Book review: Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (tween fiction)
Our next Newbery contender is Red, White, and Whole, a novel in verse that is a coming-of-age story set in the 1980s. Reha is in eighth grade at a private school in her midwestern American town, where she is one of the few people of Indian descent. As an only child, she is expected to be a stellar student and make something of her life. After all, her parents moved from India to the United States before she was born, to give their family a better life, and Reha feels the weight of their choices. But can she really become a doctor when she can’t handle the sight of a little blood on a skinned knee? Will her parents understand if that is not the path she wants to take?
Not everyone in the town treats her with respect either, simply due to her culture, but she learns to tolerate their ignorance with grace. She is strong but quiet, and works hard to juggle her Indian heritage with the American lifestyle that she wants to be a part of: Reha is learning to balance the expectations of her parents, who she is very close to, with her own need to be a regular American teenager, listening to popular music, going to the school dance, and wearing dresses from the mall. She hopes so desperately to live a whole life, instead of two seemingly very separate halves.
Then, all of a sudden, her mother becomes gravely ill, and life changes completely. Reha tries to be the very best daughter she can be, in hopes of being able to somehow save her ailing mother’s life. In her grief, Reha learns the value of family and of friends who become family.
In Red, White, and Whole, the author introduces a variety of characters, all of whom help to shape Reha’s life. Her parents are loving though strict, and she truly wants to make them proud. She loves school, especially science, and has a small but sincere group of friends. Her family members in India help keep traditions alive. And ultimately, everyone comes to her aid when Reha and her father need it the most.
This book is written in verse, but reads much more like a novel than a poem. It is full and descriptive, well-written and evocative in its themes of family, friendship, and home. Despite some sadness, it is ultimately an uplifting story. A few of its appeals include its effortless storytelling, relatable characters, and universal messages of hope, love, and acceptance. I appreciated how powerful the story is, without needing to include overdone teenage angst or rebellion, or unnecessary language or references, making this a wonderful choice for tweens of all ages. The characters and storyline are very real, and Reha is inherently likable and relatable. I really enjoyed how Reha grew to realize that she really does have a whole life that includes both her Indian side and her American side.
The author herself was born in India and moved to Kentucky as a baby. She drew on some of her own experiences and cultural awareness to give an authentic voice to this beautiful story.
I am pleased to present Red, White, and Whole as my choice for the upcoming Newbery Award. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
~ Ms. Nicole
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