This debut young adult novel by Veera Hiranandani sets out to tackle a handful of difficult topics in just under 150 pages and in a manner that is readable for a middle school student. The book attempts to deal with ethnic and religious identity, public vs. private school systems, the meaning of true friendship and clinical depression. I applaud the ambitious efforts undertaken by the author, as each of these topics is not only important, but relevant in the lives of many adolescents, but I just seems like too much crammed into too short of a space.
The main character, Sonia, is forced to transfer from her private school to the public one just as she is starting the 6th grade. This move is precipitated by her father losing his job as a book publisher. For Sonia, who is half Indian (her father having been born and raised in India) and half Jewish (her mother having been raised in a strict kosher home), the new school means confronting issues of how she labels herself and how those around her label her. On top of her ethnic and religious confusion, her father spirals into a deep depression brought on by his unemployment, which she must face each evening when she returns home.
One of my favorite parts of this novel is the fact that the main character is both Indian and Jewish. While I don’t know how many kids fall into that exact category, the fact that Sonia is dealing with figuring out who she is reflects a universal struggle for middle school students. It may be their ethnicity or their religion or their sexuality or some other aspect of their identity, but the struggle is there for most teenagers. Watching as Sonia tries to find her place in her new school, sometimes giving in to the pressures of others and sometimes being strong and true to herself, rings true to me after having spent a decade wandering the halls of a middle school. Towards the end of The Whole Story of Half a Girl, Sonia says, “Sometimes I feel like I am the only one like me.” Whether teenager or adult, we all have days where this is where we are at.
It is great to see young adult books not shying away from dealing with difficult, real-life topics, but when this many weighty issues are all pushed together, I think it is hard to do them justice on an individual level. Depression, whether in themselves on in their loved ones, is an issue than many people will deal with throughout the course of their lives. Hiranandani could have written this entire book with just this as a central theme and still come out with a book worthy of a middle school library shelf.
Hiranandani has a point of view to share with the young adult world that will resonate well with many students. As a debut novel, I think she has made a statement about wanting to deal with serious issues in a way that is accessible for young adults, and there is a need for this type of writing. With that said, I think she needs to tackle fewer issues in a single book and deal with them on a deeper level. In the fashion world it is always said that before leaving the house you should look in the mirror and take off one accessory. Hiranandani would do well to heed this same advice when it comes to story planning. Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl earns: