Girl in Reverse

Book review by
Sally Engelfried, Common Sense Media
Girl in Reverse Book Poster Image
Moving story of adopted girl's hunt for clues to her past.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Girl in Reverse takes place in 1951 in Kansas City during the Korean War, so readers will pick up on some 1950s culture. Readers will also learn about the prejudice Chinese-Americans experienced during the Chinese invasion of Korea, as well as some Chinese history when Lily explores her own and her birth mother's history. References to art pieces such as Picasso's "Girl in a Mirror" and Rodin's "The Thinker" are used as metaphors for Lily's experiences.

Positive Messages

Don't let others' prejudice against you affect your own self-image. The truth is worth exploring, even if it's painful. Family is family, whether they're related by blood or not.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lily lies to her parents and is rude to a boy who likes her, but her mistakes are born out of insecurity and self-doubt. She's self-aware enough that she always tries to fix her imperfections and to treat the people around her as she would like to be treated, and she eventually learns to stand up for herself. Her younger brother is Lily's staunch supporter, and his loyalty never wavers, even when his classmates make fun of him for having a Chinese sister. Adults are portrayed as imperfect people with problems of their own that they don't necessarily know how to solve.


A couple of kisses.


Ethnic slurs "Chink," "Chinaman," "Jap," "ching-chong," and "Commie," used as an insult.


Tangee lipstick, candy brands Bit-O-Honey and Necco wafers, Kleenex, Coke, Keds.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lily's dad smokes cigarettes, and there's an ashtray in the living room. Lily's mom smokes cigarettes when she's worried. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Girl in Reverse is about an adopted girl whose birth mother was Chinese and whose adoptive parents are white. In 1951, during the Korean War, Lily's classmates are blatantly racist, and the teachers do nothing to stop it -- even Lily's parents are reluctant to acknowledge the pain she experiences. However, with the help of her brother, a new friend, and the school's wise African-American custodian, Lily finds the strength to stand up for herself and accept her past and her Chinese heritage.

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What's the story?

It's 1951 and the Korean War is in full swing, the Chinese having just added their strength to Communist North Korea's fight against the U.S.-supported South Korea. When one of Lily's classmates presents a class project that is blatantly racist against Chinese people and the teacher does nothing, Lily's humiliation serves as a catalyst for her to dig up information about her birth mother and her Chinese heritage. Her white adoptive parents' unwillingness to talk about her past adds to her frustration and feelings of isolation. But with the help of her loyal younger brother, Lily begins to solve the mysteries of her past. The sage advice of the school's African-American custodian teaches Lily not to turn others' prejudice against herself, and the romantic interest of a nonconformist artist boy at school propels Lily's search forward even further.

Is it any good?

The effects of the Korean War in America is not much documented in juvenile historical fiction, and that in itself makes GIRL IN REVERSE interesting. It also might be the first YA novel to explore the racism against the Chinese during that time. But more than a treatise against prejudice, Lily's attempts at uncovering the truth about her birth mother's past and thus gaining an understanding of herself will be relatable to any teen.

Lily's awkwardness, and her own awareness of that awkwardness, is charming and realistic. The wise African-American janitor who just happens to be an expert Chinese chef is perhaps too good to be true, but he offers a perspective on self-acceptance that Lily is unable to get from her family. The slight bit of romance and the gradual uncovering of the mystery of her birth parents add excitement to this introspective story.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the media attention given to the need for children's books with diverse characters. How do you think books like Girl in Reverse fits into that discussion? Do you think books about non-white characters must necessarily explore racism?

  • How is this book different from other books or movies about racism in the 1950s? How is it similar?

  • How do you think the lack of today's technology affects Lily's search for her birth mother? How would her situation have turned out differently if she were searching for her birth mother today?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories and books with characters of color

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