I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Troublemaker by John Cho. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
I’ve enjoyed watching John Cho in films, and so I was eager to read his debut middle grade novel, Troublemaker. In this story, which is set in 1992, a young boy named Jordan has been struggling in school, and has gotten into some trouble lately. His parents are upset with him, naturally, but bigger problems arise with the verdict from the Rodney King trial. As riots begin across the city, everyone in Jordan’s family is preoccupied. His father goes to their store to board it up, and Jordan feels compelled to go help him. And so he sets off across the city, facing possible dangers as racial tensions rise.
Overall, I liked this book! Jordan is a good narrator and protagonist, and though he doesn’t always make the best decisions, you still root for him to be okay. He’s got good intentions, and his understanding of the intense situation he’s watching unfold is well written. I also liked Mike and Sarah, as well as how the three interacted. The complicated sibling bond between Jordan and Sarah was especially well done, but the best relationship was easily between Jordan and his father. That had a moving backstory and a touching conclusion.
The historical elements—the LA riots—are explained in a pretty straightforward way, but the anxiety and fear that permeates the city throughout the book is excellent. This entire story takes place over one night, and seeing the events unfold as the characters witness them on tv is intense. It’s also quite sobering, because it feels like society hasn’t changed at all since that night. This could have happened in 2020 (it did, really). This could have happened yesterday, and it could happen tomorrow. We have so far to go. Come on, America.
Anyway, I liked Jordan’s interaction with Mr. Gary, as well as the discussion of guns. However, these were some scenes where the themes were less than subtle. I appreciate what Cho is trying to say, though. And a look at these riots from a Korean-American perspective is fantastic, especially in that not only white people can be racist. Other minorities can be racist, and Jordan’s realization and ownership that people he knows might be the problem, and that everyone needs to work together to do better, is so important for kids to learn. I also loved the way Jordan’s attitude toward guns changed over the course of the book, from it being something to use for protection, to something he understands is a weapon first and foremost, not a shield.
In the end, Troublemaker is a quick read but a good one. The points made are important but not really presented in the most compelling or deep way. However, the characters and their development, as well as the setting and action, is more than enough to make up for that. I think middle schoolers will respond well to this book, and that it’s one librarians will love. I look forward to seeing if Cho writes more books, too!
Troublemaker will be published on March 22nd, 2022!