In 1967, twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s life is full of turmoil like the world around her. The release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album may be a highlight but protests, hippies, and war fill the news. Personally, her life is inundated with massive changes she doesn’t know how to fix. In How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, inspired by her own family story, Newbery Honor winner Veera Hiranandani paints a complex picture of a pre-teen girl navigating her life as it falls apart one issue at a time.
Ariel adores her eighteen-year-old sister Leah and leans on her as she grows up in one of the few Jewish families in a town in Connecticut. She also helps after school in the family’s Jewish bakery and is pressed to believe that the bakery will be her future. But the world is changing, and so is Ariel’s life.
Leah swears Ariel to secrecy before she introduces her boyfriend, a recently naturalized citizen from India named Raj Jagwani. Raj is a polite and friendly college student, and Ari enjoys the attention he pays her. However, when Leah brings him home for dinner, Max and Sylvia Goldberg are upset because, they tell Leah, he’s not Jewish. Shortly thereafter, Leah and Raj elope, leaving a letter for her parents. To the Goldbergs, it doesn’t matter that Loving v. Virginia repealed all U.S. laws against interracial marriage that year. She is dead to them.
Meanwhile, Ariel is harassed under the radar by a classmate who uses anti-Semitic slurs that neither fully understands. She struggles with handwriting legibility despite how hard she tries. Her mother says she’s lazy, and her classmates think she’s slow. Miss Field believes Ariel has dysgraphia, and Ariel’s mother assumes and rejects the notion that her daughter needs special education. However, with the encouragement of her teacher, Miss Field, Ariel discovers a new mode of expression through poetry.
But things turn worse when Ariel accidentally learns that her parents’ bakery is in financial trouble, and they have to sell it. Without the bakery, Ari worries about what her parents will do, where they’ll all have to live, and if they move, whether Leah will be able to find them.
The novel offers plenty for readers aged eight to twelve (and for adults) to unpack and discuss, for many of Ariel’s challenges resonate today: her internal grappling with loyalty to her sister and her parents; her meeting discrimination and othering head-on; and realizing she must fight for what she believes is right. Pre-teens often feel they have no power within the family, and true to course, it is Ariel who attempts to bring her family together. In this, Hiranandani fittingly takes the realistic path, allowing for tears, anger, awkward emotions, resistance, halting relief, and a few revelations.
Effortlessly woven into the story as shared references of the time are the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial and religious prejudice, and xenophobia. Hippies, protests, and the Summer of Love round out the historical background. Readers will feel included in Ariel’s second-person narrative as she absorbs the world around her, large and small, questions what she doesn’t understand, and finds her voice as part of a white religious minority in mid-twentieth-century America.
Hiranandani delivers authenticity as she draws on events and situations from her life, including her parents’ objected-to interracial marriage in 1968. Raj Jagwani, an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, will resonate with those whose parents or grandparents were part of the India-to-America relocation closely following the 1965 Immigration Act. To some generations, these are memories, but young readers will find commonalities with their 1967 counterparts and the challenges they face because Hiranandani checks all the boxes and hits all the right notes.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network). She currently is participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) but under her own terms and rules.