biracial literature #4: not making racial identity the whole story

The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Veera Hiranandani) is one of the better titles for these books, I think. Especially for a middle grade novel. This novel focuses on the life of Sonia Nadhamuni, a sixth grader who is half Indian and half Jewish, and whose father has just lost his job, forcing her and her sister to leave their private community school for regular public school. Like in any good middle school story, Sonia has to navigate the shark-infested waters of popularity, friendship, and academics, and she of course makes iffy choices along the way. She joins a cheerleading team, has to decide whether to sit with the black girl who likes books and writing like her or sit with the popular kids who exoticize her, and has to deal with being the formerly rich girl who now goes to public school.

Needless to say, I identified greatly with her school issues and effect of her real vs. perceived racial identity and real vs. perceived socioeconomic status. I suppose my trajectory in school was the opposite, where I went from being a sort of “rich” kid at my public schools to being the poor, scholarship kid at a school where two of my close friends had private family planes. Still, whatever the order, being biracial and changing your socioeconomic status means, in real life and in this book, that the way you look doesn’t necessarily match with the way you feel, meaning that people might expect you to be more or less wealthy or more or less educated than you actually are, and this book explores that dynamic really well without getting didactic, simplistic, or overarching. Another point it brought up without making it a point at all (hooray for narratives dealing with race not being ONLY about race!) was something that hit very close to home for me: being the good minority girl who is taken under a wealthy white person’s wing because they feel as if they need to give you a leg up. This isn’t totally explicit in the novel, but it’s never that explicit in life, either. It’s just a possibility, and it’s something that neither Sonia nor I know is totally the case, but when you’re in the situation of being the slightly poor kid, or even the perceived-to-be-slightly-poor kid, and people buy you things and always invite you over, you wonder whether it’s because they would do it to anyone, or if they think you need it. And Sonia’s relationship with Kate and her mother exhibits this very well.

I greatly appreciate the realism of this novel. The little asides, like people not being able to pronounce or spell Sonia’s last name and Sonia gazing at the color separation of lunch tables, tell you so much more than a more obvious story that’s only about how difficult or fun it is to be biracial. Sonia feels real, observant, sensitive, and normal.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read for this project. I love it because it is thoroughly middle grade, and my younger self would be happy to read it and find the validation that dorky girls find in books that are about introverts, unpopular people, or just socially confused people. I love it because it’s a good story, and the economics are especially relevant to today’s readers in the recession. But it’s not just a juvenile book; it really deals deftly and maturely and appropriately with issues of psychological identity formation, social identity formation, and racial identity formation. Nothing is too subtle or too evident; it’s clear that Sonia is very concerned with what makes her Jewish and what makes her Indian, but she’s just as concerned with what people at the lunch table are saying about her. It’s worth both fun reading and study, and that’s not always easily found.

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