27 Feb / The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani
“Life’s pretty good,” Sonia thinks to herself. Her whole class is making biryani together as part of their study of India: “Getting to know the food,” says her favorite teacher, “… is the best way to really understand a country, just like sharing a meal with someone helps you get to know them.”
But when Sonia gets home that night, her entire life turns upside down. Her father’s been fired. Her English professor mother needs to work more than ever. And, worst of all, Sonia and her little sister Natasha won’t be going to Community, the only school they’ve ever known with its tiny classes, its emphasis on individuality, its nurturing family-like atmosphere.
Sonia’s Indian heritage from her father, her Jewish background from her mother, her international travels, her (mostly) purple clothes, her homemade lunches, all make her stand out as she starts sixth grade at Maplewood Middle School. On her first day, she’s especially struck with the students’ self-segregation: “If I tell [my parents] about the way the white kids and the black kids don’t sit together at lunch, Mom would race to call the PTA and arrange some kind of multicultural day,” she notes wryly. Sonia is one astute tween: “What’s funny is that at Maplewood, the school that people don’t need extra money to go to, everyone seems to have plenty of money. The kids show off their iPods and cell phones … I see other parents dropping off their kids in fancy cars like Mercedes and BMWs.”
At school, Sonia navigates new challenges – being separated from her best friend Sam, getting to know popular girl Kate while ignoring mean girl Jess, trying to figure out Alisha who’s bussed in from faraway Bridgeport. At home, things go from bad to worse. Sonia knows her father isn’t well – his sudden mood swings are especially troubling – but no one is prepared when he suddenly disappears. Will her splintered family ever be whole again?
Already the author of 20 picture books, Veera Hiranandani makes a resonating novel debut. Sonia is a memorable protagonist, facing difficult challenges that require her to question facets of her own identity for the first time: her multi-syllabic family name, her spiritual identification as Hindu or Jewish or both or neither, her place in the racial spectrum somewhere between black and white, and her uncertain relationship with her spiraling father. Hiranandani provides no easy answers here – although she does end with hopeful beginnings.
Tidbit: When Sonia’s father tells her about his life in India, he explains “[w]e lived through the partition.” Partition happened in 1947, so if her father remembers that, he must have been at least … say 5 or 6? Since Sonia’s talking iPods and cell phones, her story is contemporary … which would mean that Daddy is quite old – almost 70 at the very youngest, no?
Readers: Middle Grade