Jewish Pride, and Prejudice, in Veera Hiranandani’s New Middle Grade Novel

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By Marjorie Ingall

By Veera Hiranandani

It’s 1967. Ariel Goldberg — the protagonist of Veera Hiranandani’s accomplished new middle grade novel — struggles with schoolwork and being the only Jewish girl in sixth grade. Her 18-year-old sister, Leah, is secretly dating a Hindu boy whose family emigrated from India; when Ari’s and Leah’s parents refuse to accept the relationship, Leah elopes with Raj and disappears. Now Ari must cope, alone, with her knowledge that her parents’ bakery is failing; her rift with her best friend, Jane; her Jew-hating classmate’s bullying; and her mother’s insistence that if she just worked harder she’d do better in school.

There’s one bright spot. Unlike Ma, Ari’s new teacher, Miss Field, doesn’t think Ari is lazy. Miss Field figures out that Ari has something called dysgraphia and encourages her to write poetry on an IBM Selectric — typing helps Ari’s hands keep up with her brain.

Ari doesn’t understand how her parents can be so prejudiced against Raj when they themselves have faced bias and they admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ma chastises Raj, who speaks Hindi, Sindhi and some Urdu, but now mostly English, with, “Very impressive. I do think that if people are going to live here, they should learn our language.” Yet don’t she and Daddy speak Yiddish at home?

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    When Ari tentatively confides her troubles to Jane (who it turns out has her own secrets and sorrows), the two plot a Nancy Drew-like trip to find Leah.

    “How to Find What You’re Not Looking For” offers gentle humor and the perfect amount of ’70s-ness — Jane’s drawing of the girls’ secret mission is “really swell”; Raj likes the Doors and Leah thinks the Beatles are groovier; Ari ponders giving two nickels to “a down-and-out fellow” on the subway. The book is written in the second person, and each chapter has a title starting with “How to” — “How to Keep a Secret,” “How to Write a Poem,” “How to Follow the Rules,” “How to Be a Mensch.” It works. The reader, like Ari, sees there’s no universal how-to for almost anything.

    What’s most striking about the book is how kind it is. People learn, forgive, try to do better. In a knee-jerk time (ours), it’s powerful to witness Ari’s realization that people can grow and change, that her parents’ prejudices are grounded in their own youthful traumas as well as historical Jewish trauma, that even her bully, who is definitely a jerk, has a story. (He’s scared and angry because his brother is off fighting in Vietnam.) None of this makes bullying or prejudice OK. But it makes it easier to call people in rather than out.

    Sometimes, though, expressions of rage are justified. “Maybe anger can be good or bad,” Ari observes, “depending on what you do with it.” Sure, the book’s ending is a bit tidy; real life tends to be a lot thornier than the endings of middle grade novels.

    One might think a middle grade novel that addresses the landmark court case Loving v. Virginia, antisemitism, learning disabilities, the Vietnam War, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and progressive education would seem overstuffed. But Hiranandani — author of “The Night Diary” (a Newbery honoree) and “The Whole Story of Half a Girl” (a Sydney Taylor Notable Book) — who herself is the daughter of an Ashkenazi white Jewish mother and a Hindu father, handles this dead-serious subject matter lightly, suffusing it with kindness and subtle comedy without being sappy or reductive. It’s a pretty astounding achievement.

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