This delightful debut novel by award-winning actor Maulik Pancholy is the story of Rahul Kapoor, an awkward 12-year-old Indian American gay middle-grade boy coming into his own in a small town in Indiana. One of Time Out‘s “LGBTQ+ books for kids to read during Pride Month,” The Best at It has also garnered a coveted Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association.
Pancholy, based in Brooklyn, New York, has a career spanning hit television shows (30 Rock, Whitney), animated favorites (Phineas and Ferb, Sanjay and Craig), the Broadway stage, and films. He also served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and is the co-founder of the anti-bullying campaign Act to Change.
As an LGBTQ kid, Pancholy never saw himself in the books he read. And so, while it’s a work of fiction, this is also a deeply personal book that reflects his own struggles, coming to terms with his LGBTQ identity, and the joy of discovering how to be the best at being oneself. Moreover, it’s a love letter to his grandparents.
Home denotes everything that’s safe and comforting for Rahul. His world consists mostly of his 72-year-old wheelchair-bound grandfather, Bhai, who is full of life, and almost like an older brother to him, as well as his best friend, Chelsea. Like many young second-generation (‘ABCD’) children his age, Rahul is embarrassed by his ethnic identity and wants to belong with the cool (read ‘white’) kids in school.
Telltale signs of his being somewhat different from the others begin to show up early on—when he’s terrified of dancing with a girl and can’t help staring at a boy. His bullying classmate, Brent Mason, constantly picks on him for being different – making jokes about his culture and asking him if he’s gay. And then there is also Justin Emery, another classmate who Rahul is secretly attracted to, and wants to emulate.
Amidst all this confusion, Rahul’s grandfather tells him that if he dedicates himself to something that he is good at and becomes the best at it, then nobody can stop him and stand in his way. After many trials and errors—football team tryouts (which he fails miserably at) and professional acting auditions (where he faces racial discrimination)—he finally discovers his true talent and joins his school’s Mathletes’ team. Ultimately, Rahul finds that being the best is about finding something you love and doing it until you get better at it.
Pancholy lightheartedly touches upon several serious themes, such as ethnicity, inclusivity, bullying, and sexuality. There is also a reference to the 2015 film The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the life of the famous Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who faced racism, bullying, and prejudice in the early 1900s—which he managed to overcome, and came out as a winner.
The book is also filled with lots of stereotypes that good-humoredly poke fun at the Indian community, such as nerdy Indian kids who get perfect scores on their math homework, Indian ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ hooked to Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, and all Indian grandfathers having a “Mr. Rogers-worthy supply of cardigans”.
Towards the end of the book, rainbow colors mark the celebration of Holi at an international carnival of dance, music, art, and food with participation from people of various countries. The festival of colors commemorates the triumph of good over evil—“the chance to forgive people and repair relationships.” And so, an important takeaway from the book is: “Being different is what makes us fun.”
Overall, reading this fun and the breezy book is a pleasurable experience, largely due to Pancholy’s playful and infectious writing that is filled with childlike energy and enthusiasm.