Not Your All-Amer­i­can Girl

By – December 8, 2020

It’s the 1980s. The lat­est device for lis­ten­ing to music is the Walk­man, design­er jeans with names embla­zoned on the rear are the hottest fash­ion trend, and col­or­blind cast­ing is not yet a wide­ly accept­ed idea in the­ater. When sixth-grade stu­dent Lau­ren Horowitz tries out for her school play, she learns a harsh les­son about prej­u­dice. Gift­ed with a beau­ti­ful voice and hop­ing to be cast as a lead in a 1950s nos­tal­gia piece enti­tled Shake It Up, she is bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed when the teacher direct­ing the play informs her that she just doesn’t look the part.

Lau­ren is Chi­nese Amer­i­can and Jew­ish. She has always been aware of her mixed her­itage — how could she not be, when one of her grand­moth­ers, Wai Po, lives with her fam­i­ly, and the oth­er, Saf­ta, lives near­by? When her teacher not only dis­miss­es her tal­ent but also is skep­ti­cal that she is Jew­ish, Lau­ren rea­sons that the Chi­nese part of me was the part she could see, but the Jew­ish part of me was always there, too.” Although Lau­ren accepts a role in the play’s ensem­ble, she strug­gles with a sense of unfair­ness, as well as with a need to define her own identity.

Lauren’s friend Tara Buchanan, by con­trast, seems to live a charmed life in her afflu­ent and white Chris­t­ian house­hold. As Lau­ren becomes more aware of their dif­fer­ences and Tara’s seem­ing insen­si­tiv­i­ty, typ­i­cal pre­teen friend­ship prob­lems become exac­er­bat­ed to a painful degree. Made­lyn Rosen­berg and Wendy Long Shang con­vey the del­i­cate bal­ance between per­son­al and social dif­fer­ences as the girls’ long-stand­ing part­ner­ship begins to unravel.

Every ele­ment of Lauren’s per­son­al­i­ty is care­ful­ly and believ­ably con­struct­ed. Unlike any of her friends, Lau­ren loves coun­try music, and her attrac­tion to the songs of Pat­sy Cline is one exam­ple of her inde­pen­dent spir­it. Lau­ren ini­tial­ly assumes Cline was Jew­ish; when she learns that this isn’t true, she needs to read­just her assump­tions about why the singer speaks to her so pow­er­ful­ly. The authors por­tray Lauren’s con­fu­sion gen­tly and respect­ful­ly, demon­strat­ing their skill at cre­at­ing nuanced char­ac­ters who are more than the sum of their dilem­mas or their pop cul­ture signifiers.

Lauren’s anger at not being seen for who she is inter­acts with her chang­ing social and fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships. When her moth­er announces plans to pur­sue a new career in law, Lau­ren is wor­ried how this deci­sion may cause a shift in pri­or­i­ties at home. When her moth­er attrib­ut­es part of her moti­va­tion to a noto­ri­ous inci­dent of racism in the ear­ly 1980s, when a young Chi­nese Amer­i­can man was mur­dered, Lau­ren con­nects the igno­rance and hatred behind it to inci­dents in her own life. This part of the plot emerges nat­u­ral­ly, with­out any sense that it has been includ­ed mere­ly to pro­vide sup­port for an admirable idea. By the book’s con­clu­sion, Lau­ren Horowitz has become one of the more mem­o­rable char­ac­ters in con­tem­po­rary mid­dle-grade books, a com­plex and self-aware young woman, for­giv­ing of oth­ers’ weak­ness­es and proud of her own new­found strengths.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions


Learn about the time peri­od when this sto­ry takes place (1984) and the cul­tures involved. Find mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and oth­er mate­ri­als at that time to show what was in the news. Look at who was rep­re­sent­ed in TV shows and adver­tise­ments; how often were peo­ple of col­or the main char­ac­ter in a movie or ad?.


Your par­ents and guardians don’t think of the 1980s as his­to­ry, but in fact, it is his­to­ry. Even today will be his­to­ry tomor­row. Ask the peo­ple around you how life was dif­fer­ent then. How did peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate? What were peo­ple wor­ried about? How did they get their infor­ma­tion? What did they do for fun? What kind of music rep­re­sents the 1980s to them?

Now com­pare that with today. How do you com­mu­ni­cate? What do you wor­ry about?


Many mid­dle grade sto­ries are about friend­ships. How do friends treat each oth­er? How impor­tant is lis­ten­ing in a friend­ship? Make a list of the things you appre­ci­ate about your friends.


How do you resolve argu­ments with friends? With fam­i­ly? Have you ever been afraid to speak up about some­thing that both­ers you? Why? Cre­ate a script where you bring up some­thing that both­ers you to a friend or fam­i­ly member.


What assump­tions do you think oth­er peo­ple have made about you or some­one else because of race, reli­gion, gen­der — or even your height? Were these assump­tions cor­rect or incor­rect? How have you respond­ed? The authors of this sto­ry often say that they could nev­er think of what to do in moments when they faced prej­u­dice, but that this sto­ry is their sec­ond chance at that.

What do you think you should do to stand up for friends? What do you wish friends would do to stand up for you?


Bias: A pref­er­ence for or against an idea or per­son, with­out an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er oth­er ideas.

Diver­si­ty: The prac­tice or state of includ­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races, social back­grounds, ages, gen­ders, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions or oth­er identities.

Inclu­sion: The prac­tice of involv­ing, valu­ing and respect­ing oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple who might nor­mal­ly be exclud­ed or marginalized.

Microa­gres­sion: A microag­gres­sion is any kind of slight, snub or insult, whether it is made inten­tion­al­ly or not, which com­mu­ni­cates neg­a­tive or hurt­ful mes­sages to a per­son based sole­ly on their iden­ti­ty as part of a mar­gin­al­ized group.


We all have more than one aspect that defines us. For instance, you might be a veg­e­tar­i­an and a bas­soon­ist. In This Is Just a Test, a com­pan­ion book to Not Your All-Amer­i­can Girl, one of David’s friends is sur­prised that he and Lau­ren are both Chi­nese Amer­i­can and Jew­ish: You can be Chi­nese and Bud­dhist or Chi­nese and Taoist or Chi­nese and Jew­ish.” I man­aged to stop blath­er­ing before I paired being Chi­nese with every reli­gion on earth.

How do the dif­fer­ent parts of Lauren’s iden­ti­ty cross over in her life? How does con­sid­er­ing one part of your iden­ti­ty affect the oth­er parts of your identity?


1. Lau­ren has a num­ber of but­tons that she wears that express her feel­ings, whether she’s get­ting ready for a per­for­mance or math test, or whether she’s just feel­ing angry. A but­ton slo­gan is gen­er­al­ly short. Some­times it uses words and some­times just a pic­ture. Design a but­ton that describes an emo­tion, feel­ing, sen­ti­ment or atti­tude that rep­re­sents your mood right now.

2. In Not Your All-Amer­i­can Girl, the stu­dents act in a musi­cal. Authors Made­lyn Rosen­berg and Wendy Shang made up their own musi­cal about hula hoops for this book; what idea, per­son or time peri­od might make a good musi­cal? If you were to write a musi­cal, who would be the main char­ac­ter to tell the sto­ry? Musi­cals also have an I am” song, intro­duc­ing the main char­ac­ter. A good exam­ple of this is Alexan­der Hamil­ton” from the pop­u­lar musi­cal. Cre­ate an I am” song about your­self. Intro­duce your­self briefly in song. Cre­ate one verse or the whole thing!

3. When Made­lyn and Wendy worked on the book, they made sure to use foods, cloth­ing, muic, and more to give the book an 80s feel. Names of char­ac­ters also reflect names that were pop­u­lar at the time. If you were cre­at­ing a sto­ry that reflect­ed the time we’re in, right now, what would you do for the following?

· Name your char­ac­ter and your character’s best friend

· Three foods your char­ac­ter would eat

· List three things your char­ac­ter would wear

· A piece of tech­nol­o­gy your char­ac­ter would own

· A song your char­ac­ter would hear on the radio

· What type of pet would your char­ac­ter have?

· What would your char­ac­ter hear on the news?

· What are some words your char­ac­ter would know that reflect this time, right now?

4. In a way, a playlist is like a time cap­sule. Cre­ate a musi­cal playlist for the 1980s. If you’d like, have your par­ents or guardians help. (For ref­er­ence, here’s a playlist that Made­lyn and Wendy made in hon­or of the book.) Make anoth­er playlist of songs you like right now.

5. And final­ly, because we’re all spend­ing too much time inside, if you own a hula hoop, get it out and see how long you can keep it going. Can you sing and hula hoop at the same time?

For the full dis­cus­sion guide to Not Your All-Amer­i­can Girl, click here.