Review: How to Find What You're Not Looking For

How to Find What You're Not Looking For

by Veera Hiranandani

Kokila (imprint of Penguin Random House)

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Beth L. Gallego

You are nearly twelve years old, living in suburban Connecticut with your parents and 18-year-old sister, Leah. You like reading Wonder Woman comics, listening to Beatles records with Leah, and helping in your parents’ bakery. School has always been difficult; writing is especially hard, no matter how much you practice. You don’t think too much about being one of very few Jewish families in the area, and you really don’t think about your parents’ expectation that both you and Leah will one day marry nice Jewish men. Then Leah falls in love with Raj, and you’re not sure which part has your parents more upset, that he isn’t Jewish or that he is Indian. After Leah and Raj elope, your parents won’t even talk about it with you. You’re left trying to figure out who you are and what you believe.
In this middle-grade historical novel, the second-person narration effectively pushes the reader to confront the thorny questions Ariel “Ari” Goldberg must think about. At school, she faces antisemitic bullying from a classmate. At home, she learns about the racism that Raj experiences. She is caught between her beloved older sister and their parents, and then there is the stress of the family bakery’s financial troubles and what might be an undiagnosed learning disability. The tumultuous atmosphere of the late 1960s provides the backdrop to the Goldberg family’s internal conflicts.
This is an outstanding addition to middle grade fiction and a strong contender for the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Ari’s struggles with the changes all around her are realistic and nuanced, perfectly suited to the intended audience in both style and content. The Jewish experience is shown to be multi-faceted and different ways of being Jewish are represented: Ari’s maternal grandparents and extended family in Brooklyn are very traditional and disappointed with Ari’s mother for marrying someone less religiously observant; Ari’s father clearly treasures his Jewish identity even as he must keep the bakery open on Saturdays rather than closing for Shabbos; Leah has to think about what being both Jewish and Indian will mean for her own child(ren).
In an author’s note, Hiranandani shares how her family history inspired the story. Her father, an immigrant from India, and her mother, a Jewish American woman from Brooklyn, are reflected in Raj and Leah. A biracial woman from an interfaith family, Hiranandani has a fresh voice and a unique perspective much needed in middle grade literature. Her sensitive portrayal brings her characters to life in all their complicated glory. Ari, Leah, their parents, Raj, and his parents all grapple with the the same issues from different angles. There are no easy answers, but there is a lot of love.
Are you interested in reviewing books for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze? Click here! 
Reviewer Beth L. Gallego grew up outside Chicago, earned her Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, and promptly moved to sunny Southern California, where she has been a Librarian since 2002.