Ravi (pronounced Rah-VEE) is new to America, but confident that he will be the smartest and most popular kid in 5th grade, just like he was back home.
Joe’s no stranger to Albert Einstein Elementary, but he’s facing some new challenges this year. He’s always had Auditory Processing Disorder, but this year his best friends have moved away, and his mother’s taken a job at school, ruining his favorite subject: lunch.
This novel takes place over their first week of fifth grade, broken up into five days and alternating viewpoints between the two narrators. The chapters tend to be short, and between the two narrators they cover a lot of ground.
I had heard a lot of buzz about this book, so I was really excited to read it. It’s a good fit for this blog also as both of the main characters are from traditionally marginalized groups.
The book opens with Ravi’s perspective. He comes off as a little bit arrogant but the reader is still able to sympathize with him. He is the only Indian in the class, at least by his grandmother’s standards. Most of the kids are white, but there is a boy named Dillon who is American-born but from an ethnically Indian family. Clearly, Ravi thinks, they will be best friends.
In a minute we get the same experience from Joe’s perspective. He is understandably nervous about two things- will his teacher understand his APD and treat him appropriately? And how will he make it through fifth grade when he’s the biggest target of popular Dillon Samreen with no friends to stand by him?
Normally, I’m not very keen on mixed-narrator novels, especially those written by two different authors. They can be amazing but they also fall flat or have one voice dominating and unbalancing the book. However, I was impressed with the way the book was carried through the narration of these two disparate voices, and the story was fast-moving and interesting. Both writers clearly knew each other well and their styles complimented each other. From the author info, I expected Sarah Weeks to be the stronger voice (as she is a published author already), but if anything, it was Ravi’s story that was slightly more prominent.
Neither narrator noticed everything or was fully open about everything, so it was nice to get both perspectives. And the book extended quite a bit into their home lives as well, which were of course completely separate.
One aspect of this book I loved was that adults are fully fleshed out characters who make mistakes. Ravi’s mom asks him to demonstrate a complicated math trick to win the respect of his peers (and prove he’s not a delayed student), but he ends up irritating the teacher and getting mocked by classmates. On page 141, Joe’s dad makes several comments about immigrants, and references are made to his not understanding or helping Joe with his disability either.
An authority figure makes discriminatory comments, more than once. But I still LOVE this book. Read the rest of that chapter to see why. Children lead the way, but what about the children who are getting discriminatory messages at home? Many of my students come from homes that do not accept other cultures or ethnicities or religions. Some may blindly follow their parents, but at some point, especially if they are consistently receiving different messages from their teachers and peers, they will begin to question their parents’ views. Joe handles this one way, and it works for him and his family. Ravi handles it a different way, and that works for him and his family.
I was also surprised by how big of a role economic status played in this book. Ravi’s family is middle class in America, but that’s a step down from India, where they lived in a large house with servants and his grandparents had their own place. Joe’s family is struggling economically, which is why his mother took the job at school and his father is traveling so much. Although they are both middle class, they also feel like they are moving downward, and the boys are aware of and sensitive to the change.
Spoiler: There is a point in the book where Ravi is tricked into eating meat and is distraught. It is a pivotal scene in Ravi’s narrative, as he finally sees Dillon for who he truly is and begins to empathize with the boy he bullied in India. Unfortunately, this does happen in real life. Parents and teachers should be aware of this scene and be prepared to discuss it with students. Also, the book mentions but does not emphasize the greater difficulty that eating cow’s meat, in particular, might have for a traditional Indian. For those who are picky about religion in books, Ravi briefly states that he is a Hindu and eating hamburger meat is a sin. /End of Spoilers
This book was one that has been haunting me since I first saw it. The cover image is certainly memorable and cleverly designed, given that food is a major theme of the book. Finally buying a copy and seeing the attention to detail, it was even better than I expected. At the end of the book, there are glossaries (with pronunciation) for both boys, and a dessert recipe from each family.
The short chapters seem to make this especially geared towards read-alouds, and I can’t wait to read this one out loud! I hate to over-enthuse, but I think this might be my favorite read of 2016 so far.