily is an interesting character because she is the inheritor of her grandmother’s legacy and love of Korean culture – an inheritance from which her mom and older sister have turned away. This tension between the 4 females is what drives the story forward. I highly recommend this novel to those looking for a read about resilient women and the power of storytelling.
One Interesting Note About The Author: To write When You Trap A Tiger, Keller drew from the experiences of her own childhood when she listened to her halmoni tell her stories about ghosts and tigers at bedtime.
The Plot: Since the death of Coyote’s mother and two sisters in a car accident 5 years ago, 12 year old Coyote and her dad Rodeo have lived on a repurposed school bus traveling across the country to nowhere in particular. In a long distance phone call with her grandmother, Coyote learns that a park in her hometown is being bulldozed. Years before Coyote and her mom and sisters had buried a memory box in that park. Coyote vows to herself to travel and reclaim the memory box before it disappears underneath the bulldozers shovels. She must hide the true purpose of this cross country trek from Rodeo who cannot face his grief from the past.
My Take: This book suffers from a protracted second act in which we are introduced to a host of supporting characters, each with an accompanying subplot that slows, rather than adds momentum, to the story. At least one of these characters could be removed with no loss of meaning to the book.
I also at times found Coyote’s voice inauthentic due to her tendency to philosophize on life. She muses, for example, at one point that “you could be scared and sad and tough all at the same time, like I didn’t know that you could be a million different things all at the same time. There’s so much sadness in the world. Really, there is.” The author could have trusted the reader to draw these lessons from the story rather than having it told to us with such frequency.
The story picks up in the 3rd and 4th acts as Coyote’s yearning to retrieve the memory box intensifies and Rodeo is forced to wrestle with his grief and his abandonment of his role as a father. Gemeinhart’s strongest writing occurs in the final chapters which put a lump in my throat. I truly felt for Coyote and her father at the end despite the long slog to get to this point. Readers can decide for themselves if it was worth it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to Dan Gemeinhart’s website, he was a teacher-librarian for 13 years which, in my biased opinion, makes him a pretty awesome person!
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Mia and her parents have recently immigrated to the United States from China and are having difficulty finding work. They procure jobs to run a motel and feel grateful that they are also able to live there and thereby save on rent. They soon discover that the work is grueling, the hours long, and the owner of the motel is a martinet who docks their paychecks for small infractions. Mia pitches in to help her parents by working the front desk. As she befriends the residents of the motel, she slowly works out a plan to spring her family out of poverty and into a better life.
My Take: This is an excellent book in its portrayal of working conditions of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the 1980’s and 90’s. Yang should be commended for introducing her characters to the wrenching irony that the quality of life in China was improving. It is possible that their lives may have been better had they stayed in China. To counter such heartaches and to endure the many humiliations of their poverty, the characters develop strong bonds among each other. These relationships, along with the portrayal of immigrants’ difficult lives, are certainly the greatest strength of this book. I did find the ending too pat, as a last minute plot device saves the day. Still, I recommend this book to anyone middle grade reader.
One Interesting Note About the Author: The character of Mia was based on Kelly Yang’s life growing up, who immigrated to the United States and worked in motels with her family.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Red is a scarlet oak that has stood in a neighborhood for 216 years. The local people use Red as a wishtree, writing wishes onto scraps of paper or cloth and tying them onto the branches. When a Muslim family moves into a house close by, Red and its companion animals befriend the daughter named Samar. But when an act of hate targets Samar’s family, Red finds that she must take a more active role in protecting the people and animals in her neighborhood.
My Take: Wishtree is an excellent entry into the category of juvenile fiction that deals with immigration and racial tension. This tale will certainly ring familiar to readers in Trump’s America. Applegate doesn’t clutter up the tale and instead allows the simplicity of the story and the gentle voice of Red guide the narrative. Adults who are struggling to explain racism and persecution to children will appreciate this book
One Interesting Thing About The Author: Katherine Applegate is not only the author of The One And Only Ivan, 2013 Newberry Medal Winner, but also the Animorphs series.