You know how sometimes you pick up a book and it’s a little surprising how perfectly it is just what you wanted to read at that moment? And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising because after all, you did pick it (or perhaps let someone you trust pick it for you), but somehow it is.
Here are two moving stories from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, both telling stories of middle school life for first-generation Americans, and which hit the spot for me so perfectly it was really hard to put them down. (Also, I ended up reading Red, White and Whole right after reading Red, White and Royal Blue. They are very different genres, despite the similar titles, but both made me both laugh and cry.)
Red, White and Whole
by Rajani LaRocca.
Read from library copy.
It’s 1983, and Reha feels like she’s living a double life. There’s the self she is on the weekends, when she spends time with her Indian best friend Sunny (short for Sunita), and the self she is at school, where there are no other Indian-American kids and her best friend is Rachel, who at least understands belonging to a religion no one else at school does. When she partners with a new boy in English class, these two parts come into conflict as her parents don’t approve of being in such close contact with someone of the opposite sex. And of course there’s lots of pressure for Reha to be more successful than her parents. She wants to be a doctor, but when her mother becomes gravely ill, this wish is put to the test.
The central metaphor is of our blood – how we have red and white cells in our body, very different, but both the same. This novel in verse also looks poetically at the meaning of Reha’s name – star – while her mother’s name, Punam, means moon. This moving, sad and hopeful story is very different from LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, but also excellent.
by Hena Khan.
Salaam Reads, 2021.
Read from library copy.
As this sequel to Amina’s Voice opens, Amina and her family are just winding up a trip to visit their relatives in Pakistan. The uncle she dreaded in the first book is now beloved, but having health problems, and they are all relieved to see him. She’s now good friends with her slightly older cousin, Zohra, who’s 16. Amina spends lots of time filming moments of the stay – the marketplace, the joy of the afternoon chai, where the family gathers to drink chai and eat delicious sweets every afternoon.
Back at home, she wants to share the beauty of Pakistan with her friends, but they don’t really want to listen. Worse yet, her best friend feels threatened by how much Amina misses Zohra. Worst of all, when she chooses Malala Yousafi as a topic for her school’s biography wax museum, her classmates think that Pakistan is a horrible backwards place she’s lucky to have escaped. And just to add to everything, she makes friends with a boy, Nico, whose interest in digital music meshes nicely with Amina’s love of singing and her new desire to write songs. But it’s upsetting when both her parents and her other friends think that they must be interested in each other romantically.
It’s very satisfying to see Amina come up with a brand-new way to share her love of Pakistan and renew her friendships. Her Muslim faith is important here as well as Amina works with people from her Mosque to help set up apartments for new refugees. This is another uplifting story of the challenges and joys of living between cultures, mixed with the ordinary hardships of middle school. I was so happy to spend more time with Amina!
Here are some more realistic middle grade books from the point of view of new and first-generation Americans: