Not Your All-Amer­i­can Girl

  • Review
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.

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