My Summary: Chloe Cho is tired of being treated like an alien for her Asianness. When Chloe’s English teacher who is new to town turns out to be Korean American, she’s excited to finally meet someone who shares her heritage. However, when she investigates her family history for a school project, she unearths a mind-blowing truth about her parents.
Honestly, I will probably never get tired of books that focus on an Asian American character’s ethnicity, even though it’s important to have plenty of books featuring Asian/Asian American characters that aren’t about their ethnicity, because they are cathartic. Mike Jung adds to the growing canon of Asian American kid lid with a book that portrays the experience of being “othered” perfectly while throwing in an extra twist (or two).
I related to Chloe’s experience quite well, especially as a fellow East Asian American. Getting mistaken for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. (I’m Taiwanese) was a regular part of my childhood, and when I was in middle school, some seventh grader I didn’t even know went out of his way to say “konnichi wa” to me multiple times in passing. Also, the part where she questioned whether her friendship with Shelley was rooted in Shelley’s fetishization of her culture was very real. Because of the popularity of Japanese and, more recently, Korean pop culture abroad, there are white people (as well as POC, unfortunately) who fetishize Japanese, Korean, and East Asian people in general. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have to wonder whether someone’s motivations for being interested in you, platonically or romantically or otherwise, are based on these ridiculous idealizations of your culture and people that homogenize you and treat you as interchangeable.
Chloe is a great protagonist because she’s so unapologetically sassy. The book is written in first-person, and her voice jumps off the page. You can feel her frustration, her excitement, her shock, her rage, and so on very acutely. Moreover, she’s not afraid to voice her opinions or express her emotions. She may get good grades and be good at the violin, but she is 3000% not here to be your model minority. Take this glorious passage (some parts omitted for brevity):
“He told Jeremy that you always win first chair because Asians all have a violin-playing gene, and how’s he supposed to beat that?”
I could almost feel the surface of my eyeballs giving off steam as Shelley’s words sank into my brain.
“Oh, that weasel-faced little preppypants,” I said, not bothering to whisper. “I don’t care how expensive his violin is, he’s going DOWN.”
YOU GO, CHLOE CHO!
(For the record, I told that seventh grader who said “konnichi wa” to “f**k off.”)
While a lot of books that explore ethnic identity have the parents teaching their child about their heritage while the kid resists because they’ve internalized the stigma of being Asian in a white-dominated society, this book is the opposite. Chloe is extremely interested in learning about and exploring her heritage, and her parents are the one who refuse to have anything to do with it.
And it turns out there’s a very good reason for it. That’s where the big twist comes in and takes the feeling of being “othered” to a new level and makes this book a creative spin on a familiar story. Then, just when you think you know what’s up and things seem to be settling down, the ending features another twist that makes the book end with a bang.
On top of the other stuff I already mentioned, Mike Jung finds ways to throw in scenes and conversations that encourage you to think critically about cultural elements that are often viewed superficially. Or initiate important dialogues about representation, such as this one (also edited for brevity):
“I’m reading this book. It’s about aliens who come to Earth, they introduce an alien virus into the water supply, and you know what, the heroes in these movies, the people who save the world, they’re all white people, ALL OF THEM and when there are human-looking aliens, they’re also all white people! Why don’t any of the aliens who look like white people get killed? Where are the Korean people? Why is it always a white person who saves the world? Why are the aliens always the bad guys??”
If I ever encounter someone who treats kid lit like a throwaway genre that doesn’t require/entail depth or thoughtfulness, I will shove this book at them.
Recommendation: I love this book and even if you’re not someone who usually reads middle grade fiction, I’d highly recommend it!