review: Troublemaker

title: Troublemaker
author: John Cho and Sarah Suk
date: Little, Brown; March 2022
main character: Jordan Park
review based on advance copy

Jordan Park is convinced that he’s a disappointment to his parents. What makes It even worse is that they and his school principal have confirmed that to him. Since he can never measure up to his sister, Jordan opts to fall short with intention. He chooses questionable friends, cheats on tests and finds other short cuts to validate their claim. This novel is set in April, 1992 and Jordan is in middle school. The setting here is the LA Riots that were caused by the acquittal of charges against members of the Los Angeles police department for the brutal beating of Rodney King., a Black man, along with the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins by a Korean American store owner. Maybe during this event, Jordan can do something that really makes a different. Cho explains in the author’s notes, “Though we settled on the title, Troublemaker, late in the process (not without trepidation on my part, as we were invoking the titan John Lewis’s admonition to get in “good trouble”, I did find the writing from the beginning to be an exercise in examining what is good and bad trouble. I thought about who gets to decide who’s a troublemaker, and who gets to decide what trouble is.” (p. 211-212)

In real life, author John Cho was inspired to write this book during the summer of 2020, the summer of Black lives matter and of anti-Asian hate; of protests and of disruption to the status quo. Cho entered the workforce as a middle school English teacher but is probably more well known as the Korean American actor who was in the Harold and Khumar movies, Star Trek movies (Hikaru Sulu) and Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop series. He was a college student during the time of the ‘92 riot. This book isn’t at all about Korean American and Black American relations, or the riot. I think it’s a reflection on how we define ourselves and how turbulent times can spur that process.

Remember, Jordan felt like he’d never measure up to his father’s standards. When his father returns to his shop during the riots, Jordan thinks he should take the family’s gun to his father so that he can protect himself. There are incidents along the way that keep testing our guy, Jordan. He was conflicted about whether this was the right thing, a good kind of trouble thing to do. While there are interactions with Blacks, they don’t approach the conflict that’s going on around them. Cho seems to prefer bringing out everyone’s humanity.

Written with Korean American author Sarah Suk, the book is a solid coming of age story. We don’t get those often for Asian Americans, for young men and even less for Asian American young men.

We also don’t get many stories that explore Black and Asian American dynamics. While there are several solid pieces of journalism out there (Google it), we have little to nothing for young readers. I do think it’s time to move beyond the Black/white binary and consider how white supremacy has infiltrated relations between all racial and ethnic groups. Cho’s book is a really good start in the process because it provides a window and a mirror into Korean culture and identity. We have to begin with the basics, right? Books themselves are basic ways to begin the process.

I’d recommend the following to accompany this book. They do look at individual and collective identities and a few here do provide some intersectional work; work that takes caution and that must be well informed and artfully articulated.

Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh (HarperCollins)

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo (Norton)

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kieley (Atheneum)

It Doesn’t Take A Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovitch (Six Foot Press)

Call And Response the Story of Black Lives Matter by Veronica Chambers, Jennifer Harlan and the staff of the NY Times (Versify/HMH)

What a nice holiday package these books would make!