How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani, 372 pages, Can be read in a few evenings depending on your speed, Middle Grade
A quote that I really appreciated: “But you wonder, if you were who everyone wants to be, would it even make a difference?” Ariel, p. 147
Shout out to another library book I didn’t intend to pick up! I borrowed this book at the same time as Born Behind Bars, but the second I saw the author, I knew I wanted to read it. I loved Hirandani’s The Night Diaries, so I figured I’d enjoy this one as well. This book has been winning a lot of awards and honors lately, and for good reason. It is an emotionally affecting read that manages to tackle a number of important issues in a short period of time.
But, fair warning: If you’re a crier, keep a box of tissues handy. If you’re a younger sibling, keep a box of tissues handy. If you’re a parent/aunt/uncle, keep a box of tissues handy. If you’ve ever been bullied, keep a box of tissues handy. Really, if you’re reading the last 100 pages or so, keep a box of tissues handy. Just in case.
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For is an historical fiction, set in 1967-1968, and follows 12-year-old Ariel as she navigates what can only be described as one hell of a year. In 1967, shortly after the Supreme Court decides Loving vs. Virginia, Ariel learns her 18-year-old sister has fallen in love with an Indian American man. While the law now officially approves of this relationship nationwide, Ariel’s parents who do not. Ariel’s family is Jewish, and her parents want their daughters to marry within the faith as do Raj’s parents, who are Hindu—something many children of both Jewish and Hindu parents can relate to.
The disapproval of the relationship sets off a series of events that Ariel not only never saw coming, but also never wanted to deal with. In the middle of the night, her sister snuck out of the home and eloped, at which point her parents cut off all contact. Over the rest of the next year, we watch as Ariel confronts this change in her home life. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we also watch as Ariel learns to do deal with even more frustrations at school, including an anti-Semitic classroom bully, and a few other issues that I won’t spoil.
While a lot of historical fiction books use the time period as a background, the historical events serve as key moments in the story. Loving vs. Virginia is obviously a key event to the plot, but the setting of 1967 also allows the story to bring in conversations about race and civil rights. This parallels well with the bullying Ariel deals with and Hiranandani does an excellent job using focusing on the individual story while bringing in the larger conversation.
And, as someone who was bullied as a child, Hiranandani’s telling of that part of the story was perfect. It makes you wonder if she’s dealt with bullying herself (given that I know a lot of us South Asian kids did and still do, it’s likely), but either way, she really captures both the sadness and anger that comes with being bullied and the desire to do want to do something about it, but not sure of knowing what that something is.
What I really loved about this book is that while it is a story of struggle, it is also a story of strength. As the year passes, Ariel discovers she is good at poetry and finds strength in her creative voice. This also leads her to find strength in other ways and that strength becomes the driving force for how the story concludes.
Speaking of which, I also appreciated that I wasn’t entirely sure how the book would end. I had an inkling—or rather a hope—of what would happen, but I had to wait until the last page to see how it all came together. This is actually one of the few books where I had to stop myself from skipping to the last chapter because I just really wanted to know! I’m glad I waited though.
In short, read this book. You won’t be sorry you did.