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

By Veera Hiranandani

It’s 1967. Ariel Goldberg – the protagonist of Veera Hiranandani’s accomplished new novel – struggles with her homework and is the only Jewish girl in sixth grade. His 18-year-old sister, Leah, is secretly dating a Hindu boy whose family has emigrated from India; when Ari and Leah’s parents refuse to accept the relationship, Leah runs away with Raj and disappears. Now Ari has to face, alone, her knowledge that her parents’ bakery is failing; her break-up with her best friend, Jane; the bullying of his classmate who hates Jews; and her mother’s insistence that if she worked harder she would do better in school.

There is a bright spot. Unlike Ma, Ari’s new teacher, Miss Field, doesn’t think Ari is lazy. Miss Field discovers that Ari suffers from what is called dysgraphia and encourages her to write poetry on an IBM Selectric. Typing helps Ari’s hands follow his brain.

Ari does not understand how his parents can be so prejudiced against Raj when they themselves have been confronted with prejudice and they admire Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Ma reprimands Raj, who speaks Hindi, Sindhi and a little Urdu, but now mostly English, with, “Very impressive. I think if people want to live here, they should learn our language. Yet she and daddy don’t speak Yiddish at home?

When Ari tentatively confides his problems to Jane (who, in fact, has her own secrets and sorrows), the two plot a Nancy Drew-style trip to find Leah.

“How To Find What You’re Not Looking For” offers sweet humor and the perfect amount of 70’s-ness – Jane’s drawing of the Girls’ Secret Mission is “really bloated”; Raj likes The Doors and Leah thinks the Beatles are more groovy; Ari is considering giving “a depressed guy” two cents on the subway. The book is written in the second person and each chapter has a title beginning 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 that there is no one-size-fits-all manual for almost everything.

What strikes most about this book is his kindness. People learn, forgive, try to do better. In an instinctive time (ours) it is powerful to witness Ari’s realization that people can grow and change, that her parents’ prejudices are rooted in their own traumas of youth as well as traumas. historical Jews, that even his bully, who is definitely a jerk, has a history. (He is scared and angry that his brother has gone to fight in Vietnam.) None of this allows for bullying or prejudice. But it’s easier to call people than to take them out.

Sometimes, however, expressions of rage are justified. “Maybe anger can be good or bad,” Ari observes, “depending on what you do with it.” Of course, the end of the book is a bit tidy; real life tends to be a lot trickier than late mid-level novels.

You would think that a mid-level novel that deals with the historic court case Loving v. Virginia, anti-Semitism, learning disabilities, the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. speeches and progressive education would seem overloaded. But Hiranandani – author of “The Night Diary” (a Newbery laureate) and “The Whole Story of Half a Girl” (a notable book by Sydney Taylor) – who is herself the daughter of an Ashkenazi white Jewish mother and of a Hindu father, handles this dead-serious subject lightly, imbuing it with kindness and subtle comedy without being sappy or reductive. It’s a pretty amazing achievement.

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