Book Review

How To Find What You’re Not Looking For

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For

  • Author: Veera Hiranandani
  • Genre: MG Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: September 14, 2021
  • Publisher: Kokila

Thank you to BookishFirst for providing me with an ARC of this book. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.

CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism, racism, ableism, xenophobia

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s life feels like the moment right after the final guest leaves the party. It’s the summer of 1967, and her big sister has eloped with a young man from India following Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that says banning interracial marriage is unconstitutional in all 50 states. Ariel’s Jewish parents don’t approve, and soon, her sister disappears into the bohemian New York City of the 1960s.

Back home in Connecticut, her family’s Jewish bakery runs into financial trouble and Ariel is diagnosed with a learning disability. As change becomes Ariel’s only constant, she’s left to confront both her family’s prejudice at home and antisemitism at school, honing something that will be with her always—her own voice.

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For is the story of one of the most pivotal moments in American history—and one girl’s search for her place within it.

For an MG book, I felt like this dealt with a lot, but it was done really well. It was written in the second person narrative, which I’m not accustomed to, so it took me a little while to get into it. Ariel is smack dab in the center of a time of great change — political rights, the Vietnam War, and the free love movement was all going on, and is talked about in story. I can only imagine that these times would be confusing for a 12 year old, and Ariel’s story reflects that. As she tries to figure out how she feels about all these issues, a bunch of issues hit closer to home for her with the landmark decision that allows interracial marriage in the country.

“So far, nobody has done a report on anything really serious, like the Vietnam War or Dr. Martin Luther kin Jr.’s speeches. There’s been nothing about the protests and riots, nothing about San Francisco and the hippies, or about Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court confirmation or the Six-Day War, and nothing about Loving v. Virginia…”

Her sister takes advantage of that and marries a young Hindu man from India, sparking strife within her family. Her family cuts her sister Leah off, and Ariel is struck with the loss of her big sister, since Leah was a stabilizing influence in her life. Leah was the one who supported her, explained things to her, and often assisted her with things that her parents were too busy or unable to help with. After Leah is gone, Ariel is left with a major void in her life.

“Who else can help you figure out the world in the same way?”

On top of that, Ariel struggles with a learning disability. She has difficulty with writing, and her parents consistently tell her to “stop being lazy,” and encourage her to strengthen her hands by working with them in their bakery. The outright ableism made me uncomfortable, especially when it’s employed during a conference with her teacher, who tries to explain her learning disability (dysgraphia) and suggest some helpful techniques to assist her in school. The teacher outright compliments Ariel’s intelligence, while her parents seem to put her down in an effort to contradict the teacher. However, the learning disability is explained clearly enough to make it understandable and I thought it was ultimately dealt with positively.

“You want to know if there’s a name for what makes writing difficult.”

Prejudice is a major theme throughout the book. While Ariel and her family struggle with antisemitism in the story from a variety of sources, they are also a source of prejudice themselves. Despite being a minority, they still hold prejudicial beliefs of their own, viewing Leah’s husband as a foreigner and turn their backs on their own daughter for marrying someone of a different religion. Raj’s parents aren’t thrilled with their son marrying what they also view as a “foreigner” and someone of a different religion. Ariel voices her questions about the expectations that people place on her and others:

“But you wonder, if you were who everyone wants you to be, would it even make a difference?”

I love the fact that Hiranandani wrote this book as someone who has experienced life as someone who has grown up biracial, with a Jewish American mother and an Indian immigrant father. It lends additional context to a potentially sensitive story, and allows her to tell it in a way that resonates without being harmful to the community. I like to think that society has come a long way, but it makes me realize how little things have changed in some ways. This is an important book that has a story that benefits the reader, and the fact that this is designed for young readers is incredible. 

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